‘Profound sense of loss’ as Winnipeg Folk Fest’s legendary love, laughter (and yes, music) put on hold

By | April 19, 2020

When I was a kid, my dad once told me, “Leonard, we’re going to Edmonton.”

I asked, “Why?”

“Because we’re going to the Edmonton Folk Festival.” 

I couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely dumbfounded!  

I couldn’t believe there could possibly be another folk festival in another city, where they all got together and did the same thing. The vibe was similar: the music, the stages, the food and the other kids running around, having the time of their lives — not knowing why, but just that it was fun! 

How could it be that in another city there could be the same air, the fields, the sun, the rain, the filled up Porto-Johns (or in the case of my childhood, the old wooden outhouses, fortunately destroyed by a tornado after the festival)?

Mitch Podolak and Ava Kobrinsky in 1977. Leonard says his parents would host ‘close family friends from all over, and the odd musician who preferred to stay with us as opposed to the hotel’ during the festival. (Submitted by Leonard Podolak)

Growing up at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in the late 1970s and 1980s was actually Christmas in July for me. 

Sometime in the spring, Mitch (Podolak, my dad), would disappear to a secret hotel for two weeks to write the workshops schedule. 

My mother, Ava Kobrinsky, along with Rosalie Goldstein, Bill Merritt and Duck Donald, were the only ones to know the location of the hotel. 

Duck would come and make sure nobody was double-programmed, and that everyone booked actually got programmed.

A few weeks later would come “Fence Day.”  

That’s when volunteers, staff, board members and even the odd sponsor and/or donor would join the site crew to build the fence around the perimeter of the festival site, the week before the show. 

(Even Julius, the guy who printed the program, was always there.)

During COVID-19, even with logic in our collective face, our community feels a profound sense of loss.– Leonard Podolak

That’s also usually when folks from out of town would start to show up.  

Close family friends from all over, the odd musician who preferred to stay with us as opposed to the hotel, would fill up the house. 

I knew it was really on when Geno and Jenny from the Elephant Ears (now called Whales Tails) would arrive. 

It is the gathering of the tribe. 

What tribe it is, no one can actually describe or put their finger on. 

Leonard Podolak, left, in the early 1990s at the Winnipeg Folk Fest, along with his dad (and founding artistic director) Mitch Podolak, Keith Hancock, Lee Collinson and Cliff Gregson. ‘The festival … brings a feeling that we don’t get any other time a year,’ Leonard says. (Submitted by Leonard Podolak)

The festival is more than just a time when everyone agrees or a place to discover, to see old friends, and make new ones. 

It is all of those things, but the Winnipeg Folk Festival was, and continues to be, a place — an event — that changes lives. 

It focuses us on what’s important and illustrates the possibility of what a forward-moving society can look like; how people can work together for a common cause to build something way bigger than any one individual could ever dream to do alone. 

That’s why, during COVID-19, even with logic in our collective face, our community feels a profound sense of loss and bewilderment at its recent cancellation. 

This feeling exists in towns and communities around the world, but I think it is fair to say this loss is felt in a unique way in Canada. 

[The festival] makes the clock disappear, but babies are born exactly nine months later!– Leonard Podolak

Most Canadian folk festivals share a model created at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. 

Not the programming, scheduling or stage setup, but how the volunteer organization is structured. Volunteers are treated as essential contributors to making the event a success. 

Folks are divided into teams, each carrying a certain responsibility. Each volunteer works a shift a day, and gets transportation to the festival, three meals a day, Kin Passes for kids, and access to volunteer after-parties featuring artists on the bill — not just a free or cheaper ticket (like the model established at commercial festivals).

These teams become social networks; enduring friendships are created, as well as marriages, children, and grandchildren — they take on their own life. 

There are crews with three generations of family members. 

Leonard Podolak, front right, with band Scrüj MacDuhk and others, at a folk fest workshop in 1996. ‘The Winnipeg Folk Festival was, and continues to be, a place — an event — that changes lives,’ says Podolak. (Submitted by Leonard Podolak)

More than 100,000 people have volunteered for the Winnipeg Folk Festival over 46 years, and it is this model that has nurtured the same successful dynamic with festivals in communities across Canada.

In Winnipeg, the organization and the festival have grown. 

It pays more attention to current musical taste and is less dogmatic about “what is folk music?”

The festival brings in large-scale headliners putting on huge shows, with sponsor logos; but it still showcases the scale and breadth of the Canadian and international folk music scene. It draws new audiences to artists who, until the second weekend in July, were unknown in Winnipeg, and gives local artists a world stage. 

It brings a feeling that we don’t get any other time a year. It makes the clock disappear, but babies are born exactly nine months later!


This column is part of  CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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