‘Mitch would have loved this’

Winnipeg Folk Festival founder remembered with tributes in song

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An indisputable fact: the Winnipeg Folk Festival would not exist without Mitch Podolak’s contributions.

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An indisputable fact: the Winnipeg Folk Festival would not exist without Mitch Podolak’s contributions.

In 1974, he and a group of likeminded people — ie: socialists, communists and hippies — wanted to start a music and culture festival in a great big field to spread the good word of folk on the strength of taut banjo strings. Quickly, the fledgling organizers ran into an all-too-familiar problem: bureaucratic inertia.

The city wouldn’t say yes to backing the festival unless the province did the same. And when there was some dilly-dallying at the legislature, in Podolak’s son Leonard’s telling, his father did some reconnaissance.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Gangstagrass, Trio Svin and Tall Tall Trees perform on the Snowberry Field Stage Sunday at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

On the desk of the provincial representative with whom the group was meeting, Podolak spotted some blank paper, topped with the ministerial letterhead.

“He took a few sheets of that paper and he wrote a beautiful letter to the City of Winnipeg,” Leonard Podolak said at Birds Hill Park Sunday afternoon, in a story that may be apocryphal.

Apparently, Mitch Podolak had a way with his words, because 48 years later, the Winnipeg Folk Festival has become one of the country’s leading live music festivals, having drawn what’s likely to be a record-setting number of attendees in its first edition since 2019, and the first since the pandemic began.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
This was the first edition of the Winnipeg Folk Festival founder Mitch Podolak did not live to see or hear about. He died at the age of 72 in 2019, weeks after the last festival ended.

For Leonard Podolak, his mother/Folk Fest founder Ava Kobrinsky, and a never-ending Folk Fest family tree not defined by biological relations, the 2022 festival was notable not just for marking a return to normalcy: it was the first festival which Mitch Podolak did not live to see or hear about; he died at the age of 72 in August 2019, weeks after the last festival ended.

Three years later, with Leonard acting as de facto emcee, several of Podolak’s apostles took to the microphone Sunday to celebrate their friend and mentor in front of a crowd of hundreds.

“Though I’m not sure he’ll really care, at this point,” joked Al Simmons, a Manitoban entertainment icon who credited Podolak with always challenging him to do more with his work.

At the celebration, less demure than jovial, musicians including Scott Nolan, Rodrigo Munoz, Kate Ferris, Jeremy Penner and Allison DeGroot paid tribute in song and story to Podolak, who tended to give people a chance to shine.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Jill and daughter Gwen dance Sunday at Snowberry Field Stage.

“In 1978 or 1979, I walked into his office,” said Munoz, a local multi-instrumentalist who fronts Papa Mambo. He was a teenager whose family had just fled the Chilean coup, and was looking for a gig at the festival. “(Mitch) knew we were running from someone. And he hired us right away.”

He once spotted Penner carrying his fiddle on the bus and approached him. “Hey,” Penner tells the crowd, mimicking Podolak, wearing a shirt with his friend Mitch’s face on it. “This kid has a fiddle. Let’s invite him over.”

Prine’s legacy looms large

A lot of good things were supposed to happen but didn’t. One of them was the long-awaited return of legendary songwriter John Prine to the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

A lot of good things were supposed to happen but didn’t. One of them was the long-awaited return of legendary songwriter John Prine to the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

The Illinois-born troubadour, credited as one of the most gifted lyricists of modern American music, had last played the festival in the 1980s, and powered by a bit of a late-career reappraisal, was on the bill to play the 2020 festival. Only a few weeks after the lineup was announced, the global pandemic began. And on April 7, John Prine died of COVID-19.

That loss stung. In 2021, walking around the empty grounds, festival artistic director Chris Freyer mentioned how much he wished Prine were still around, and that there would always be a question of what if.

In 2022, Prine’s influence at the festival was present, even if he was not. The Ottawa-born Leith Ross, a rising star of indie music, played a packed solo set Friday afternoon, sang on the mainstage as a tweener, and was a frequent scene-stealer at workshops; Ross was announced in April as the inaugural recipient of the John Prine Songwriter Fellowship at the Newport Folk Festival.

Kurt Vile, a Philadelphian with a healthy dose of Prine in his soul, played a cover of Prine’s song, How Lucky, a tune he played with the man himself, during a set with the Canadian band the Sadies. Tre Burt, a former labelmate of Prine’s, was a fixture at workshops throughout the weekend.

Brandon’s Boy Golden chose a Prine tune about political declaration — Your Flag Decal — during a daytime performance and marvelled at its lessons. “A relevant song still,” he said. “John Prine lives on.”

Podolak was a communist, his son tells the crowd. He was not a religious man, except when it came to food, fishing and music, mused clarinettist Myron Schultz.

Throughout the afternoon, each performer seated on stage got up to perform a song that reflected Podolak’s character: there was klezmer music, harking back to his family’s eastern European roots; there was some world music; and there was a lot of banjo.

At one point, six of the instruments and one fiddle were being plucked and strummed simultaneously for a thrilling performance. The players included a lineage of Podolak’s banjo acolytes: his son, Daniel Koulak, and Allison DeGroot. They were not duelling.

“Mitch would have loved this,” said a few people seated in the audience’s first rows.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Alyssa Hartle and Jesse Duff dance as Gangstagrass, Trio Svin and Tall Tall Trees perform on Snowberry Field Stage.

The people who knew him best all agreed. Ava Kobrinsky, who was married to Podolak for 48 years, said her late husband would have loved seeing all of the people on the festival grounds.

“Oh, it would’ve made him so happy,” she said. “It makes me happy.”

Canadian Talent Shines

While big international headliners like Portugal, the Man, Judy Collins, Tash Sultana and Japanese Breakfast is a huge draw, Canadian talent shined through all weekend.

Local artists like Slow Leaves, Sweet Alibi, Del Barber, Zrada, JayWood, Fontine and Richard Inman Andy Shauf, Bahamas Lido Pimienta, Cadence Weapon, Jeremie Albino The New Pornographers Pimienta, a Canadian-Colombian multi-hyphenate, and Cadence Weapon, an Edmontonian rapper with energetic flair, stole the show Friday and Saturday night at the Big Bluestem Stage.

While big international headliners like Portugal, the Man, Judy Collins, Tash Sultana and Japanese Breakfast is a huge draw, Canadian talent shined through all weekend.

Local artists like Slow LeavesSweet Alibi, Del Barber, Zrada, JayWood, Fontine and Richard Inman Andy Shauf, Bahamas Lido Pimienta, Cadence Weapon, Jeremie Albino The New Pornographers Pimienta, a Canadian-Colombian multi-hyphenate, and Cadence Weapon, an Edmontonian rapper with energetic flair, stole the show Friday and Saturday night at the Big Bluestem Stage.

Pimienta, a Canadian-Colombian multi-hyphenate, and Cadence Weapon, an Edmontonian rapper with energetic flair, stole the show Friday and Saturday night at the Big Bluestem Stage. Cadence Weapon, who won the Polaris Prize last year for his album Parallel World, was a revelation, backed by Winnipeg’s DJ Co-op in a bombastic set that served as a borderline rave.

Through her danceable rhythms, Pimienta captured the crowd’s attention, and once she had it, she didn’t let go: she made strong political statements in support of the right to abortion, and got the entire crowd to chant, “My Body, My Choice.” Pimienta, who won the 2017 Polaris, is clearly a generational talent worth catching whenever you get the chance.

The same could be said of Jeremy Dutcher, who wowed the audience at the mainstage and at various workshops with his unapologetically political and inarguably gorgeous compositons. Seeing the Tobique First Nation member and his band control the mainstage crowd, perched on his piano bench, was exhilirating, as was his rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” during a Sunday afternoon matinee.

The fact that Dutcher, Pimienta, and Cadence Weapon each found themselves performing at the same festival is a testament to the fest’s stature nationwide.

Some people who didn’t know Podolak, who left the festival’s brass in 1986 but remained closely connected to it, were moved to tears by the celebration.

“My dad was the one who brought me here,” said Leanne Canty. “I never met Mitch, but this reminded me of my dad. I couldn’t help crying.”

“I think it went beautifully,” Podolak said backstage after joining with singer Nathan Rogers for an emotional duet about fatherhood, preceded by an impassioned call for increased arts funding.

“Everybody on stage affected my dad and everybody on stage affected him,” he added.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Fontine plays at the Little Stage in the Forest during Winnipeg Folk Fest in Bird’s Hill Park on Friday.

Though the festival changed dramatically in the years since its founding, Leonard Podolak said at its core, it does what it was always meant to do: bringing people together to enjoy music, and the company of others, in a great, big field.

ben.waldman@winnipegfreepress.com

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

History

Updated on Monday, July 11, 2022 9:48 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Birds Hill

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