Edmonton Folk Fest: How Did We Get Here?

It may be hard to believe after more than 15 years of sellouts, but the Edmonton Folk Music Festival wasn’t always the summertime behemoth that it has become. It came close to the brink of failure a number of times, and its history is laden with debt, disaster and intrigue, in addition to its many triumphs.

In 1980, with the province celebrating its 75th anniversary, an idea was hatched by Don Whalen and Mitch Podolak to hold a folk festival in Edmonton. Podolak had been the artistic director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival since its beginnings in 1974 and was an early booster of Edmonton’s festival, driving the immense prairie distances from his home in Manitoba to Alberta’s capital in order to meet with government members and organizers. Whalen, the EFMF’s first artistic director, cut his teeth booking folk acts at the Hovel, a now-legendary venue that operated throughout the 1970s on Jasper Avenue and 109 Street.

“Don really was the motivating person behind getting one going in Edmonton and Mitch was also very motivating,” recalls Holger Petersen, president and founder of the venerable Stony Plain Records and EFMF’s first chairman of the board. “He started to come to Edmonton to meet with a small group of us that would go meet with members of city council and Horst Schmid, who was the minister of culture in the Lougheed government. Then Don put together a small group of volunteers and a board and got the ball rolling. That built up to the first festival.”

The government granted the fledgling organization $89 000 out of the $75 million it had set aside for anniversary celebrations and planning began in earnest. Gold Bar Park was selected as the site of the first festival, and most of the acts—as well as the PA system—came thanks to a concurrent anniversary folk celebration, the Travelling Goodtime Alberta Medicine Show, which was, curiously enough, organized by Podolak.

“The province, in the anniversary year, donated some money to have a school bus full of artists travelling around Alberta performing,” Petersen says of a festival that included the likes of Sylvia Tyson, Connie Kaldor and Stan Rogers. “That was the nucleus of the first Edmonton Folk Music Festival.”

The second year didn’t go nearly as smoothly. Funding didn’t come through immediately for the festival and it looked as if 1980’s celebration might be a one-time event. Through the persistent lobbying of Whalen, however, SummerFest—the board set up to fund Edmonton’s summer festivals—decided to give the festival $15 000 after first refusing to fund it.

The festival was also deeply in debt, despite the original grant and SummerFest’s new support—a condition that would be cured by the 1981 festival, but which would continue to dog the fest during its early years. After 1981, EFMF’s funding became more or less assured and the festival found a permanent home in Gallagher Park.

By 1985, however, the festival faced perhaps its greatest crisis. A month after that year’s festival, Whalen pleaded not guilty to three counts of gross indecency, charges he was later convicted of. Most of the staff quit. Negative publicity mounted and the festival’s future looked bleak. Something would have to be done.

Holger Petersen reluctantly stepped in. He went from being chairman of the board to being the festival’s artistic director, a position he agreed to stay in for three years.

“I had no ambitions to be the artistic director but was kind of talked into it by the board on an interim basis,” he notes. “I had other jobs on the side and it wasn’t like I needed another job—Stony Plain Records was starting to gain some momentum as a result of Ian Tyson’s Cowboyography which was a huge record, I was still doing a show on CKUA as I have been for over 40 years—but I took it on and I absolutely loved doing it for the next three years.”

The festival hired a general manager—Andy Laskiwsky, the founder of the Hovel—to take on the day-to-day operations and allow Petersen to focus on the music. But the real problem was the immense debt the festival was in. Without Whalen, creditors figured the festival couldn’t survive and were calling in debts they might have been willing to wait for in other circumstances. The festival had to pay back more than $50 000.

A number of benefit bingos were held. A concert featuring Rita McNeil and Spirit of the West was organized to raise funds. Creditors were convinced to either turn the debts into charitable donations or wait to be paid. Petersen begged artists to play for the small amount of money he could muster.

“I really called in as many favours as I could … we really were getting artists for the absolute minimum that they would come and perform for and help us out during the festival,” he recalls. “If I look back at some of those budgets nowadays you just shake your head. It’s incredible that we had people like the Robert Cray Band coming in for $1500.”

Under Whalen’s direction the festival had been largely an acoustic affair, the classic idea of what makes a folk fest. Petersen opened it up to many of the blues artists and Texas singer-songwriters he was interested in and working with through Stony Plain Records.

“I thought that we should do it differently because we’re a different city and I always thought that blues would be a bigger part of the picture and at the time I was really aware of Texas singer-songwriters,” he says. “I was working with John Prine and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Doug Sahm and I quickly became aware of Lyle Lovett and his first record and so many others. They loved coming up here and being part of it.”

Petersen also formalized the volunteer parties that have become a huge part of the festival and are often the home of the best jams of the weekend.

“The other festivals that had been going on were doing volunteer parties at the host hotel but they were never very well organized—they were like a drop-in situation and a lot of time they were a bust,” Petersen says, recalling that making the rehearsal room and the party room one and the same meant there would be full sound and production in the party room. “Then it was a matter of scheduling artists who would appear at the festival but also schedule them to appear onstage at the parties. That kind of gave the whole party thing a lift: we had some amazing jams and continue to. Some of the best music is at those parties.”

Perhaps Petersen’s greatest contribution, however, was solidifying Ian Tyson’s Alberta anthem “Four Strong Winds” as the festival’s closing number. Over the years it has been led by the likes of Tyson himself, k.d. lang, Bill Bourne and Corb Lund among many others.

“The Winnipeg Folk Festival and I think Vancouver were using ‘Barrett’s Privateers,’ which was a great Stan Rogers song about the Halifax pier, but I just thought, ‘That doesn’t comply with where we are, who we are, and it just seems like that’s the most famous Alberta song by an Albertan so it just seems so obvious,’” Petersen says.

Petersen’s three years were up after the 1988 festival and he and the board began to search for his replacement, a search that kept coming back to Calgary concert promoter Terry Wickham. There was only one problem: Wickham didn’t want the job.

“I had my own company in Calgary and it wasn’t a big company but I was doing concerts. It wasn’t providing a great living but it was providing a living,” Wickham says. “I had my friends there, we had a little house, we’d just had a baby and when Holger said, ‘Would you be interested in taking it over?’ I said, ‘That’s really nice, but I want to live in Calgary.’”

Months of searching continued to prove fruitless for the folk fest, however, and finally somebody convinced Wickham to apply for the job, which he’d only accept on the condition he be able to do it from his home in Calgary. The festival accepted that and the arrangement was made. On his way back home, however, everything changed for Wickham.

“As we were driving back I was saying to my wife, ‘You don’t have to spend that much time in Edmonton … we’ve got the new baby and everything,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t we just move to Edmonton?’ and I said, ‘Well, I thought you didn’t want to move to Edmonton,’” he laughs. “So I got the job on Saturday and said I’m going to live in Calgary, drove back on the Sunday and then the CBC phones me on the Monday—and you know the CBC, they’re always trying to look for whatever—and they said, ‘We hear you’re going to live in Calgary,’ and I said, ‘No actually, that’s not the case. It was yesterday, but now it’s not.’”

With his residence settled, Wickham turned his attention to the festival’s longtime money problem: like Petersen, Wickham inherited a festival deeply in debt.

“The festival was $60 000 in debt—it didn’t have a pot to piss in,” he recalls. “We had free office space over at Ortona Armoury and if you sold everything you’d be lucky to get $1000. We hadn’t paid our T-shirt supplier from the year before. We hadn’t paid our travel agent. Long distance calls? We could barely afford them.”

Wickham’s first action was to raise ticket prices. It was divisive—the board only voted 5-4 in favour of it—but it was not only necessary to keep the festival alive, it just made sense. At the time, the $25 price of a festival pass would barely buy you a ticket to a popular show at the Jubilee, but it was somehow expected to buy a whole weekend of music. Wickham moved the price up a little at a time while concentrating on making the lineup better year after year so that no one would notice.

“I couldn’t go from a $30 ticket price to a $90 ticket price in one year—I had to be patient,” he says. “So we kept raising the price by $5, $10, but the trick with us is that every time we raised the ticket price we also raised the artistic budget. And sometimes we even raised the artistic budget by $100 000 but didn’t raise the ticket price because we were doing OK.”

A walk on site led to the discovery of spots for additional stages which would increase the value of a weekend pass. In 1993, Wickham expanded the site and added Thursday to the weekend in order to better the experience at little cost.
“If you think about it, the site’s already built, the staff’s already there, the publicity’s already paid, it doesn’t cost that much to add a Thursday night,” he says. “Now we could really focus on talent that night and as long as you brought in the same amount of money that’s spent, you’re not losing any money,”

Wickham and the EFMF staff worked to bring in new sponsors, make deals for office equipment and chip away at the deficit. There were also a number of innovative ideas to raise funds.

“The whole candle idea, these people lighting candles, it’s a nice tradition now but the catalyst for that is we bought a whole bunch of candles at 25 cents and sold them for 50 cents,” Wickham recalls. “It was a fundraiser—burn away the deficit.”

Whereas Petersen had brought in the blues and the Texas singer-songwriters, Wickham skewed the festival towards younger tastes and brought in acts from around the world. During his first years as artistic director, Wickham booked acts as diverse as Benin singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo, Irish fiddler Paddy Glackin, alternative bands Violent Femmes and Crash Test Dummies, and a 21-year-old Sarah McLachlan.

The folk fest has existed as long as it has—and come to be the way that it is—through the hard work of more than just its three artistic directors. Staff, performers, countless volunteers as well as committed patrons are all collectively responsible for the festival we have, one that is unique in terms of programming, in terms of location, in terms of attendance and in terms of quality in North America, perhaps the world.

“It’s a good gig. It’s become an easier gig,” reflects Wickham. “We’ve laid all the groundwork really well. It’s like planting a garden: we planted the right seeds. We used to watch it and go, ‘Oh, we sold 64 000 weekend passes, and then 72 and then 75,’ so it was a constant improvement.

“Somebody has to fly around the world and listen to folk music and drink beer and it might as well be me,” he laughs. “I have no intention of retiring in the next while as long as I can keep it thriving and healthy. That’s what turns my crank is to make it as good as it can be and hopefully the leading folk festival in the world—which I think it is.”

This article couldn’t have been written without the help of Playing the Field: The Story of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, by Rod Campbell (B Evan White, 1994).

Originally published in Vue Weekly, August 4, 2011 and on our website August 5th, 2014.

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