Sylvia Tyson played the first Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1974 and is back for 2013. (Silvia Pecota)
It was really the beginning of an era, especially for singer/songwriters.
—Sylvia Tyson, musician
Sylvia Tyson is a lot more selective about the shows she plays these days, but the 72-year-old Canadian folk legend couldn't say no to the 40th Winnipeg Folk Festival.
You see, Tyson was there when it all began in 1974 as a one-off event to celebrate Winnipeg's centennial. As an established singer/songwriter and one-half of the popular folk duo Ian & Sylvia with husband Ian Tyson, she was at the festival as a marquee performer -- and she was representing the brand new folk music show she was hosting on CBC Radio, the groundbreaking Touch the Earth.
Paul Mills, Tyson's producer at CBC, told her, 'You should meet this guy, Mitch Podolak.' Her first impression of the dynamic Winnipeg Folk Festival founder was the same as most people who encounter him.
"He's a force of nature," she says with a laugh. "The first festival was his baby. He really had a vision for it. It was carried out and continues to be."
The Winnipeg Folk Festival, combined with the debut of of a landmark radio show, made for an exciting, game-changing time in Canadian music.
"It was really the beginning of an era, especially for singer/songwriters," Tyson says. "And Touch the Earth was a national platform we didn't have before."
When Tyson began her career in 1959, it certainly wasn't easy being a singer/songwriter. "There was nothing," she says. "I told my parents I was going to Toronto to be a folk singer and my dad said, 'Well, you can always come home and get married.'"
Being a self-described "brat," Tyson was determined to make it work. Like so many singer/songwriters of the day, Ian & Sylvia focused their energy south of the border. "People ask, 'How come you didn't play Canada more?' But there was nowhere to play," she says.
"There were eight or 10 college shows you could do a year and the clubs didn't pay very much. We worked quite a lot in the States."
Fast forward 40 years and Canada's music scene is populated by singer/songwriters who have been able to carve out viable careers thanks in no small part to trailblazing events like the one that happened in Birds Hill Park in 1974.
"The only festival at the time was Mariposa," Tyson says, referencing the so-called Grand Dame of Folk Festivals in Orilla, Ont., which debuted in 1961 and served as the inspiration for the WFF. "We got four shows out of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The Winnipeg Folk Festival sparked a whole bunch of other festivals -- Edmonton, Vancouver, Owen Sound, Calgary. All of those came out of it. It really was something special."
Sylvia Tyson performs at Spruce Hollow at noon and Bur Oak at 4 p.m. on Friday; and Bur Oak at 4 p.m. on Saturday.