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Music Folk & Traditional

The Mariposa Folk Festival

A History

by (author) Michael Hill

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
May 2017
Folk & Traditional, History & Criticism, Post-Confederation (1867-)
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A history of the Mariposa Folk Festival, from its humble roots in Orillia in 1961 to international acclaim and legendary status as a premier folk music gathering.

Mariposa began in the heyday of the early 60s “folk boom.” In its more than fifty-five years, it has seen many of the world’s greatest performers grace its stages: Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jann Arden, and Serena Ryder.

The festival has long held a musical mirror to popular culture in Canada. It thrived during the folk boom years and the singer-songwriter era of the early 70s. Its popularity dipped during the rise of disco and punk as the 70s wore into the early 80s. And it nearly died due to lack of interest in the 90s — the days of grunge and new country, and the golden age of CD sales. Thanks to a recent wave of independent, home-grown music, Mariposa is having a resurgence in the early twenty-first century. Audiences have always come and gone, but the festival has stayed true to its mandate: to promote and preserve folk art in Canada through song, story, dance, and craft.

About the author

A former history teacher, Michael Hill was also Mariposa’s artistic director and wrote The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History. He has written for a number of newspapers and magazines including a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He lives in Orillia, Ontario.


Michael Hill's profile page

Excerpt: The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History (by (author) Michael Hill)

In the Beginning
Club Pavalon, more commonly known as “the Pav,” was an old-time dance hall situated on the edge of Couchiching Beach Park in Orillia. It had a reputation for bringing in great bands and was a popular hangout for teens, who would dance to the likes of Bobby Curtola, the Stitch in Tyme, the Downchild Blues Band, and the Guess Who. The Pav also doubled as a community meeting hall.
On a cold January evening in 1961, John Fisher took to the Pav’s stage to address the local Chamber of Commerce about tourism and, specifically, how to promote it in small towns. Fisher had been nicknamed “Mr. Canada” for his enthusiastic and influential CBC broadcasts about Canadian culture and history. He would go on to be a key figure in putting on Expo 67 during the centennial year. But in 1961 in Orillia, he had come to town to speak about what would make Orillia a desirable tourist destination. Little did he dream that he was planting the seed of an idea that would lead to the creation of a Canadian institution — the Mariposa Folk Festival.
In the audience that night was Ruth Jones, a young, community-minded mother, who was a folk music enthusiast. She and her husband would often make the trek south to Toronto to hear the traditional and the new sounds coming from the coffee houses and folk clubs in the city. Ever since the Kingston Trio had topped the popular music charts with their 1958 hit “Tom Dooley,” folk music had gained increasing popularity, especially with young people. The folk boom — some wags have called it the “folk scare” — was well underway in the winter of 1961. A number of folk clubs already existed in the city, especially in the Yorkville neighbourhood of Toronto. Ruth was intrigued by what Fisher said about the growing number of arts festivals around the country and how Orillia might benefit from staging something of that sort.
The wheels were set in motion. Several days later, as she lay in bed with a nasty flu bug and time to think, Ruth came up with the idea of putting on a folk music festival in town.
Orillia at that time was a quiet place of about fourteen thousand residents. Situated between two lakes, its summertime population allegedly doubled with the arrival of cottagers and nearby resort guests. Orillia’s biggest employer was the Ontario Hospital School, one of the largest mental institutions in the country. That was also the workplace of Ruth’s husband, Dr. Casey Jones. The rest of the town’s economy was based on its moderately sized factories and depended upon the tourism business in the surrounding area. The sleepy demeanour was not all that far removed from the quirky fictional village of Mariposa that Stephen Leacock had described in his 1912 novel Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Leacock, a summer resident of Orillia, based many of his characters and events on real people and real incidents in the community. The book propelled Leacock into stardom as an international humorist, and it put Orillia on the map as the archetypal small Canadian town.
A few days after Fisher’s speech, Ruth made a call to Pete McGarvey, a local broadcaster and a town alderman who was also interested in promoting Orillia as a travel destination. Only a few years earlier McGarvey had almost single-handedly saved Stephen Leacock’s home from the wrecker’s ball. By 1961 it had become a local museum and a tourist attraction, thanks to Pete’s efforts and hard work.
“She had this glorious idea that we could stage a folk festival in Orillia that very summer. She thought that would be the dimension that John Fisher was calling for,” recalled McGarvey. “I agreed wholeheartedly that it should be done; nobody else was doing it; the talent was near at hand; Orillia was, of course, a resort community accustomed to summer visitors; and we had plenty of places to show their talents — the Opera House, the community centre outdoors, or the Oval [the town’s sports arena]. So that was it.”1
The name Mariposa was suggested in tribute to Leacock’s literary invention — his satiric jab at the Orillia he knew in 1912. Why he chose the Spanish word for butterfly has never been documented. He may simply have scanned his Ontario map and noticed that there was a Mariposa Township near Lindsay, Ontario, and liked the name. We’ll probably never know. What we do know is that no attempt to mock Orillia was intended in the naming of the festival! Pete, Ruth, and her husband Casey all laid claim to having come up with the name. Ruth’s notebook history credits Casey.
* * *
Ruth and her husband had been folk music enthusiasts for a number of years and they had an insider’s knowledge of the folk community in Toronto. Ruth boldly and confidently approached many of her contacts in the city. An important group on that list was the Toronto Guild of Canadian Folk Artists. Among its somewhat radical left-wing members were people like Estelle Klein, who would eventually become artistic director of the festival, and Sid Dolgay, a member of the folk group the Travellers. Sid’s band had recorded its own version of Woody Guthrie’s folk classic “This Land Is Your Land” in 1955 and had a reputation as Canada’s top folk draw.
The first meeting of the board of directors for the fledgling festival took place at the Jones home on Bay Street in Orillia. Ruth became president; Pete was elected vice-president, and Casey would act as secretary-treasurer. It was appropriate that Casey be treasurer: he contributed $5,000 of the Jones’s own money, a sizable amount in 1961, indeed (the equivalent of about $40,000 in 2016).
The trio got the approval of Orillia town council and was even given a small amount of money — $250 — to help fund the festival. Ruth and her team solicited advice from what was then the only other modern folk festival in North America, the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.2 A date in August was selected, and even though it was still a snowy February, that summer weekend loomed ominously.
Much of the work and direction over the next few months came from Toronto. Under Ruth’s leadership, an informal group of advisors from the city helped to bring in the acts, organize the minutia, and set in motion the procedures that would make her dream into a reality. In addition to Estelle Klein and Sid Dolgay, Syd Banks, who was a renowned television and music producer, helped out. Ed Cowan was asked to be the first producer of the festival and Ted Schafer was named the first emcee. Edith Fowke, host of CBC’s Folk Song Time and a renowned folklorist in her own right, also chipped in. Edith — who was the quintessential expert on Canadian folk music at that time — pushed for an all-Canadian flavour. Ruth’s brother David Major did a lot of the legwork “in the trenches,” according to Ruth. Emerging musical star Ian Tyson used his early training as a graphic artist to design the first poster and the initial Mariposa logo. Many of the meetings were held in Ian’s downtown-Toronto apartment. In his 2010 autobiography, The Long Trail: My Life in the West, Tyson makes mention of the fact that the poster for the first Mariposa Folk Festival still hangs in the kitchen of his home in rural Alberta.
Innumerable phone calls and hectic meetings took place in those months between February and August of 1961. Ruth and her helpers put a lot of wear and tear on their cars as they drove up and down the 125 or so kilometres of highway between Orillia and Toronto. Decisions were made on a lineup, on how to advertise and sell the new concept, and on where to actually hold the event. Numerous solutions had to be found for problems that no one had ever encountered before. Where would visitors stay? Where would they house the performers overnight? How would they recruit the necessary volunteers to man all aspects of the actual staging of the festival?
Ruth became something of a publicist for the festival as she travelled all over Ontario touting her new “baby.” She gave numerous radio, TV, and press interviews and made the pages of Chatelaine and Maclean’s magazines. In an unpublished manuscript Ruth recalled, “I arranged that all milk delivered to summer cottagers would have a promotional collar attached…. Every piece of mail that went through the Orillia post office for the month preceding the event got a special cancellation stamp. I travelled all over Ontario doing newspaper, radio, and TV interviews and made a trip to my hometown, Halifax, for a special media event…. We sent out hundreds of news releases — every one sealed and stamped by my four children, David, Bruce, Nancy, and Barb, while they learned and sang folk songs.”3
Ruth sent out letters to people such as Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, Ed McCurdy and Alan Mills, inviting them to come and play at the festival. Few replied (Bikel, for instance, said he was “busy”), but she remained determined. Her goal was to teach Canadians about their own musical heritage, to give some of our homegrown musicians the publicity they badly needed, and to supply her hometown with a tourist attraction that was both exciting and wholesome. The lineup eventually took on an all-Canadian flavour, showcasing both established and new acts on the Canadian folk scene. The Travellers, Alan Mills, Quebec chanteur Jacques Labrecque, and fiddler Jean Carignan were among the established names hired. Younger performers such as Bonnie Dobson, Mary Jane and Winston Young, and the up-and-coming team of Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker were hired to draw the college crowd and show that folk had bright new faces to present to the world. Ruth asked Ian and Sylvia early in February, and both had responded enthusiastically.
There were definitely struggles. The Y’s Men, a local service club, initially pledged $1,000 in exchange for the right to sell 750 tickets at a reduced price. A similar arrangement with the Jaycees, another service club, failed to materialize. Nevertheless Ruth remained optimistic and enthusiastic, as demonstrated by remarks in her journal: “They liked Finvola’s tape — we are trying for LeBreque [sic] again! Oh — this thing is BIG!!”4 Orillia’s town council finally discussed and approved the event on May 1, and the Oval was rented for $150. Ruth even approached the army at nearby CFB Borden about a tent for the Oval grounds.
One of the key figures in the organizing and especially in the programming of Mariposa was Edith Fowke, though her contribution is often overlooked. Her input for the fledgling and later Mariposa Folk Festivals would be invaluable. She held strong views that Canadians should be exposed to traditional Canadian songs, and it was thanks to her that a number of traditional singers made their way onto Mariposa stages.
* * *
On August 18 the initial Mariposa Folk Festival was launched on the green space at the Orillia Oval. The festival’s souvenir pamphlet described it as “Canada’s FIRST National Folk Festival,” but the designation of “first” can be debated.
The Miramichi Folksong Festival in Newcastle, New Brunswick, lays claim to being the first “folksong” festival and predates Mariposa by a number of years. Ruth had contacted that festival, but the only advice given was that they relied on grants from the New Brunswick provincial government.
Purists would argue that neither festival can claim to be the first since there were a number of folk festivals — many sponsored by Canadian Pacific Railway — staged in places like Vancouver, Banff, Regina, Toronto, and Quebec City during the 1930s.
Whatever the case may be, the Mariposa Folk Festival was certainly one of the first, and its size and influence make it by far the most important folk festival in Canadian history.
From the beginning the festival, though smaller than it would later become, was a success, drawing large crowds. Its first home was at a site in Orillia known as the Oval. This area, home to Orillia’s community centre and arena, was tucked between the imposing limestone Roman Catholic church, the local armoury, and modest, middle-class homes along the side streets. It served as the location for local trade shows and the annual Orillia Fall Fair, and it included a somewhat rickety set of bleachers for the local baseball teams and their fans (the baseball diamond was transformed into a concert venue for the festival, the stage an elaborate model of a medieval tent — a nod to Casey Jones’s fascination with the pageantry of the Middle Ages). The entire property was surrounded by a secure high fence, likely a factor in selecting the venue when “nicer” but less secure parks in town could have served the same purpose.

Editorial Reviews

I had long thought that the real stars of Mariposa were the people doing the hard work of getting the festival up and running — often against formidable odds. This is an entertaining journey through intrigue, highs and lows, and warm musical memories. Mike has done a great job of chronicling it all!

Canadian singer-songwriter

Hill has been the festival’s “unofficial” historian for a few years now, putting together pieces on the storied history of Mariposa

Orillia Packet & Times

Mariposa artistic director Michael Hill provides an interesting history of this enduring event.

Toronto Star

A rare look behind the scenes at the nitty-gritty managing of a folk fest.


Hill has written a fascinating, often intriguingly detailed account of a unique, but fragile, Canadian cultural event.

Penguin Eggs

Provides a well-rounded and in-depth discussion of the MFF’s fifty-six-year history. Readers will come away with a better understanding of the live music industry in Canada.

CAML Review

If you have any friends in the Canadian folk music community, you’re bound to find them quoted in Hill’s lengthy — and often entertaining — interviews.

National Post

The Mariposa Folk Festival deserves its own story, and who better to write it than long-time artistic director, Mike Hill. With passion, flare, and an obvious love for folk music, Mike Hill beautifully chronicles the legendary festival’s rich history. An important story, masterfully told, to be savoured and revisited.

Terry Fallis

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