Mariposa Folk Festival

by Renny Blocker
Connections (U of Wisconsin)
September 24, 1968

It is a great feeling to find a place where folk musicians are respected and accepted. The Mariposa Folk Festival located on Centre Island (a short ferry trip from Toronto) was packed with good musicians and a receptive audience. Since little is done to promote folk music or even give people a chance to hear it on the radio, folk festivals such as this one have been created to carry on the folk tradition. Mariposa generally did not have commercial groups and was designed to give everyone an opportunity to hear performers and discuss with different ones all fields of folk music. It was well planned and included traditional music, bluegrass, blues (rural, urban and contemporary), poetry, ethnology, contemporary folk music, Dixieland, dancers and crafts. There were police, one Mountie and rent-a-cops all over the grounds, but there were no incidents. In fact, all of Canada had a lack of restrictive signs. However, the park commissioner, Tommy Thompson, did have signs scattered at Mariposa which read "Please Walk on the Grass."

Mr Thompson opened the festival with a slightly bawdy song, stated his grass motto, and strolled away. The festival ran from August 9 to 11, with workshops until 5:00 each day and concerts at night.

Bukka White's concert performances were almost as casual as his workshops.. He is a man who seems to love his music first and everything else second. Bukka plays a style of "Mississippi Delta Blues, " with guitar work accompanying the singer rather than a distinct melody line, and he goes out of his way to explain this. His favourite song is "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues," which he plays every time he gathers a group around him. On this piece he is quite a showman and the audience can't sit still. The louder they cheer him, the more he beams.

Canadian bred Joni Mitchell added a great deal to the concerts by her completely original material and use of different tunings for each of her songs. Her best song, "Urge for Goin'," was filled with beautifully written poetic images:

"I woke up today and found frost perched on the town;
It hovered in a frozen sky and gobbled summer down...."

"When the leaves fell tremblin' down
Bully winds did rub their faces in the snow...."

The Travellers who followed Joni Mitchell opened with her "Circle Game," which they plugged as their new single. It is commercial groups like this, composed of poor musicians in it for the money, who have given folk music a name of mediocrity. Fortunately , these Canadians saw through the disguise and either left or politely vegetated until the group finished.

An outstanding young musician, Steve Gillette, was called "a Southern California version of Gordon Lightfoot" by Peter Harris of the Toronto Star. This seems to be an accurate statement with the exception that Gillette strikes me as a much more accomplished guitarist than Lightfoot. His new blues-influenced piece was particularly well-performed, and he dazzled the audience during the unfortunately brief time allotted him.

Oscar Brand concluded the first concert with a 30-minute tribute to Woody Guthrie. He also helped explain Guthrie's perspective by commenting on the original material for his songs. For example, Brand sang a beautiful old ballad, and discussed the sinking of the "Reuben James" and Woody's change of attitude about World War II, resulting in Guthrie's song "Reuben James" built on this ballad. Brand said the metamorphosis of this song made him irate and he told Woody so, to no avail. Woody was very much opposed to the establishment. The relevance of this opposition was brought out when Brand later mentioned how Woody would have scoffed at the posthumous honors he was awarded by the State Department.

The biggest and best part of the festival consisted of dozens of workshops ranging from mandolin with Frank Wakefield to Indian dances of several tribes, to Canadian folklore with Edith Fowke, to blues with Howlin' Wolf. The most outstanding workshops were presented by Mike Cooney, Steve Gillette, and Bukka White. Bukka's workshops were conducted as his concerts were, with the addition of questions by the audience.

Folklorist Mike Cooney, who just lost his last C.O. appeal, presented his Leadbelly workshop by relating Leadbelly's life story and supplementing it with the songs Leadbelly sang. Cooney played an old Stella (original) 12 string, tuned it down about three frets, and played with "bridge cables" for strings. He closely imitated Leadbelly's style and brought out several interesting points about him, the first being that Leadbelly sang minor songs in a major key because he didn't know how to play minor chords. Leadbelly's jail experiences produced two unusual songs: the first to Governor Pat Neff of Texas, who pardoned him on his last day in office; the other, which was the rewritten Pat Neff song, was recorded for Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen, who pardoned him into the hands of Folk Song Collector John Lomax. Lomax used Leadbelly as his chauffeur and had him sing for him. Leadbelly ends one song:

"If anybody asks you who wrote this song, it was Hudie Ledbetter, been here and gone; If anybody asks you who copywrite this song, it was John Lomax and his godden son."

So Leadbelly lived most of his life under the control of others. In fact, he was often prevented from singing new material he had heard and liked, such as "Springtime in the Rockies," made popular by Gene Autry.

In Steve Gillette's question and answer workshop, he broke down his incredible combination of flat picking and finger picking with equally incredible modesty. As a solo performer he's a perfectionist in his guitar work and won't make another record until he's completely satisfied. Gillette is opposed to electric guitars and orchestration in his music although he is open-minded and recommends that people consider every kind of music they can and use what they want from that.

A workshop-type concert was presented on Sunday afternoon and consisted of new singer-songwriters, most of whom were mediocre to poor. Saskatchewan's Vera Johnson, however, was so outstanding that she was included in the regular evening concert as well. Middle-aged Vera is perceptive and witty, and each song SAYS something. She wrote one of her topical songs when she was in England at the same time as Billy Graham, who told English students to trade their drugs for Christ. The song is hilariously satiric and the chorus says:

"Come get your daily shots from Jesus,
Don't rely on pot or LSD,
Christ can give a thrill
Like a needle never will,
Come and get your kicks from Calvary..."

Another of her songs was written against the persecution of hippies, while other songs praised Muhammad Ali, Che, and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Vera can be compared to Malvina Reynolds, except for her reputation, which just began at Mariposa.

The festival was very successful, mostly because each person's likes were included in the programming. The quality of the performers was overall the best I've seen, because they were interested in their music and not just being promoted. Folk music is a concrete form of music and even the good contemporary type will live to have an historic meaning. Folk festivals, such as this one, make it possible.

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link:

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