Programming the Calgary Folk Festival, Part I
The Calgary Folk Festival was founded by Mitch Podolak, founder of the Winnipeg and Edmonton Festivals, in 1980. Podolak, known for creating the Western Canadian festival format of main and side stages (also seen earlier at Mariposa) and the communal approach to deciding on, dividing, and doing work, partnered with the head of the Calgary Folk Club (CFC), Mansel Davies, to appeal to the Lougheed-led Conservative government for festival funding that would amplify celebrations surrounding Alberta’s 75th anniversary. The festival continued to operate as a branch of the CFC, plagued throughout the 1980s by bad weather and dwindling audiences, not to mention perpetual arguments over what should and should not be allowed as folk programming. Vic Bell, head of the Nickelodeon Music Club, took over as Artistic Director in the early 1990s, separated the festival from the management of the CFC, and incorporated it as a non-profit organization.
But in the mid-1990s, the CFF needed a new spark, one that would pull it out of debt and entice audiences to give up a rare weekend of warm weather in Calgary. Terry Wickham, then producer of the Edmonton Folk Festival, was brought on as consulting producer, Kerry Clarke was hired as the Festival’s Artistic Director, and the tides began to turn. By bringing in headlining acts such as Jann Arden, Kris Kristofferson, Macy Gray, and Blue Rodeo, the Festival began to sell out in the late 90s and early 2000s. At the same time, it was bringing in more and more acts from around the world, showcasing an incredible diversity of acts to audiences who may have only intended to see their mainstream favourites.
The Festival came under fire for daring to suggest that Gray or Arrested Development constituted “folk” music, resurrecting the worn argument from the folk revival era that only Anglo-derived, acoustic, largely political/topical songs equals folk. This argument ignored the rich traditions of Calgary’s immigrant communities, some dating back several generations, never mind the folk music from around the world that in no way fit into such a narrow definition. Proponents of the Festival’s diversifying approach also heralded the inclusion of more popular acts who actively recognized their musical roots by reviving old songs in singing circles or who eagerly mixed with a variety of musicians to create intoxicating fusions during workshops.
les siemieniuk, the Festival’s General Manager, suggests that the definition of folk music has opened up in recent years, partly due to the programming practices of festivals like Calgary. siemieniuk’s idea that there’s “folk by style and folk by attitude,” allows for a vast array of performers to appear comfortably at the Festival.
By hiring headlining acts on the premise of “spending money to make money,” the festival moved from being a grassroots, small-scale event to one that appealed to a cross-section of Calgarians. A city with a rapidly growing population, and the desire to keep the festival meaningful to its audience has necessitated the presence of these headliners. And while those performers may be a central draw for the audience, they do remain a smaller percentage of the total performers at any given festival, around 20-25%.
Has our definition of folk music changed alongside festivals like Calgary? Or should the Festival be re-branded as something else? Roots? Traditional? Just plain Music?