Interviewing Mitch Podolak, the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival

I wrote this story for  Winnipeg Folk Stories, my storytelling project about the people who go to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It was also published on Community News Commons to coincide with the Folk Fest’s 2015 lineup announcement. 

Mitch

It wasn’t until I was walking up the steps to Mitch Podolak’s Wolseley home that I realized I was nervous. All of a sudden, I felt like I was about to knock on the door of a celebrity —albeit a small scale celebrity and one known more for being infamous than famous.

Podolak is the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a place myself, and so many of my friends, treat like a summertime Mecca. A place meant for losing your inhibitions, searching your soul and finding yourself in the company of good people and great music. And I was about to meet the man who helped build it all.

When he opened the door we was wearing his characteristic T-shirt and overalls and a big grin partially hidden behind his gray whiskers. He led me down the hallway to his kitchen — Mitch had already informed me that it was his birthday that day and we would have to conduct our interview while he cooked dinner for friends who would be arriving later. So, I set up at the table while he preheated the oven.

He sat down across from me and started telling the story of how it all happened.

Podolak’s fascination with folk music began when he was 13 after discovering Pete Seeger for the first time. His fascination with music festivals started that same year when he ran away from summer camp to attend the Mariposa Folk Festival.

“I asked if I could go and they said no, so I just took off one night,” said Podolak. “I volunteered at the gates because I had no money, I worked my way right into that place.”

Folk music led to an interest in politics, which led to a self-education on the subject. In his own words: he is a man who is very well-educated about some things and very uneducated about most things. His interest in music led him to a job in radio.

“I got it in my mind that I wanted to be a writer and eventually I worked my way into a job at the CBC, making radio documentaries,” said Podolak, “That job was actually the key to getting the money to start the Folk Fest.”

In 1974, the festival was initially billed as a celebration of Winnipeg’s 100th birthday and it was funded by the government and a private sponsor named Paul Mills, who worked as a producer at CBC at the time. Mills also moonlighted as a musician named Curly Boy Stubbs, who performed at the festival many times under his stage name and was also involved in many of Stan Roger’s albums.

As part of his pitch, Podolak sent Mills a list of performers he would like to see at his music festival.

“He phoned me up and said, “You’ve been away from the folk music scene for a while.” And I said, “Yeah about four years.” He said, “Well nine of these artists are dead but I really like your taste and your instincts.”

Podolak was 25 years old at the time.

“He gave me the $16,000 to start the festival,” said Podolak. “I was terrified of having that much money in my hands.”

The festival was free to the public and Bruce Cockburn played first night. Regardless of the hype the show got off to a rocky start.

“It was frightening. It was seven o’clock on Friday night and there was 200 people,” he said. “Everybody went home and got changed, they didn’t know what to expect. At seven thirty, half an hour later, 14,000 people showed up.”

It was so well received that there was no question it would be back the next year, it was just a matter of figuring out who was going to keep paying for it.

Mills/Curly Boy Stubbs committed money for another four years. The Folk Fest struggled to keep its funds in check and during its first several years, but Podolak and his team kept the deficit under wraps and assured the crowd the festival would return each year. And return every year it did.

“Someone started talking about how the tenth anniversary was going to be a big deal, so I had to make it a big deal, which was kind of a pain in the ass.”

Podolak is what most would call a folk music purist. He took the programming seriously and put his heart and soul into finding the right artists. The audience experience was always a big consideration and things like how high the stage was off the ground always factored into his plans. At a certain point Podolak felt like it was time to move on, the festival was thriving and Vancouver was calling.

“I did twelve years and then I thought I should only do one more because I’m running out of ideas and we should really get some younger, smarter, fresher, better people in.”

In 1986, he and his family moved to B.C. where he helped start another folk festival.

Now, Podolak describes himself as the “Old Man of the festival,” yet his relationship with the Winnipeg Folk Festival isn’t exactly familial.

“There’s people on the board who respect me and there’s people on the board who fuckin’ hate me because I’m very critical of the direction the festival is going in.”

He’s watched the Folk Fest he created go from a small-stage event on a wide open prairie, to a festival that accommodates nearly 80,000 people every year.

Things have changed immensely. I know I felt a pang of sadness when I walked onto the festival grounds several years ago to find shiny new food vendor stalls had replaced the ramshackle food village. But, at the same time Podolak understands the struggles of a growing organization

“I hope you’re not hearing a drop of bitterness in my voice because there’s not. I’m looking at it entirely from my perspective and comparing it to other folk festivals.”

Podolak is still a staple in the Canadian music scene. He is currently part of an arts organization called Home Routes, which sets artists up to play house concerts. And he is very much adored by his community, as is evident by the amount of birthday phone calls he got and friends who dropped by to wish him well during our two-hour conversation.

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