The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History

By Michael Hill

BY Sarah GreenePublished May 15, 2017

If you've ever worked for, volunteered at, or performed at a folk festival, you know where the real party is — backstage. The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History, by Michael Hill, tells the peripatetic (and eccentric) story of Mariposa, "the mother of all Canadian folk festivals" — now in its 57th year — from really behind the scenes, drawing largely on interviews with and notes from organizers to tell the story of Mariposa's incredible longevity as an institution, despite financial woes, a long period without a stable venue, dramatically bad weather and at times terrible in-fighting.
If you're looking for a critical analysis of the Mariposa moment that probably looms largest in the public imagination — when the festival chose not to allow Bob Dylan to perform after he showed up "incognito" to hang out and take in acts like Leon Redbone on Toronto Island in 1972, the year that also saw Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Jackson Browne and Neil Young make surprise appearances — you won't find it here. Instead, you'll find empathy for the organizers' plight; they did not want a repeat of the "chaos" of 1963 when too many people showed up and the festival got banned from Orillia (it finally returned in 2000 and is still there).
Hill does, however, include a quotation from Dave Bidini's Writing Gordon Lightfoot that probably echoes many people's sentiments: "Had he played Mariposa, it would have been the kind of event remembered and noted for generations. Instead, the festival would end up denying the greatest songwriter of his generation to take the stage."
Some context: Longtime artistic director Estelle Klein, who booked the festival while it was at Innis Lake and on Centre Island, had the admirable (if idealistic) philosophy that all artists should be treated as equals, whether they were just starting out or performing on the main stage. She also initiated the influential workshop format, where a group of performers who don't usually collaborate get together to play songs on a theme; love it or hate it, it's almost ubiquitous at folk festivals today. She has said that if she had been there in 1972, she might have been able to accommodate Dylan — at a workshop.
If Dylan's presence was treated warily by Mariposa, Hill's descriptions of Canadians like Bruce Cockburn, Ian & Sylvia, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and especially Gordon Lightfoot are much kinder and more effusive. Lightfoot, in particular, pretty much comes across as the patron saint of Mariposa. He helped the festival out by headlining for free in 2000 and even donated some of his own cash to the cause (the Philadelphia Folk Festival is also given a nod for helping out in hard times).
Hill, the current artistic director and vice-president of Mariposa, offers a personal, subjective and surprisingly warts-and-all chronicle that moves through the years at a brisk (sometimes too brisk) pace, pausing to relate anecdotes that basically could not have been made up, like that of estranged former band mates Sid Dolgay and Jerry Gray, who used to play in the Travellers together (Dolgay said he would not attend Mariposa's 50th anniversary if Gray were to be there) and the festival's almost guerrilla-style financial negotiations with Orillia.
Technical director Colin Puffer relates a long anecdote about $3,000 worth of missing weed; Hill includes the entire hospitality rider of one (unnamed) high-profile performer with outrageous requests and, of course, former artistic director Richard Flohil throws in the occasional colourful snide remark. You can see why Hill quotes former Mariposa board member Sandy McAllister as saying, in the early 2000s, that she couldn't watch A Mighty Wind; for her, it felt more like a documentary than a comedy.
Some incredible artists have played Mariposa over the years — including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mississippi John Hurt, the Staple Singers, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal and Doc Watson — but Hill shines the spotlight on the festival's tireless (and sometimes exhausted) organizers and their vision for their folk festival. It's a rare look behind the scenes at the nitty-gritty managing of a folk fest, which could prove valuable for people running or thinking of starting up their own. It's an entertaining read too, despite its opinionated, staunchly folk (anti-rock) and often repetitive nature.

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