It started in 1974, a boffo idea to celebrate Winnipeg's centennial in sound. And it's been going bongo and didgeridoo ever since. Today, the Winnipeg Folk Festival is a brand -- a big, successful one recognized across the continent -- and it hits its big 4-0 this weekend.
It is a testament to the enduring vibe -- the human spirit -- of the music mash that plays out at Birds Hill every July. That folk, electronic/sonic sound, world beat, ethno-fusion that graces the stages has played on, year after (soggy) year in what could pass for a farmer's field, in a copse of trees not far from barns, hay and horses. (Other festivals have moved around; Orillia's famed Mariposa was akin to a hobo for some of its 52 years).
But Winnipeg's festival was happy with its space and content for much of its history with the rootsy looks of the place. It would be decades before the plowed, flop-where-you-like acreage in the provincial park aged into a site with a sense of permanence and organization. Now, having sown campsites, beer gardens and a handmade village, it has launched a $6-million redevelopment that includes a shiny sophisticated gate, tree planting and a tidying-up of the ragtag campground.
It is one of Manitoba's première summer gatherings -- many would say the highlight of the cultural calendar. And the enduring attraction is the music, which is only enhanced by the seasonal servings of heat, sweat, mud, rain and the painted faces of ruddy, sun-speckled toddlers smiling amid the hordes jostling for relief from the relentless sun at Burr Oak and Shady Grove. (Two new stages have gone up in the trees this year.)
Yet, it is a sure bet few of the hippies who pulled back their tresses and donned straw hats for the free, first festival (Leon Redbone, Bruce Cockburn, John Hammond, Sylvia Tyson) would recognize today what began as a love-in. Would they have dreamed of watching performers from South Africa or Mali one day, in the pasture that became a main stage? Bluegrass is a mainstay, but the world of music beats a path to Winnipeg's door every year -- right now.
While the best things in someone's life may still be free, the all-grown-up production at Birds Hill is getting increasingly costly, now at $85 for a day pass. It runs on a budget of more than $2 million and employs 20 staff. It is a year-round professional organization that stages, from an office in the Exchange District, concerts in Winnipeg in the dead of winter. The Winnipeg Folk Festival believes it generates $14.7 million in economic activity for Manitoba, from the annual park fest alone. (And if the aging folkies forget their battered wine skins at home, they'll pay $7 for a glass at the beer garden, just as though they were at a Corydon patio bar.)
The love may still be free, but this is not a venue for those pinching their pennies. The crowd is discernibly middle class and up, still primarily white, much less diverse than is Winnipeg. Other folk festivals, notably the larger, sold-out Edmonton spree that takes place in August, charge substantially less to get in. So does North America's marathon of music, the more relaxed (shall we say 'folksie'?) Kerrville Folk Festival out of Texas. And both, critics note, draw big and bigger acts.
Manitoba's folk festival, organizers can legitimately say, has always been a place to discover fabulous, somewhat obscure bands and singer-songwriters, and soul-stirring sounds you had never heard before and probably still wouldn't if not for that weekend in July.
It is this allure, the near-guarantee of fine tunes that makes the experience and wins the avowed loyalty of diehards, some of whom "save up" and raid the bank just for the date. Its stock in trade is selling the vibe to generations, its success advertised by the crowds of teens and young adults shelling out for five-day passes year after year.
Congratulations to those inspired by a dream of a musical mash in a Prairie town that had the heart, a history of superior sounds and the big space to welcome music makers and lovers. Well done. Carry on.