Vancouver Folk Festival: a history
“We really were laying the foundations of our own little world.” – Gary Cristall, co-founder & idealogue
November 24th, 2017
Jeannie Kamins has written and published a VFMF history with a memoir by Gary Cristall who says, “I guess I booked pretty close to 1,000 artists.”
For $25 plus shipping costs, 40 Years and Counting: A Visual History of Forty Years of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (Jeannie Kamins, 2017) by Jeannie Kamis, with Gary Cristall, is available via phone or email: 604-760-7342 or firstname.lastname@example.org
“Over and over I heard folks say the festival was the weekend of the year that was how the world should be. Nothing made me happier.” — Gary Cristall
By Gary Cristall
I got involved in the first Vancouver Folk Music Festival through my acquaintance with Mitch Podolak over breakfast. If I remember correctly his preferred breakfast was a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich and a couple of cokes.
I knew Mitch through my membership in the Revolutionary Marxist Group (RMG), a small but energetic Trotskyist organization that was founded in 1973. Mitch had a long history with folk music going back to running the coffee counter at Toronto’s Bohemian Embassy coffee house. He also had a long history of involvement in Trotskyist politics as a member of the Young Socialists. It was easy to combine a passion for folk music and revolutionary political activity. It still is.
Mitch had moved to Winnipeg and was active in the Winnipeg branch of the RMG. He had worked with a theatre guy named Colin Gorrie on creating the Winnipeg Folk Festival as a Winnipeg Centennial project in 1974. They were trying to sell the idea of a folk festival and a children’s theatre festival to Ernie Fladell, mover and shaker in Vancouver’s Social Planning Department.
Mitch and I came from similar backgrounds: left wing Jews. We grew up in the same downtown Toronto neighbourhood—Bathurst and Harbord. His family lived on Major, mine on Palmerston. Our parents were in or around the Communist Party—then the Labour Progressive Party and the Communist Jewish organization, the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO).
The UJPO had a hall on Christie, just north of Bloor, where many cultural events were held. I particularly remember a performance there by Paul Robeson. I cried and Robeson picked me up and sang to me and I remember the vibrations of his voice running through my body—not a bad CV for a future folk music organizer.
Mitch and I both remember the Pete Seeger concerts at Eaton Auditorium. Folk music was part of our lives and the milieu we were raised in. Robeson, The Weavers, The Travellers, (Canada’s version of the Weavers,) Woody Guthrie, Josh White, The Almanac Singers (forerunners of The Weavers); all these seminal folk music performers were the sound track of my childhood as they were of Mitch’s.
Communist politics and folk music were part of what we were raised on and as we came of age we modified our approach to them but did not rebel against or abandon either. In the late fifties/ early sixties we both went to Camp Northland which was a hot bed of folk music, populated by the children of many Jews who had left the Communist movement after the Stalin revelations. When we met at meetings of the RMG in the mid-seventies we recognized that we came from the same place.
My own trajectory to those meetings was somewhat eccentric. I left school at 16, lived in Toronto’s Yorkville bohemian/hippie quarter making my way selling underground newspapers on the street and then, as I was asked for it so often, marijuana. I also listened to a lot of music. The clubs were full of it. Folk, rock, and jazz were on offer at twenty different venues.
I heard traditional British ballads from Alan MacRae at the Mousehole, I heard lots of Blues, including from master guitarist, Lonnie Johnson, at the Penny Farthing. I heard Gordon Lightfoot at the Riverboat. I heard the Mynah Birds with Neil Young and Rick James at the El Patio and Jack London and the Sparrows who would become Steppenwolf. I loved Luke and the Apostles at the Purple Onion. Sony Greenwich and Don Thompson doing Coltrane riffs on guitar and piano at the Cellar knocked me out. I used to share the subway home with the man who became Leon Redbone.
As Bob Dylan wrote later ‘there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.’
I inhaled … deeply.
A misadventure with some pot and friends in London, Ontario, led me to do some prison time, where I played in the Christmas show band and learned about country music. I generally embraced the zeitgeist of the late sixties/early seventies. This meant combining various criminal activities, working in a mine in Northern Manitoba and involvement with bizarre projects like a grant to investigate putting a geodesic dome over a big chunk of downtown London, Ontario and producing a few shows while embracing revolutionary politics. It also meant spending hours of the day listening to music- jazz, blues and folk- and reading the back of the albums in a sort of intensive popular music education course.
When I turned 21 I went ‘straight’, moved back to Toronto from London, got a job in a warehouse and joined the Waffle—the left wing of the NDP. My comrades in the Waffle were part of its left wing and would end up founding the RMG. I and my companion at the time went travelling to Chile to see what Salvador Allende’s project of electoral socialism looked like. Among other life changing events, I learned about the New Song movement in Latin America, particularly Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. that would come in handy in a few years.
I had the good luck to be on vacation on Bowen Island in B.C. when the coup came in Chile. I co-founded the Chile Solidarity Committee, joined the Vancouver branch of the RMG and got into Simon Fraser University as a mature student through the good graces of professors I was doing political work with.
At some point in the mid seventies Mitch Podolak told me that he and Colin were pitching a folk festival and children’s theatre festival to some guy at Vancouver city hall and that I would run the folk festival. I thought it was some kind of fantasy but it was easier to say yes than to say no.
“I was a committed socialist activist throughout the period I ran the festival and I was determined to put socialist ideas into practise in both the production of the festival and in its programming. The latter meant using the festival stages as platforms for ideas that suggested the transformation of society into something beyond capitalism.”
Why me? I think I had a couple of strengths Mitch wanted in whoever would be the local organizer of the folk music festival. First and foremost, I was a comrade. If you haven’t been in a revolutionary organization there is no way of conveying how much that word means. Basically, you would put your life in the hands of a ‘comrade.’ That meant Mitch could count on my loyalty to him.
I also had a certain amount of organizational experience through the anti-imperialist solidarity movement. I had put together demonstrations and conferences and knew a bit about how to use volunteers. These skills are useful in both politics and the arts.
Lastly, I had been listening to folk music all my life and while I was not up to date, I was conversant with a wide variety of different folk music traditions from British traditional to Appalachian to contemporary songwriters, not to mention Latin American ‘new song’ practitioners and a bunch of other ‘ethnic styles.’
Mitch had dedicated the first Winnipeg Folk Festival to the memory of the Chilean folk singer songwriter, Victor Jara. I had actually heard Victor play. Whatever the reasons, Mitch would come through town from time to time and we would get together. We liked to eat too much, another shared hobby. I introduced Mitch to dim sum. We would eat and talk and he would tell me the festival was going to happen and I would nod and not believe a word of it.
In the fall of 1977 I was finishing my honours BA research on the 1931 Chilean Naval mutiny and 12-day 1932 Socialist Republic of Chile at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution of War and Revolution. Mitch tracked me down and told me the festival was on and that as soon as I could get back we needed to meet with the folks from the city. My memory is a bit fuzzy here but either then. or when I got back from a difficult political mission to lay down the law to some Chilean Trotskyists in Edmonton at 45 below, I met Ernie Fladell.
Ernie was a senior social planner—I believe that was his title—at Vancouver City Hall. He also had his own project, The Heritage Festival Society, which had emerged from the U.N. Habitat conference in 1976. Ernie was a former New York ad man and a genius at fundraising and making unlikely projects happen. To my surprise it looked like this project was real.
It’s funny how life changing decisions get made. I was planning to go to graduate school. I had a Master’s project—the influence of American WWI draft dodgers on the Mexican Revolution—and a doctorate project—the transformation of the Chilean workers’ movement from revolution to reformism between 1931 and 1938—all planned. But this sounded like fun and also paid what I thought was a lot of money—$1000 a month.
I figured I’d do it for a year and then go to graduate school.
Ernie had accumulated money and built his own production team working out of city hall- literally. Walk up the front steps of Vancouver City Hall and look to the left and there were, and maybe still are, two rooms. That’s where the first folk music festival and Vancouver International Children’s Festival were produced.
Ernie’s team included Lorenz von Fersen who knew site construction, Lesley Moyle who knew publicity and Frances Fitzgibbons, who was Ernie’s right hand woman and could stick handle stuff through the bureaucracy. There were also Patrick Olenik and Trudi Bon Ami who crunched numbers. They were assigned to both new festivals. My job was to build the organization for the folk festival. This basically meant to create a structure to make the thing run and draw a crowd.
Some of this was rudimentary—find a hotel that would rent us a bunch of rooms, which is tricky in a tourist town like Vancouver. Some I knew from political work—poster the town and get brochures out there. Much more challenging was the building of a volunteer organization. Most of the festival would be run by volunteers. The folk festival organizational model was based on Newport, which first ran in 1959, and Mariposa, which started outside Toronto in 1961. Winnipeg had added its own bits and pieces. Basically these festivals were run by committees of volunteers. The idea was that we would import a certain number of Winnipeg volunteer committee heads and they would pass on the knowledge. However, I had to recruit local committee heads and hundreds of volunteers. This is where trouble began.
“We were committed to producing an event that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars without two nickels to rub together.” – Gary Cristall
Getting volunteers was no problem. In the first brochure we sent out, I inserted a section that called for volunteers. As long as I was there we never needed to ask for more. However, there was a problem. As it turned out this was to be a very important thing. Mitch had met a guy who he had decided was going to be the volunteer coordinator. That was fine by me. But coming from a Leninist organization I was pretty serious about discipline. One of the key things we were stressing was that you couldn’t show up for your shift either drunk or stoned. There are lots of good reasons for that. It was not a moral thing but practical. At the first volunteer meeting two friends of the volunteer coordinator were clearly stoned. They also decided to heckle me when I made my presentation about the festival. I decided they had to go. The volunteer coordinator said if they went, he went. I had no problem with that. Mitch backed me and suddenly I had no volunteer coordinator.
Happily I had met a woman named Wendy Solloway. She had volunteered and said she was anxious to get more involved. She had run a coffee house in Windsor where she had gone to school. She was running a food coop in Vancouver. She was also in the women’s band named Contagious. I asked her if she would be the volunteer coordinator. She agreed. I didn’t realize it at the time but it marked an important step. First, it showed that I was serious about policy. You can fire volunteers. Secondly, it meant that the leadership of the volunteer organization would be outside Mitch’s control. This escaped me at the time but would be important a year later.
Starting work in January of 1978, I threw myself into organizing the festival. Mitch did the programming. Colin and Lorenz planned the site—Stanley Park for that first year. It was a pain. Every time we wanted to drive a tent peg we had to talk to a bunch of engineers. The ground is full of pipes and cables. I built an organization of 150 or so volunteers. I worked with Lesley Moyle on the publicity. I found ticket outlets up and down the coast and through the interior of the province and into Alberta.
Even if they didn’t sell a lot of tickets, they were promoters of the festival. They were brochure depots and put up our poster. I used techniques I had used in political activity to organize poster blitzes where volunteers would go out in crews of three and cover the town. Mitch knew a former ‘comrade’ who was a graphic designer, Don Dickson. He created Pete Seagull—the banjo playing logo. I hired two other comrades from the local branch of the Revolutionary Worker’s League (RWL), successor to the RMG. Susan Knutson produced a great program book and helped out in every other way. Bruce Russell curated the crafts area, bringing in high quality through a juried competition.
We decided there would be no junk food and created a food area of mainly non-profit, interesting and healthy food. To get an accurate count on income I created our own money in $1, 50-cent and 25-cent denominations. Canadian money was no good at the food booths. We really were laying the foundations of our own little world.
Right from the start many of the festival team were communists, anarchists or other flavours of radicals who were trying to apply as many of their beliefs as they could to create a perfect world on the festival site. It was a test run. There was also more than politics holding folks together. Mitch and Franny Fitzgibbons, Ernie’s problem solver, were having a passionate relationship as were Susan Knutson and I. There were other couples. We worked incredibly long hours but the spirit that developed was the kind of thing you find in a political campaign. And it worked.
The first festival was in August. That allowed Winnipeg organizers to get here after their July festival. It also was supposed to be the driest period of the year with a one-in-six chance of rain. Of course, it rained opening night. But the last act up, Flying Mountain, got an encore from a soaked crowd in a muddy field and the structures we had created worked. There was no way I wasn’t going to do it again.
That fall we produced three concerts at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, beginning the role of the festival as a year-round producer. We also moved the festival from Stanley Park to Jericho Beach. It was better in every way. I met with various volunteer committee coordinators, discussing how to do it better and what the new site would require. We now had something to build on. The first festival had been a big success but there were lots of holes. Still, the groundwork had been laid. There was an audience—maybe ten thousand folks had come to the festival over that first weekend. Second, we had the skeleton of a volunteer organization capable of doing a professional job. There were roughly 200 of them in eleven committees. Even at that stage the politics was present.
In the introduction to the list of volunteers in the program of the second festival, signed by me and Wendy Solloway, we wrote about how varied were the skills of the volunteers and their motivation. “What brings them together is the desire to build an alternative to the prevailing direction of popular culture.” It was an understatement. I was conscious of building the only kind of organization I knew how to build—a politically committed one.
The second festival was a delight in most ways. The sun shone. Attendance went from roughly ten thousand over the three days to sixteen thousand. There was some great music. Unlike the first year, I actually got to hear some. Mitch had done a great job in booking a very broad array of ‘folk’ music and balancing various genres and traditions brilliantly. The food area expanded and included more not-for-profit organizations. Generally, the ‘vibe’ of the festival was the kind of ‘alternative to the prevailing direction of popular culture.’ There was no booze, no corporate intrusions and lots of progressive politics on stage from Wobbly veteran saw player Tom Scribner to Mimi Fariña, Si Kahn, Utah Phillips and many others. We introduced the West African kora to Vancouver. It seemed like the best of worlds.
However, there was also tension lurking on site, although the audience couldn’t see it. Basically, there were two sources of trouble. One was between Mitch and Ernie and the other was between Mitch and me.
The Mitch–Ernie dynamic was about money—how much Mitch was going to be paid and the fact that he had gone over budget. I never really understood their deal. I did understand that there were financial overruns. I knew what we were paying folks and could see that we were over budget. I had spoken about this confidentially to Ernie. I felt caught between my job as coordinator and my loyalty to Mitch. The tension between Mitch and I lay, I think, in the fact that I had built an organization and that Mitch was absent. De facto, the festival was becoming mine. Ernie didn’t care. Maybe he wanted a locally owned operation. His passion was the children’s festival.
When Mitch showed up for the festival he was unknown to most of the volunteers and staff. He began to feel, I think, at a loss, like a guest rather than an integral part of the thing. He decided to prove his power. During the Sunday night concert—I think it was Sunday—Mitch fired one of the stage crew for showing up late. It was a mistake. Not only was Gin one of the few volunteers of colour, but she was also very popular. The stage crew, imbibing the trade union songs on offer, went on strike. Unless Gin was reinstated they wouldn’t put on the show. They had the power!
“Mitch came up to me and, like two water buffalos, we went at it, yelling, pushing and shoving.”
I went back stage and asked what was up, and was told. So I told Gin she was back and told the others to get back to work. Mitch came up to me and, like two water buffalos, we went at it, yelling, pushing and shoving. I confess I did a bunch of the shoving and then walked away. What could Mitch do? Nobody would listen to him. Without realizing it, I had taken power. I didn’t understand at that point that Mitch and Ernie had been meeting and Ernie had told Mitch it was over as far as Mitch working for Ernie again.
Mitch had overplayed his hand. Apparently, we had lost Ernie’s accumulated surplus from the previous three years. After the festival Ernie told me that the festival was mine if I wanted it but that the Heritage Festival couldn’t and wouldn’t do it again. The night of Mitch’s and my confrontation I realized the power had shifted. Performer after performer came up to tell me how much they liked ‘my’ festival. They sensed that future work depended on this guy they barely knew. I felt bad for Mitch. He had got me involved. Hell, he changed my life and saved me from academia. We patched it up but it took years.
The fall of 1979 we created a non-profit society called The Vancouver Folk Music Festival Society. The ‘we’ was a conglomerate of volunteers who agreed to serve on the board and generally help out. We had nothing. I traded a little programming work for an office at the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings. There was no money. I lived on Unemployment Insurance. It was vertiginous. We were committed to producing an event that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars without two nickels to rub together. Happily, no one really knew that.
While we announced in an October newsletter that we were going independent and established the first Friends of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival fundraising campaign and announced concerts and workshops, we were running on fumes and the image of success we had created. We were rescued financially by the unlikely intervention of a wonderful Irish rogue by the name of Maurice Cassidy. Maurice managed the Chieftains and we had done a show with them, a successful one. Out of the blue Maurice called and asked if we—really I at that point—would be interested in producing the western North American chunk of the Chieftains’ tour. I said we would. Neither Maurice nor I knew what the band was worth but he said if he could be guaranteed five thousand dollars a show he would be happy. I had no idea but I agreed. I put together dates across western Canada and the U.S.—maybe ten in all—and made a fortune. I don’t remember how much, maybe fifty thousand, but enough to rent the office on Main St. that we operated out of for the years I was involved, and to hire staff. I don’t know what we would have done without that lucky break. It got us through until the festival ‘early bird’ ticket money came in.
I was now both the festival coordinator, in charge of the organizational details of the festival, and the artistic director. Like Lenny Bruce said about jumping out of a plane with a parachute: ‘Everybody that ever did it never did it before.’ I had watched Mitch and knew the basics. We had enough of a profile that there was no shortage of folks who wanted to perform. In a way all you had to do was listen to what came in and answer the phone. Happily, the policy in those days, and right through my tenure, was to pay folks equally by the head: $500 for a single, $600 for a duo, $900 for a trio, $1000 for a quartet and $200 a head for anything bigger. It made negotiations easy. We paid travel, put folks up and fed them on site. There was a cornucopia of talent out there and it seemed they all wanted to play Vancouver.
“The no stars approach with equal pay for all artists was a vital component.”
Folk music had been pronounced dead by the music business but it was bursting at the seams. It was a good time to be booking artists. There were few festivals. We were the only game in town in BC, Washington, Oregon and maybe Northern California. Basically, in 1980, I booked my taste without much of a plan except for one genre of music—women’s music.
I was a committed socialist activist throughout the period I ran the festival and I was determined to put socialist ideas into practise in both the production of the festival and in its programming. The latter meant using the festival stages as platforms for ideas that suggested the transformation of society into something beyond capitalism.
Through some of the women involved in the festival and through a debate with Mitch about hiring Ferron, I had become aware of a genre of music called women’s music. It was feminist and often featured lesbian artists. I thought it was very exciting and I had been doing a little research on who some of the artists were. Holly Near’s work knocked me out. Rosalie Sorrels had already been to the first festival and she was working with storyteller Bobby Louise Hawkins and Terry Garthwaite. Betsy Rose and Cathy Winter came to my attention somehow and Heather Bishop, who had also already been to the festival, suggested a Saskatchewan artist named Connie Kaldor. Then there was Sweet Honey in the Rock who had just issued their second record on Holly Near’s Redwood label. A trio of Robin Flower, Nancy Vogel and Laurie Lewis added instrumental chops to feminist politics.
I referred to Ferron above. She had carved out a presence on the Vancouver singer songwriter women’s music scene. She sent in her first recording to apply for the first festival. Mitch had turned it down. That was his prerogative. The next year he told me you can choose one artist. I chose Ferron. I knew that there was resentment about her being turned down floating around the town and I was genuinely moved by the work. She had released Testimony, her third record but really her debut album as far as most of the world was concerned.
Not only did I hire these women but I flaunted it. We devoted a section of the program book to three articles we commissioned on the subject of ‘what is women’s music.’ Holly Near, Cathy Winter and Rosalie Sorrels addressed the topic. We published songs as well. It made a statement. No folk festival had welcomed these women before. I had heard that they didn’t want to play for men. I asked Holly if that was true. She said maybe a few didn’t but mainly, it was that they weren’t asked.
Women’s music was the first strong theme program at the festival. I did it for artistic and ideological reasons. It turned out to be a brilliant marketing strategy as well. As word circulated among the women’s music feminist community about who was going to be at the festival, a whole new audience decided to attend for the first time. By and large it was a great thing. It added a lot to the festival and broke down some walls, both misogynist, and homophobic. The quality of the artists was high. We made a record of that year and you can hear Ferron’s Ain’t Life a Brook, Holly’s Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida about women political prisoners in Chile, Sweet Honey calling up the spirits of the ancestors and Connie Kaldor calling out Jerks- ‘there are jerks in cars/jerks in trucks/some want to bug you/some want to f…f… find out what you’re really like… jerks!’ The squeals of delight from the audience give a sense of the impact.
“Robin Williamson was booed for describing a woman whose breasts ‘could knock down a line of parked cars.’”
There were a few challenges and tense moments. Robin Williamson was booed for describing a woman whose breasts ‘could knock down a line of parked cars.’ One of Sweet Honey dissed the Red Clay Ramblers for a song full of colonial stereotyped images: ‘thoroughly African Man.’ It was pretty mild but for a race and gender who were not used to being challenged, it created rumours of mobs of censorious lesbian feminists howling down poor white male artists.
By and large the inclusion of women’s music worked on the artistic, political and box office level and emboldened me. The attendance had climbed to over 20,000 and that was after a Saturday of rain. People came and they stayed. When the sun shone on Sunday the site was packed. We oversold, partially because we didn’t know how many tickets made for a full park and partially because I was reluctant to turn any paying customer away. Looking at the program book, it was a great festival. The combination of songwriters, traditional artists, world music, hot pickers and some eccentrics, like the Flying Karamazov Brothers juggling ensemble was strong. The presence of a new genre—women’s music—complimented the rest. It laid out a method I would use for the next 14 festivals I programmed. Give ‘em something they already know but add to it.
Happily, my tastes are diverse. I never booked an artist I didn’t enjoy listening to but that encompassed a lot. Dedicated commie that I was, politically committed music was only one genre. I was equally interested and committed to traditional music of many cultures. I understood that they represented resistance, whatever the content was. I loved the craft of songwriting and was always a sucker for a crafty lyricist. I love blues and bluegrass. I was like a kid in a candy store. What was on offer was enormously varied and I loved it all. Happily, there was a pretty big chunk of the audience that shared my tastes and were willing to come along for the ride. The structure of the festival with six stages running throughout the day simultaneously and short sets on the evening concert ‘main’ stage helped. You could plan a day focusing on what you liked and if you didn’t like what was on the big stage at one point or another, a walk to the food or crafts area would kill a half-hour and by then something totally different was on deck.
Without really knowing what I was doing, the 1980 festival and the half-dozen or so women’s music artists also ushered in the notion of thematic programs within the festival. This would become important both in the nature of the festival and also in how we presented it to the media. Themes would answer the question about who the ‘headliners’ were. We didn’t have any of the latter but by focusing on the former we were able to articulate what we were about and slowly we convinced the media folks that this was a legitimate way to go. Eventually the more conscious print and electronic journalists would ask, “What are the themes this year?” As long as we had a coherent answer we maintained our credibility.
We were already doing concerts. In 1980, we put out a recording of the festival on our own Aural Tradition label. We also put out a record by the Andean music group, Sukay, and this led us into the record business. The festival was growing in size and scope. I had survived my first year as both festival coordinator and artistic director. I essentially had earned the mandate to do what I wanted.
The next step in the relationship between politics and music was a modest but important excursion into Latin America. I had been in Mexico on vacation in January of 1981 and went to a solidarity event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1931 uprising and massacre in El Salvador. A musical group was performing. More on whim than by plan I went backstage, introduced myself and invited Yolocamba Ita to perform at the fourth festival. They were joined by the Andean ensemble, Sukay, and the Toronto based, revolutionary Greek/Chilean ensemble Compañeros. Again we used our program book to present an article on ‘the other America’ and printed one of Yolocamba Ita’s songs. The Sandinistas had won in Nicaragua and civil war was raging in El Salvador and Guatemala. Working with Yolocamba Ita meant we were working with, and serving as a platform for, the Frente Democratico Revolucionario (FDR) and the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). It was the first of a number of liberation organizations we would work with, from East Timor to South Africa to Palestine.
Being able to put a group that was both artistically and politically important in front of 10,000 folks or so made the festival seem like a worthy event to devote myself to. It had an impact. That year also saw a group of veteran southern American political artists including Guy and Candie Carawan, Hazel Dickens, Anne Romaine, Si Kahn, Jane Sapp and Sara Ogun Gunning. Guy had introduced We Shall Overcome to the civil rights movement while Sara went back to the Harlan County coal miners’ class war of 1931 for which she had written I Hate the Capitalist System. Guy and Sara were living historical treasures. I couldn’t actually believe that they were on our stages.
There was lots more that year from veteran songwriter Earl Robinson, the author of I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night to folk revival legends (and important influences on Bob Dylan) Eric Von Schmidt and Dave Van Ronk, from contemporary songwriting geniuses Townes Van Zandt and Leon Rosselson to Afro-American folk singer/songwriter Elizabeth Cotten to Irish bard Joe Heaney to Meg Christian, one of the most popular women’s music songwriters.
We really had hit our stride. With rough luck and skill I had managed to put together a festival that represented various genres that had a sometimes uneasy relationship but that managed to coexist under the umbrella of folk. Finally, through the relationship with the Flying Karamazov Brothers jugglers, we hosted the Old Time New Age Chautauqua—a group of jugglers, magicians, fire eaters, etc., including a unicorn, who, sadly, didn’t make it across the border.
Add Malawi songwriter Tony Bird, South African Themba Tana, Ghanaian percussionist Obo Addy, Swedish folk ensembles Norrlatar and Johnson, Ostergards and Westling, a Vera Cruz ensemble, Los Trovadores de la Costa, and various others and the international feel of the festival was established. In essence by 1982, the fifth festival, I had fashioned a new model for Canadian folk music festivals and one that did not change substantially until I finished up in 1994.
Over the 15 festivals I programmed, thematic and international programs would include artists from dozens of countries from Papua New Guinea to Italy, Tuva to Hawaii, Hungary to Mexico, Czechoslovakia to Honduras, Madagascar to Mali and on and on. The last festival I booked featured a pan pipe ensemble from the Solomon Islands, one of my great dreams come true.
I guess I booked pretty close to 1,000 artists. I never counted and am not about to now. When I am asked about favourites, it’s hard to say. If I didn’t love ‘em, I didn’t book ‘em. That said, five come to mind and I suspect that that not even most folks who were there would remember them.
In 1982, thanks to Utah Phillips, I hired Eddie Balchowsky, a one-handed piano player who had lost his right hand on the Ebro front in Spain in 1938. He had trained as a concert pianist. He played the revolutionary songs of the Spanish Civil War, among other things. He held out his right arm with its stump for you to shake while he watched your reaction.
Vasilios Gaitanos, in 1984, walked out on stage with his band and said simply ‘today is the tenth anniversary of the fall of the dictatorship in my country, Greece.’ He then proceeded to play the Zorba Suite by Mikis Theodorakis, with whom he had played for four years, stood up to a standing ovation and walked off stage. It was magnificent. It was a testimony to the intelligence of the audience.
There was a cowboy. I heard Buck Ramsay at the cowboy poetry festival in Elko, Nevada. Ian Tyson had encouraged me to make the trek in January of 1989. I heard a lot of great stuff but one guy captivated me. He was in a wheelchair, the result of what he described as ‘a tangle with a horse bigger than he was.’ He sang cowboy songs and read his poems. His version of Spanish is a Loving Tongue was epic. I was entranced. I later learned he wrote a left wing newspaper column in his home town of Amarillo, Texas, just to piss off the rednecks.
Mihaly Halmagyi & Gizella Adam were from the Transylvania region of Romania. I heard them on a Hungarian record and fell head over heels in love. His violin, her voice and percussive string instrument, the gardom, were wild and brilliant. I wanted them for the 1991 festival. It wasn’t easy. Through a Dutch agent friend I was put in touch with a Budapest rock promoter who loved folk music. He made the connection. The Canadian embassy in Budapest said no visa. I threatened them with Svend Robinson, the left wing NDP MP and pain in the neck. They relented. I wasn’t disappointed. They said the food in the UBC cafeteria was the best they had ever eaten.
There are dozens more, hundreds really, but those will do for a sampling. Maybe my proudest moment was when I was attacked by the local Jewish press for bringing a Palestinian artist, Mustafa Al Kurd, and identifying his country of origin as Palestine. The paper ran a headline- “Jewish Folk Festival Organizer Recognizes Palestine.” I took it to Toronto where my father was dying. I showed it to him and told him I was now able to recognize countries. He was very proud.
The programming of any festival is the key but the organization is equally important to create the ambience. Over and over I heard folks say the festival was the weekend of the year that was how the world should be. Nothing made me happier. That was a recognition of both the talent of the artists I had booked as well as what we did to establish a context for their art. I say we, not in the royal or editorial sense, but in the collective sense. I basically booked the festival, although I had lots of help finding artists from audience members and performers. The various initiatives that made the site as attractive, welcoming and responsive to the interests and needs of the folk who were the audience came from that same audience and the volunteers who made the festival run.
I think the first big step to creating a different kind of event was organizing our security committee instead of hiring thugs, nice thugs, but thugs none the less. Most of the security was women, thanks to Alice who organized it. It immediately created a different feel. We had an access committee run by Linda, who was blind, and Merle, who was in a wheelchair. They knew firsthand the challenges, and the answers. We built a bridge over a gully and had Braille programs as well as reserved seating areas. A volunteer naturalist offered to conduct tours of the marsh. Backstage we set up a massage committee for performers and volunteers. In the food area we searched out community groups that could offer ‘real’ food from diverse traditions while using the profits for good works. South Asian single mothers and Central American refugees benefited among others. In Chile there were and maybe still are, folks living in houses paid for by money from empanadas and crafts sold at the festival. Somehow we came up with the idea of using melmac plates that could be washed and reused.
In various ways we tried to make our beliefs part of the event off stage as well as on. No corporate sponsorships, no booze, lots of information on how to make a better world and opportunities to buy stuff that would fund that world went well with the music. Today you can see a bunch of things we did first as an organic part of lots of events.
Feminist, socialist, environmentalist, egalitarian, inclusive, diverse, LGBTQ positive—there are lots of adjectives for what we did in those years. The no stars approach with equal pay for all artists was a vital component. The fact that the festival was overwhelmingly run by volunteers was another. It worked. We got away with it. Those years laid the foundation.
I tend not to look back; it’s a fool’s game. That said, this project was a lovely opportunity to do just that and it was a great deal more pleasurable than I thought it would be. If you hold what can be described charitably as dissident social and political views, you rarely have the chance to realize them in a society that looks upon them as aberrations. I did, and in doing so proved the point that those ideas are more than utopian. They can actually deliver the goods.
Why did I leave? I had the opportunity to take my political views and what I had learned about the arts in Canada to another part of the forest. I left to work at the Canada Council for the Arts. I was involved in opening the Council up to diverse forms of music, creating new forms of support to artists and, proudly, I was the founding president of the first union local at Canada Council. In many ways it was what I had learned and accomplished at the festival that gave me the knowledge, confidence and credibility to do what I did after I left for Ottawa.
It’s good to remember those times.
[In 2016, Gary Cristall received an honorary doctorate from UBC. Years ago, he was given the Canada 125 Award. Soon he’ll receive an Alumni of the Year Award from Simon Fraser University. When Jeannie Kamins asked Cristall to recall the origins of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, he had never done so before in writing. “This is memoir and not history,” he wrote. “It is my personal tale with all the caveat emptor that implies. The festival is a solid enough operation to withstand the tale of its youth and I am past worrying about what people think.”–Ed.]
ABOUT THE WRITER/PUBLISHER
“I have always drawn from life,” says Jeannie Kamins, “so when I began going to the folk festival I brought along some paper and India ink and began drawing the performers. In those days I was mostly using fabric as my serious medium and a few of my fabric pieces are scattered throughout the book. When I started making large works on paper I began to glue fabric, (and sometimes wallpaper) as block colours. Sweet Honey in the Rock is an example. Then in 1985 my brother gave me a box of watercolours. is changed my life and I now take my paints everywhere.
“I became a professional artist in the early 70’s and have pages and pages of CV proving how professional and competent I am. Then about 2002 I became depressed by the lack of monetary compensation our society gives to artists and started looking for a day job. I got one but ultimately got fired for my mouth and lack of obedience.
“I got another job painting for the movies, but I was 30 years older than the next person down and was having trouble painting church steeples 30 feet in the air from a Genie lift. I started looking again. The people hiring all turned out to be about 35. They all looked like my children and no matter my experience, I looked like their mothers. Finally, I found an ad for training to be a realtor. For the next 7 years I brought in big bucks. Then came the crash of 2008 and in 2010 my mother died. That was when I decided that whatever I did with the rest of my life, it wasn’t going to be real estate.
“Now for the past seven years I have become a professional volunteer. The difference between being an artist and now is there is no expectation of remunerations so I am happily writing this book, being on boards of various organizations, puttering in my garden and taking long naps in the afternoon so I can stay up ‘till eleven.”
For $25 plus shipping costs, 40 Years and Counting: A Visual History of Forty Years of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (Jeannie Kamins, 2017) by Jeannie Kamis, with Gary Cristall, is available via phone or email: 604-760-7342 or email@example.com