Mitch Podolak jokes that when the Winnipeg Folk Festival was first launched in 1974, the most common question was, “Where’s Winnipeg?” Podolak, who served as the artistic director from 1974 to 1986, thinks his initial response, ‘We’re just a two-hour drive north of North Dakota,” helped: that year, 12,000 music lovers attended the event and were entertained by such artists as Bruce Cockburn, Tom Jackson and Mike Seeger. Fast-forward a quarter of a century to last week’s festival, where more than 30,000 fans packed
Birds Hill Provincial Park to listen to Cockburn, Jackson and Seeger—plus 300 international artists.
Conceived as a one-time concert to celebrate Winnipeg’s centenary, the event is now the largest and one of the longestrunning folk festivals in North America. Half of the audience travels from other provinces and almost a third from the United States. For Canadian folk-rocker Cockburn, the festival’s success can be attributed to the organizers and volunteers. “There was always a sense that this would turn into something good,” says Cockburn, 53, who has played the festival three times. “These people have a good attitude and a lot of commitment and drive.” Calgary singer-songwriter Jann Arden, 36, who made her first appearance at this year’s festival, told Maclean’s that she enjoyed hearing other performers. “I’m a big music fan,” she says, “so it’s nice to stand on the side of the stage and listen to other groups and be influenced by things they do.”
With such featured musicians as Los Lobos, an AmericanMexican band, and Gen X sweetheart Ani DiFranco, the label “folk” might be a stretch for the event. “If Ani DiFranco can be a folksinger, anyone can be,” says Cockburn. “I guess folk now is anything that isn’t commercial or jazz.” Podolak developed his own working definition during his tenure: “If I say it’s folk music, it’s folk music.” And Arden jokes that folk festivals usually showcase everything but folk. “What’s important is that people know why they are attending,” she says. “A fun time with the family, listening to great music.”
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