August 15, 2020

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Missing the magic

Fans grieve cancellation of Winnipeg Folk Festival

Thursday is the day so many had anticipated.

The opening night of the Winnipeg Folk Festival is a magical time. The campgrounds at Birds Hill Park are full of die-hards ready for their favourite weekend of the year.

Day-trippers tote tarps, blankets and backpacks full of water, sunscreen, insect repellent and umbrellas through the main gate.

Folkies just off work take their first sips at the beer tent and meet friends they haven't seen since the year before. Or they make new ones.

Michelle Slota has only missed one Folk Fest since 1991. Among her festival traditions is enjoying homemade perogies her Aunty V delivers for her and her friends.</p>

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Michelle Slota has only missed one Folk Fest since 1991. Among her festival traditions is enjoying homemade perogies her Aunty V delivers for her and her friends.

The sun shines and the opening act takes the mainstage. A perfect folk fest moment.

That magic is gone this year, sweet anticipation replaced by a bitter pill that folk fest fans knew they'd have to swallow once the festival's board of directors decided to cancel the 2020 festival, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I kind of knew it was likely going to happen, but when they actually announced it, I shed tears," says Michelle Slota, a longtime folk festival attendee. "It's such an annual tradition that it's so hard to imagine not doing it after so many years. So, yes, I'm definitely feeling sad."

Leonard Podolak had similar emotions when public health concerns shut down the festival. His father, Mitch Podolak, founded the festival in 1974 and Leonard, 44, grew up along with the summer event. Mitch was 72 when he died in August 2019.

"My whole upbringing, my whole childhood, this time of year, we'd be already at the site," says Leonard, a musician who founded the Grammy-winning roots group the Duhks.

"It seems hard to believe that something like this is happening, and we can't even have our summer festivals. It sure is weird for me, personally, about the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It's just is so strange that the year my dad dies, this happens and now there are no festivals."

Leonard Podolak, son of Folk Fest founder Mitch Podolak, with a 1983 program.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Leonard Podolak, son of Folk Fest founder Mitch Podolak, with a 1983 program.

Part of the folk festival lineup for 2020 was a weekend workshop to honour Mitch Podolak, who had a hand in getting similar festivals off the ground across Canada, as well as helping to create the Winnipeg International Children's Festival.

"I was working with (folk fest artistic director) Chris Frayer for a tribute to my dad, a workshop, a concert sort of, a bunch of great acts. We still will, but at the same time, it's a lot different," Leonard says.

Winnipeg Folk Festival at home

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What: In place of a live folk fest, organizers will provide a free stream of new videos by artists who were to perform at the 2020 festival, as well as footage of greatest hits from the past few years.
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: The folk festival's Facebook site and YouTube channel 
Who's performing: Artists including Alan Doyle, William Prince, Vance Joy, Tash Sultana, Leonard Podolak and Begonia have recorded songs especially for the three-hour concert. Past mainstage performances from A Tribe Called Red, Brandi Carlile, Courtney Barnett, John K. Samson and the Winter Wheat, Sheryl Crow, and Arlo Guthrie will also be shown.

The banjo player is among 14 artists who have recorded exclusive performances that will be streamed as part of Winnipeg Folk Fest at Home on Saturday at 7 p.m.

Leonard was born a couple of weeks after the second folk fest, and has been to almost every one since. Those early experiences shaped his musical interests, which led to his career in folk music.

"When I was a kid, I never realized what was blues or what was bluegrass or what was a singer-songwriter or what was Scottish music or what came from Africa or what was Indigenous. It was just music that people made," he says.

"I knew my upbringing was different than the other kids, that I was being exposed to something unique... Now that I have kids, I'm not on the road so much anymore. (The folk fest) is already a big part of my daughter's life. She's four, and I certainly wish she wasn't missing this."

Leonard has vivid memories — and a festival program he cherishes — of the 1983 festival, when he was just seven. That year's lineup included folk luminaries such as Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Connie Kaldor and Queen Ida, but he says he was too young to realize he was at the intersection of performers who helped lay the foundation of the festival and folk music in general.

"They were just my dad's pals who played music, and I loved it," he says.

"I was working with (folk fest artistic director) Chris Frayer for a tribute to my dad (founder Mitch), a workshop, a concert sort of, a bunch of great acts. We still will, but at the same time, it's a lot different." – Leonard Podolak

Folk fest regular Slota has been attending the event since 1991, and missed only once during those 29 years. Social media posts from past years have rekindled fond festival memories, as well as bittersweet thoughts of what the 2020 event may have been.

Looking back, she recognized how awkward this week will be without the folk festival's blend of music, camping and visiting with friends, relatives and other folk fest fanatics.

"I missed once when I went to Australia for a year, and it killed me," Slota says, "even though I was in Australia, and that was amazing in itself. When I knew it was the week of, and my friends, my people were going to be there, it really pulled at my heartstrings.

"It was one of those wish-you-could-clone-yourself moments."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
Arts and Life Editor

Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.

Read full biography

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