History of The Festival

By Hal Wake
Written for the 2002 Twenty-fifth anniversary of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

To achieve the status of a true legend, it should have started differently. It should have started with the artistic director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Mitch Podolak, looking across the prairies fixing his penetrating, visionary gaze westward and determining right then and there that he was going to establish a folk music festival in Vancouver.

It was the mid-seventies and what better time to deliver the joyous sound and enriching experience for the benefit of the masses. But this isn’t Hollywood, thank god, and the reality is that Mitch simply wanted to escape the mosquitoes and biting cold of Winnipeg for a softer life in Lotus Land. Mitch never achieved his dream of making a home here, but, thank god again, the Festival did.

The first step in executing his plan was finding a local champion, preferably one with money. He found one, or perhaps more accurately created one, in Ernie Fladell. Ernie was the Cultural Planner in the Social Planning Department for the City of Vancouver. He’d actually turned a profit on a couple of events in Vancouver, but he had never been to a folk festival. .Well, Mitch fixed that. In 1977 he sent Ernie a plane ticket for Winnipeg and said “Get your ass out here and I’ll show you what it’s all about.”

Twenty-six years later, Ernie’s memory of the trip is crystal clear. “Mitch had me picked up at the airport and then took me on these winding back roads, in the dark and it seemed to take forever. Finally, I was dropped off in some parking lot and I had no idea where I was. Someone grabbed me by the elbow and we were stumbling along and suddenly I was led up some steps backstage and a guy said, ‘Hi, I’m Mitch,’ and he shoved me past the edge of a curtain and there I was, practically on stage with Sweet Honey in the Rock in front of 15,000 delirious fans. I was hooked.”

Mitch agrees that’s how it happened, but it was all part of the plan. “I set him up. I had it all timed meticulously from the moment the plane landed, including the long car ride. I didn’t want him to ease into it. I wanted to get Ernie swept away. I timed the entire show so that he would have something incredible to see and it worked.”

A year later at Stanley Park, the euphoria of the Winnipeg stage had given way to opening night jitters at the birth of a brand new festival. A Vancouver team had been established including an energetic city staffer, Frances Fitzgibbon, her colleague, lanky site manager, Lorenz von Fersen, and a young political organizer named Gary Cristall.

They weren’t building the event from scratch, however. Volunteers from Winnipeg had taken time off work, piled into cars and at their own expense, driven all the way to Vancouver to help out. Each Winnipegger was paired with a volunteer from Vancouver so that their hard-won experience in mastering the immense task of mounting the event could be passed on.

Frances Fitzgibbon confesses she expressed some misgivings “When Mitch first raised the idea of a volunteer cadre, I thought, ‘ gosh, wouldn’t it be more efficient with paid staff?’ I was absolutely dead wrong. When you have people meeting, talking, caring, taking responsibility – they poured their heart into everything. It was actually very moving.”

Since that first Festival, some of the original volunteers have returned every year to form the network that has become the backbone of the operation.

One of the responsibilities that wasn’t taken on by volunteers at that first Festival was security. Lorenz von Fersen remembers a bunch of beefy guys in blue who were used to rousting rowdies from the PNE. When a bus full of cymbal-playing gate crashers in saffron-coloured robes insinuated their way into a parking lot and refused to pay, Gary Cristall and Mitch Podolak decided to handle it themselves.

“I was trying to be the good cop,” Mitch explains. “But Gary just came up and said, ‘Move the bus or we’ll push it into the ocean.’ And they moved.” Despite that “success”, it was an area that clearly needed improvement.

When Alice Macpherson suggested enlisting a volunteer committee to develop a new approach to security, they went with it. To this day, a well-trained, experienced volunteer group uses equal measures of reason and firmness to defuse difficult situations at the Festival. They are so good you often don’t realize they are there.

According to the founders, it required similar sophisticated skills to convince the Park Board to agree to the use of Jericho Beach Park for the second and subsequent Festivals. Managing the site to minimize disturbance for the neighbourhood, the wildlife and the environment, has been critical to the continued success of the Festival. Managing the political process has been no mean feat either. “It seemed like every year,” says Gary Cristall, “We’d go to Park Board and come out of there with a 4-3 vote in our favour. One vote going the other way, and the whole thing would have been over.”

On the first night, of the very first Vancouver Folk Music Festival, it rained. “We didn’t know whether anyone was going to come – period – and then the rain started to come down,” Gary Cristall remembers thinking. Frances still has a vision of the splashback bouncing onto the stage, but the performers kept going.

Curiously, the program for the first Festival doesn’t list the performers for the evening concerts. One member of the hardy band of onlookers in the audience remembers being entranced by the sweet – almost to the point of painful – harmonies of Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer.

Ernie Fladell has a clear picture of Stan Rogers and his booming voice, his powerful presence bathed in the brilliant colours of the stage lights, with steam rising off his head. “When Stan came off he said it was like singing behind a waterfall.”

“Later that night,” says Gary Cristall, “when Pied Pear worked their magic and got a standing ovation in the rain, I knew we were on to something.”

Saturday afternoon, the rain mercifully ended and with the sun now shining and with the magnificent ocean and mountain backdrop at the Point Stage, Mitch Podolak witnessed the single best blues workshop he has ever seen in a lifetime of festivals. “There was Leon Redbone, Odetta, Leon Bibb and John Hammond.

But it was Roosevelt Sykes, the 70-year-old piano player, that really blew me away. He was joined on stage by Jane Vasey the young pianist for the Downchild Blues Band who wasn’t even a guest at the Festival. And at the end of what seemed like an hour of furious, brilliant jamming, he stood up and turned to her, took off his hat and bowed.”

No one knows for sure, but the most common estimate is that there were somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 folks at that first Festival. Enough, it seems, to have convinced all concerned that it was worth the effort and struggle to do it all over again for another year and another and twenty-two more, which brings us to this weekend, July 19-21 2002.

Frances Fitzgibbon isn’t surprised. “All of us had the belief that it would be around for twenty-five years. We didn’t publicly talk about the longevity of it, but the idea was strong and rooted somewhere real. People come to the festival and leave the site altered, different somehow.”

For the founders and their successors, it is like building a miraculous community every year. They come to one of the most gorgeous settings in the world, bring in the power, water and the amenities, then the musicians arrive and the audience and then, in Mitch Podolak’s words, “You enter a special world. You step outside normal society for three days and enjoy a totally non-alienating experience. What could be better?”

What could be better indeed.