All Folk All The Time

June 21, 2015


(Originally published on February 28, 2011)

This week, it’s all folk all the time as Richard Flohil spends three days (and three very late nights) at a folk music convention. And what IS “folk” these days — apart from a four-letter word beginning with F?

Meet Joni Mitchell, Ray Danniels, Steven Page, Mitch Podolak, Gord Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, k.d. lang, Ani diFranco, Peter Yarrow, Oscar Brand, Colleen Peterson, David Baxter, The Breakmen, and Loreena McKennitt


Question: What do you get when you put 900 folkies in one hotel?

Answer: A good time, more music that you can possibly digest, and a bit of controversy…

Say “folk festival” to the average music biz person, and they turn pale. The can hear it — and see it — in their mind’s eye. Happy bluegrass banjo music, fiddles playing jigs and reels, introspective young women examine the fluff in their navels as they channel the spirit of Joni Mitchell. Oh, and those barefoot Birkenstock girls looning away at the side of the stage, arms waving, twirling like helicopters, and reinventing dance moves not seen since shepherds stopped tending their flocks and decided to have a party. 

On the other hand, there are close to 30 folk festivals in Ontario alone every year, and the major folk events in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Canso (Nova Scotia) and Vancouver all draw massive crowds. This summer, the Edmonton festival sold 11,000 four-day passes in eight hours; Winnipeg had the largest crowds ever (well over 15,000 a day), and will add two more daytime stages to the seven they already have.

Fact is, folk festivals represent a phenomenon that’s gone under the radar of most major record company people, from a&r people to the suits in head office. I’ve not forgotten the surprised look on Ray Danniels’ face as I took him backstage at Mariposa last year and he looked out at a massive crowd waiting to hear his client Steven Page as he embarked on his solo career. After guiding Rush for almost 40 years, Ray had never been to a folk event.

Probably well over half the artists in the marketplace today come from a folk festival background — and that’s been the case since the early days when Lightfoot, Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Ian & Sylvia emerged from the Mariposa festioval ; k.d. lang made her first breakthrough at the Edmonton festival, and alternative artists like Ani diFranco also emerged from the Canadian festival circuit.

So here we are, at 2.30 in the morning in a tiny room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Ottawa (which resembles a Motel 6 on steroids). It’s the annual convention of theOntario Council of Folk Festivals, and there are close to 900 delegates, at least two thirds of them musicians seeking work, new contacts, and a degree of mutual support in a tough, unforgiving, overcrowded world.

Three floors of the hotel are designated as “music floors” — which means there are players in every single room, offered what they call “guerilla showcases” to the relatively small number of music business people — agents, managers, label people, talent buyers, publicists, and promoters looking for the next big thing. A sign outside one room offered ”Chips and Scotch” as inducement to step inside.  The Newfoundland Room is packed; Screech is available, and so are enough fiddle players to form a small symphony orchestra.

Of course, folkies still like to define the F word, and Penguin Eggs — the Canadian folk world’s quarterly house organ — this month carries a furious tirade from Mitch Podolak, who founded the Winnipeg and Vancouver Folk Festivals. Podolak is livid that the larger festivals are booking pop acts, and that “folk” artists are being squeezed out of their major chance to reach major audiences.

Folk music is the peoples’ music, and has been since the beginning of time, he says. “If pretend folk festival artistic directors want a pop festival, they should get off their lazy, well-paid, bureaucratic asses and start one.”

Who said that folkies were all sweetness and light?




People have asked me who are the most boring people I’ve ever had to deal with. In the folk category, no contest: A tie between Peter Yarrow (of Peter Paul and Mary) andOscar Brand, the 90-year-old Winnipeg-born folk singer, songwriter, and New York broadcaster.

I had to interview Yarrow in front of an audience at the Vancouver Island Folk Festival. Insufferably po-faced, tiresomely liberal, and the pious promoter of more good causes than anyone could keep up with, he began by ostentatiously phoning Mary Travers in hospital on his cell phone, broadcasting the conversation to the audience. (Ms. Travers passed away a year later).

Later in the interview he got righteously offended when I suggested that his masterwork, “Puff the Magic Dragon:” had been interpreted by some as a drug-related song.

Oscar Brand was the subject of a phone interview I did recently for Penguin Eggs. One you get him going, you can’t stop him — the interview lasted two and a half hours. However, keeping on point was impossible for him; he couldn’t remember the name of the radio programme he had hosted in New York for 65 years; I asked him four times, and never got an answer. (Wikipedia told me — it’s called Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival.)

But Brand’s achievements — including those 65 years on air, and more than 80 albums, including more than a dozen for Elektra (before they signed Jim Morrison and The Doors) — far outstrip Yarrow’s.



It’s been 14 years since Colleen Petersen died, and each year at the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals a songwriting award bearing her name is presented to a newcomer. Colleen, who released seven albums — and a couple more as a member of Quartette — was a powerful presence on the folk and country scenes.

This year, Ottawa singer Lynne Hanson earned the bursary, which is administered by the Ontario Arts Council.  How wonderful that this woman shares not only Colleen’s vocal approach to folk and country, but also her graceful blonde good looks.

Here’s Lynne, aiming squarely for the mainstream roots/ country/folk market:



Colleen Peterson won Juno Awards as “most promising artist” twice – ten years apart.



DAVID BAXTER — Patina — Proper Channels PC-002. The veteran Toronto-based producer, songwriter, guitarist, session player and sometime music publisher will release his second album in a couple of weeks. Best line: “One of these days I’m gonna buy a new guitar — safer than a woman, cheaper than a car.”

THE BREAKMEN — Heartwood — Independent BR 21604, This Vancouver four-piece started out as a bluegrass band. This one sounds more like The Band or Blue Rodeo.

LOREENA McKENNITT — The Wind that Shakes the Barley — Quinlan Road (Universal). One of Canada’s best-selling international artists delivers a collection of mostly Irish traditional material, reminiscent of her debut lo these 15 years ago. Release date: November 16.