Folk Festival Season – A Look at Mariposa

Billy Bragg at Mariposa (photo: Sara Barker)

by Wally Brooker

It is mid-way through the summer folk festival season, and some of the largest festivals have already taken place (e.g. Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg & Mariposa), but there is still time to partake if you enjoy the outdoor ambience of these largely non-profit and volunteer-driven cultural events.

According to organizers, 30,000 people attended this year’s Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia over the July 6-8 weekend. It is one of the oldest folk festivals, having begun in 1961 in this small town north of Toronto. In 1964 local residents drove the festival out after “disturbances” by crowds of young people. What followed was decades of Mariposa festivals in and around Toronto until 2000 when the festival moved back to Orillia.

The Mariposa Folk Festival is now very much an Orillia event. The town’s early resentment of the festival is a distant memory if the enthusiastic participation of local community organizations is any indication. It’s probably a safe bet that most of the 600 volunteers come from the Orillia area.

Like most arts organizations, folk festivals cannot survive on ticket sales alone. Before the era of arts cutbacks began, the portion of arts funding that came from government and arm’s-length cultural agencies was higher than it is today. A glance at festival sponsors indicates that government and cultural agencies are still important funders, but also that private sponsorship has grown. Many sponsors are local small businesses, but there are also large corporations getting in on the act.

Keeping ticket prices affordable should be a key goal of any festival that celebrates grassroots culture and people’s music. Mariposa this year charged $155 for a single adult three-day pass (including camping). This is comparable to similar festivals across the country. It’s not cheap and certainly not for the poor, but what else can organizers do? They’re non-profit charities, and they need revenue to pay performers and meet all the expenses that come with organizing a three-day cultural festival.

While it continues to present big evening stage concerts with headline artists, Mariposa has remained true to its commitment to music workshops, storytelling and poetry, traditional dance, arts and crafts, children’s activities, and participatory events. We happened upon a harmonizing sing-along that included a rousing version of Stan Rogers’ “Mary-Ellen Carter,” a ukulele workshop that had proceeded from instrument-building to an exciting first lesson, and a hands-on, all-ages interactive tent full of musical instruments called a “Musical Petting Zoo.”

The general mood of the festival was typically laid-back. Strolling from stage to stage one might well forget that tremendous economic, political and social struggles are going on in the world. However, there were moments when artists alluded to these struggles and the sympathy of festivalgoers to their comments was apparent.

One such moment occurred on Sunday evening when acclaimed singer-songwriter James Keelaghan took aim at the banks with “A House of Cards,” his song about the 2008 financial meltdown. Keelaghan hit home when he sang “we bought that dream and we sold it on/ but it ain’t worth nothin’ now the money’s gone/and the only shelter that credit buys/is a house of cards and a pack of lies.”

Another headliner, UK punk-folk activist Billy Bragg dedicated his set to Woody Guthrie, (see “Music Notes” on this page). When he called for the defeat of Stephen Harper, the cancellation of the international debt and declared himself a socialist, the enthusiastic response of the crowd suggested that artistic directors of Canadian folk festivals might well dare to book more politically engaged artists next year.

Canadian folk festivals deserve credit for their pioneering role in promoting green and sustainable alternatives. This year’s Mariposa continued the tradition, banning plastic water bottles, and instead offering a free water refill station. Food plates, cups and utensils were compostable. A good part of the festival was powered by solar energy.

One aspect of the festival that could be improved upon is the representation of the contemporary Canadian mosaic. It seems to me that the Mariposa Folk Festival presented a more diverse array of performers from non- European cultures in previous decades. Reversing this trend would certainly be a way to enrich the festival experience for both performers and the public. When considering next year’s performers, Mariposa’s artistic directors might start by looking at nominees in the world music categories of the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Despite this complaint, the Mariposa Folk Festival, in my opinion, is a grassroots democratic cultural institution worthy of the support of progressive-minded people. Like its sister festivals, it brings folk artists from diverse regions, disciplines and backgrounds together, fosters creative exchanges, and becomes itself an example of how a co-operative society might work.

Summer folk festivals continue with the Filberg Folk Festival (Comox, BC Aug 4-6), the Canmore Folk Festival (Canmore, AB Aug 4-6), the Edmonton Folk Festival (Aug 9-12), the Red Rock Festival (Thunder Bay, ON Aug. 10-12), Summerfolk (Owen Sound, ON Aug 17-19), and the Shelter Valley Folk Festival (Eastern ON Aug 31-Sept 2). Check out Penguin Eggs magazine for a complete list: http://www.penguineggs.ab.ca/friends.php.

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