Winnipeg folk legend's five highlights over five decades

Mitch Podolak has spent the past fifty years in the folk music business. Last night at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in Calgary, he was presented with the Unsung Hero Award to recognize his achievements.
Mitch Podolak is the Unsung Hero at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. (Sandra Thacker/CBC)

Mitch Podolak has spent the past 50 years in the folk music business. He is a co-founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and is also behind the creation of Winnipeg's West End Cultural Centre.

Last night at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in Calgary, he was presented with the Unsung Hero Award to recognize his achievements.

Podolak says his work is his life. "I come from a political, musical family" he told CBC Up to Speed host Ismaila Alfa. "When I was 13 my older sister gave me tickets to a folk music festival at Massey Hall in Toronto. I didn't want to go to that! She said 'come on you'll have a good time.' Well, it changed my life."

SCENE wanted to know which moments stand out over the past 50 years.

Jazz singer and guitarist Leon Redbone (CBC)
Leon Redbone
When I was working at the Bohemian Embassy Coffee House in Toronto, I got to book a lot of artists with Folklore Productions of Boston. Eight years later when I was starting the Winnipeg Folk Festival I phoned them up. The agent there, a woman named Beryl Handler talked me into hiring this guy who I didn't know was her husband. It was Leon Redbone.

When he played at the Winnipeg Folk Festival that guy got a 22 minute standing ovation. And of course he wouldn't go on to do an encore. It was part of his shtick. But it was such an amazing cheer. I've never before or since ever seen an audience react that way.

Jane Vasey (1949-1982)
For the very first Vancouver Folk Festival we had the Downchild Blues Band with Jane Vasey. She was the most stupendous piano player I think I ever met. She was on a blues workshop with Roosevelt Sykes. Sykes was the Honey Dripper. He was a great band leader and New Orleans jazz piano player. And they had to share the piano. She played her first tune and Sykes stood up, took his hat off in the most gallant, gentlemanly way and he tipped his hat to Jane Vasey.

It was a superb moment in the history of folk music in Canada because there was this old master getting blown off the stage by this young woman who was a superb musician. It's one of my very favourite moments.

Queen Ida and The Bon Temps Zydeco Band
In 1978 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a friend of mine in Minneapolis played me an album by Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band. I hired her to come up to the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Legendary Queen Ida and The Bon Temps Zydeco Band (Youtube)
Bill Merritt and I were out collecting money from the rent at the food booths that Saturday night. Anybody and everybody who was anywhere near where you could hear the stage started to dance. I've never seen it before and I've never seen it since. The entire place began to bop. And the whole place bopped for forty minutes. It was an insane moment. One of those moments that come and go. You remember it like it was yesterday. That was one of the most exciting moments of my life to tell you the truth.
Scottish folk singer Archie Fisher (CBC)
Archie Fisher
It was 1976. Archie Fisher was third up on the Sunday night. He's kind of like a Scottish crooner - a bloody traditional guy but he really has the most beautiful voice. And he really relishes singing.

He was doing a pleasant enough set. Then he said 'here's a song from a Scottish writer who lives in Australia. He's not a great singer but he sure is a great writer'. That of course was Eric Bogle. Archie sang Waltzing Matilda and it was the first time anybody in Canada had ever heard it.

It was such a powerful piece of writing. You could hear a pin drop on that field when Archie sang that song. By the second verse, everybody had shut up because they realized they were listening to something pretty interesting.

Stan Rogers
Paul Mills who was the producer of a CBC radio show called Touch the Earth put up $16,000 that started the Winnipeg Folk Festival. I went to Toronto to visit Paul after that first festival. He told me he wanted to take me to a coffee house to hear this young songwriter. It was Stan Rogers. I was blown away by this guy's writing. So there we were at two o'clock in the morning at a Chinese Restaurant on Dundas, eating and talking. Stan Rogers was a pretty amazing character. So I hired him for the second folk festival.

A couple years after he died, Paul and I had an agreement that we were going to make sure people didn't forget him. It was about the time we opened the West End Cultural Centre. So we did a show with 14 acts doing two songs each. That night it was a total blizzard but it sold out. People showed up on skis, snowshoes, skidoos. The old West End was packed to the walls.

And afterwards we had a party at my house. We had a party. And we remembered Stan real well.


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