Maybe it’s an age thing, but I seem to be waxing nostalgic these days. It doesn’t even take that much to get me thinking through rose coloured glasses about things that happened twenty years ago or more. Today’s trigger was the weird juxtaposition of two articles in the entertainment section of the Globe And Mail newspaper.
The first was the announcement of the nominees for this years MTV Music Video Awards, the second was an account of this year’s Calgary Folk Festival. Going from the corporate speak of promoting the lifestyles of the rich and vacuous(descriptions of how attendees will be able to park their yachts at the hotel or how those arriving by car will be giving personalized tours of their vehicles made me realize once again how far popular music has descended into the corporate maw) to descriptions of workshops on how to play bluegrass mandolin is enough to give your brain whiplash.
I suppose this dichotomy has always existed, but for some reason it really struck home this year. It also made me think with longing of the days when I used to attend “The Mariposa Folk Festival” when it was located on the Toronto Islands. The Festival which
had it’s beginnings in Orillia Ontario moved down to Toronto in the sixties as the folk scene moved into full gear.
For those of you unfamiliar with Toronto a little background is probably in order. In the early sixties Toronto had it’s own little bohemian scene starting. Like a miniature Greenwich Village, Yorkville was a Mecca for artists, musicians, and writers. Cheap rents and some small cafes were the main drawing cards.
On a given night you could go down to the Riverboat coffee house and see Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, or any number of Canadian and American folk artists. This was the club where so many Canadian artists got their start.
At the time Toronto was just starting to wake up from it’s sleepy provincial status and explore being a “Big City” While Montreal may have had Leonard Cohen and a host of French language singers Toronto had Glenn Gould and “The Perth County Conspiracy”. While the former is well known the latter may need some explaining.
“The Perth County Conspiracy” was the musical wing of an artistic commune located between Toronto and Stratford Ontario in Southern Ontario. It’s members were actors at the Shakespearean festival in Stratford, artists, and a variety of others. They would swoop into Toronto and perform concerts and generally liven things up.
Many of their number were involved with the formation of the first of the small theatres that began to dot the landscape in Toronto in the late sixties and early seventies. Through their efforts, and others of like mind, was born what is now one of the largest theatre centres in North America.
About a mile south of Toronto in Lake Ontario lie the Toronto Islands. A sprawling mass of four interconnected island it has long been a summer escape from the heat for Torontonians. Four old fashioned fairy boats make the trip to and fro throughout the summer months carrying families to picnics and relaxation.
What better location could you think of for a folk festival than on an island amidst trees with a breeze off the lake to beat the summer heat? So from 1968 to 1979 this became the festival’s permanent home. By 1979 dwindling audiences and competition from other summer attractions spelt doom for the folk festival on the island. Since then there were times when it looked like the venerable lady would just fade away. But now she is safe and sound again back in her home town of Orillia.
From the onset the festival has had the goal of bringing folk music to the folk. Every year they have continued to expand on what defines “folk” music to include hip hop and forms of musical expression from all over the world. They have worked out a combination of main stage performances and workshops so as to entertain and educate.
Artists from genres ranging from blues to gospel, bluegrass to hip hop, and Inuit Throat singers have all led workshops in their specialty. With as many as eight stages going at once the hardest thing was trying to decide what to attend.
Although there was a firm commitment in the early days to stay away from big name acts the festival has featured performances from Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Joan Baez. At one point Bob Dylan showed up, not to perform, but to simply watch. The crowd control problems caused by these events resulted in the return to a stricter commitment to education and less main stream performers.
By the time I attended my first festival in 1978 the stay on the island was in it’s last days. But even than it was still drawing people like Leon Redbone, Steve Goodman, and John Prine as performers and workshop leaders. Memories of those two July weekends are ones that I will always cherish.
Sunday morning gospel with the “Zion Harmonisers” from New Orleans and the sound man ripping off his headphones in amazement at the bass note throbbing in his ears from just a voice; sitting in the shade of a tree listening to five mandolins trading licks during a bluegrass workshop; Leon Redbone wandering around in his white jacket and hat, plastic cup full of bourbon looking at peace with the world; my one and only time watching Steve Goodman perform his song City of New Orleans; the walk back to the ferry docks where Morris Dancers entertained us as we awaited the trip back to the city; and that final boat ride across twilight still waters, serene reminder of a peaceful weekend.
I haven’t been to a Folk Festival since. After 1979 when Mariposa left the islands and moved into the city it just didn’t seem the same anymore. Than there just never seemed to be the time for a number of years even when the venues started to become a little more attractive then bars and pubs. Now with her located out in Orillia again the likelihood of ever going back is slim.
A younger musician friend of mine went this year and came back enthusing over everything. There were performances by Gordon Lightfoot(still going after almost dieing on stage from a stomach aneurism a few years ago)and newer Canadian and world folk artists like Sarah Harmer and Harry Manx. Aside from a stronger emphasise on concerts, it sounded not much different than the festival I had attended almost thirty years ago.
Sometimes memories and nostalgia discolour realities and distort the true image of the past. Other times they bring a sense of comfort into a world that sometimes seems less and less comprehensible. The two years 1978 and 1979 were not particularly good ones in my life for a lot of reasons, which only places the idyllic memories in even starker relief.
I have no illusions about those days being any better or worse than today, which in my mind gives my remembrances of Mariposa all the more potency. Even if those weren’t the good old days, there were some damn good days.