In my response to the first part of “Curating for Change,” a conference on the histories and futures of music festivals, held on August 26, I adapted Thomas Turino’s (2008) theory of “frames” for musical events to our work on festivals: the first frame, festivals in the past tense, wherein we reflected on prior experiences; and the second, festivals in the subjunctive mood, wherein we expressed our hopes or expectations for what festivals could be.
Thanks to a happy accident of conflicting schedules and last-minute changes to the conference program, I was asked to chair a panel in the second part of “Curating for Change” entitled, fittingly, “Histories and Futures” (October 14). This panel featured Andrew Mall (Music, Northeastern University) presenting on (post-)Christian community at Furnace Fest in Birmingham, Alabama, Steve Waksman (Music, Smith College) presenting on the tension between commercial imperatives and artistic integrity at Newport Jazz Festival, Woodstock and other large rock festivals, and Coachella, and Katherine White (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) presenting on the 1973 World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin, later dubbed the “Red Woodstock.”
By way of response to these fascinating papers, here I want to provide a Canadian case that speaks to the intersection of some of the main topics discussed (community building, tension between art and economics, and the relationship between popular music and socialist politics): namely, the several Canadian folk music festivals established by Mitch Podolak (1947-2019). I trace Podolak’s motivations for and experiences with founding the Winnipeg Folk Festival (1974–), then highlight the case of the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia (1997–), which I argue exemplifies the possibilities inherent in this intersection.
Podolak and the Winnipeg Folk Festival
Podolak was a “red diaper baby” (see Kaplan and Shapiro 1998; for a Canadian example, Laxer 2019 ), born in Toronto to parents active in the Labour-Progressive Party (LPP), a front organization for the Communist Party of Canada from shortly after its prohibition in 1940 until the LPP collapsed in the wake of Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” the suppression of the Hungarian revolution, and the results of an LPP fact-finding mission on antisemitism in the Soviet Union (Tulchinsky 2005). In this dramatically changed landscape for left politics throughout the West, the young Podolak found a small but active network of Trotskyist organizers in Toronto during the mid-1960s, and remained committed to Fourth International politics throughout his life.
Podolak was also a committed “folkie.” Under the wing of his older sister Alice, Podolak attended a Pete Seeger concert at Massey Hall in Toronto in the early 1960s that he would always recount as transformational. Equally important was his attendance at early editions of the Mariposa Folk Festival, where he would be immersed in a key Canadian space for the North American folk revival and witness first-hand the potential for community building through such festivals.
His acumen as a political organizer was what brought him to Winnipeg, but he didn’t leave his love for folk music behind in Toronto. With his wife, Ava Kobrinsky, and associate, Colin Gorrie, Podolak founded the Winnipeg Folk Festival, initially as part of the city’s centennial celebrations. From Mariposa director Estelle Klein, Podolak borrowed the “workshop” model – often featuring multiple artists from different genres or traditions performing “in the round,” as opposed to the more standard solo concerts – and from Lenin and Trotsky, the notion of revolutionary party that devolved much of its decision-making to self-organized workers, which formed the basis for the festival organization. While the vast majority of the labour was unpaid, given freely by volunteers, this model offered other intangibles: a sense of community, a collective experience outside the usual confines of daily life, and a horizontality and democratic feeling that was not the barely contained chaos of Woodstock five years earlier, but rather a functioning society within a society.
Though founded in the context of Winnipeg’s centennial, the festival continued well beyond this frame, taking advantage of the upswell in government funding for festivals in the 1970s described by “Curating for Change” participant Michel Levasseur of Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (QC) in his conversation with co-convener Ajay Heble. From an artistic point of view, Podolak’s definitions were elemental but flexible: folk music was music by folks, and for folks. Importantly, continued solicitation of government funding allowed the festival to present music that would have otherwise not been commercially viable. Legally organized as a charitable, non-profit society, the festival operated on a fundamentally redistributive model, offering musicians comparatively decent fixed fees to perform, rather than a split of ticket sales or the proceeds of a collection which might have been the case for a regular gig. Moreover, it was financially solvent (most of the time).
Following on the success of Winnipeg, Podolak exported this model to other parts of the country. The Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary Folk Music Festivals were each built on this model through Podolak’s direct influence. Each continues as an anchor for the folk music community in western Canada today. Winnipeg is currently in its 50th event year, and the others follow shortly behind. Countless others have been influenced less directly.
The Stan Rogers Folk Festival
For a long time, Podolak’s influence was less apparent in Atlantic Canada, where the long-established and fairly traditional Miramichi Folksong Festival, the comparatively free-wheeling but short-lived Atlantic Folk Festival, and a proliferation of old-time and bluegrass festivals comprised much of the festival scene for most of the 1970s and 1980s (Marquis 1988, 2012; Lutes 2010; Andrews 2014; also, Rosenberg 1985). However, in 1996, a group of organizers from Canso, Nova Scotia, approached Podolak for a festival they planned to hold there in honour of the late folk musician, Stan Rogers. Many personal connections made this a passion project: Rogers’ mother had been born and raised in Canso, and the family often summered there; Podolak had been a close personal friend, booking Rogers early in his career at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and even providing the seed funding for Rogers’ debut album, Fogarty’s Cove (1977). Moreover, Rogers’ widow, Ariel, endorsed the event on the condition that the organizers brought on Podolak as a consultant.
The Stan Rogers Folk Festival was as near a laboratory for Podolak’s model as could be found. While the western Canadian festivals had been established in or just outside major metropolitan centres, Canso was a small fishing village perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, 300 kilometres by often serpentine coastal road from the nearest city or airport. It had been devastated by the collapse of the Northern cod fishery in the early 1990s, which made up or supported most of the town’s economic activity. If ever there was a need for community building and socialist redistribution, it was here, if only to staunch the lifeblood flowing out. It was thus designed as community economic development project from the beginning.
Podolak travelled to Canso in 1996 and 1997, co-directing the first event with Troy Greencorn (my father). The model was much the same as had been the case in Winnipeg and elsewhere in western Canada, only now with the benefit of a feeling of membership in a clear movement across the country. Of Canso, Podolak recounted:
I sat down with every volunteer group and said: “This time next week, people just like you will be getting together in a place like this in Winnipeg. They are going to have a discussion just like this one. One week after that it will happen in Vancouver” … All over the country people are getting together to have this discussion. So they know that they are volunteering for something much bigger than just this festival. When we first started and [Winnipeg Folk Festival] was the only one[,] the speech was different but it was the same idea. We are moving towards something and your part in this makes a difference. We are building a social revolution (MacDonald 2008, 85).
Though it faced different challenges than the metropolitan festivals, the Stan Rogers Folk Festival leveraged strong social capital in Canso to provide where other services weren’t available: catering its own green room (hosted by the local Lions Club), building and staffing its own campgrounds, billeting performers in local homes, and so on.
In perhaps a more direct sense than in the western festivals, the Stan Rogers Folk Festival was – and remains, having recently celebrated 25 years in operation – a consecrated time and space for converting “forms of capital” (Bourdieu 1986): transforming Canso’s social capital into economic and cultural capital, as well as using external economic capital (in the form of funding and ticket revenue) and cultural capital (in the form of both reputation and the actual music presented) to reinforce local social capital by renewing a sense of community every year. Expressing the work of Podolak’s model toward building a “social[ist] revolution” through forms of capital might seem counter-intuitive, but simply surviving in spite of its marginality in a geographical sense, the ravages of ecological destruction, and neoliberal austerity was the first step – and a major success.
Tracing Mitch Podolak’s motivations and experiences establishing the Winnipeg Folk Festival, as well as the seeds he planted across the country with his model for organizing such events, tells us much about how the three major themes of the “Histories and Futures” panel – community building, tensions between artistic integrity and commercialism, and the relationship between popular music and socialism – have intersected at Canadian festivals. Focusing on the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia, provides a particularly apt example through which to conceptualize Podolak’s model in terms of flows and forms of capital countering hegemonic systems. His method for “social revolution” continues to shape the Canadian folk music community profoundly.
Andrews, Daniel J. 2014. “Maritime Bluegrass: The Local Meaning of a Global Music.” MA thesis, University of New Brunswick.
Kaplan, Judy, and Linn Shapiro, eds. 1998. Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Laxer, James. 2019 . Red Diaper Baby: A Boyhood in the Age of McCarthyism. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
Lutes, Jared. 2010. “Hearts and Voices: Cultural Selection and Historical Revival in Miramichi, New Brunswick, 1950-1970.” MA thesis, University of New Brunswick.
MacDonald, Michael B. 2006. “The Best Laid Plans of Marx and Men: Mitch Podolak, Revolution, and the Winnipeg Folk Festival.” Ethnologies 30, no. 2: 73-91. https://doi.org/10.7202/019946ar.
Marquis, Greg. 1988. “Country Music: The Folk Music of Canada.” Queen’s Quarterly 92, no. 2 (Summer): 291-309.
Marquis, Greg. 2012. “The Folk Music of anglophone New Brunswick: Old-Time and Country Music in the Twentieth Century.” Journal of New Brunswick Studies 3: 57-74. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/JNBS/article/view/20084.
Rosenberg, Neil V. 1985. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Tulchinsky, Gerald. 2005. “Family Quarrel: Joe Salsberg, the ‘Jewish’ Question, and Canadian Communism.” Labour/Le Travail 56 (Fall): 149-73. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25149619.
Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chris Greencorn is a first-year PhD student in the Department of History at Queen’s University. His research interests lie at the juncture of social & cultural history, ethnomusicology, folklore studies, and archival studies. His dissertation, supervised by Dr. Lisa Pasolli, will examine the work of women folk culture collectors in 20th-century Canada, and in particular their constructions of “traditional music” among charter, immigrant, and Indigenous peoples in the period leading up to Canada’s official multiculturalism policy.
Chris was Artistic Director of the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia (2018-20), and remains involved in industry organizations in several jurisdictions.