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Terminal City Confidential: The history of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

By Susanne Tabata
Photo: Courtesy of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Photo: Courtesy of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Folk Music Festival is in its 39th year. Success follows a format, but for co-founder Gary Cristall, the earliest festivals relied on gut instinct. In an homage to the past, Cristall traces its roots, blending politics, protest, and music.

“To some degree we didn’t know what we were doing and to some degree we did,” says Cristall, who co-founded the festival along with Mitch Podolak.

The two drew on templates from their predecessors, starting with the 1961 Mariposa Festival in Orillia, ON, followed by Newport Rhode Island Festival in 1969.

Hortensia Allende (widow of Salvador Allende), left, and Gary Cristall, 1973. Photo: Sharon Tamaro

Hortensia Allende (widow of Salvador Allende), left, and Gary Cristall, 1973.
Photo: Sharon Tamaro

The two met in Toronto where Podolak was running the now legendary 1960s, avant-garde Bohemian Embassy Coffee Pot cafe. Both were involved in far left politics; Vietnam had ended May Day 1975. They were both fervently against imperialist intervention in Central America. Cristall had even studied Latin American history at SFU and lived in Chili in 1972-73. His secular Jewish background was tied to his love of culture. His parents were communists and the last generation to believe in the October Revolution. This suited the times, the music, and the Folk Festival.

VFMF co-founders Mitch Pololak, left, and Gary Cristall. 1979. Photo: Glen Erickson

VFMF co-founders Mitch Pololak, left, and Gary Cristall. 1979.
Photo: Glen Erickson

Cristall credits Mitch Podolak for first doing the Winnipeg Folk Festival, along with Colin Gorrie. “He wanted to do one in Vancouver and approached me. ‘I’ll book it and you run it.’ I thought he was bullshitting me. The easiest way to deal with it was to say ‘sure.’ I was just finishing a bachelor of arts and getting ready to go to graduate school in Latin American history. Mitch tracked me down at Stanford University and said, ‘OK, we’re on.’”

Ernie Fladdell was the social planner at the City of Vancouver and had run the Habitat Festival in 1977, which was a huge success.

“He meets with Mitch and Colin and buys the idea of doing a children’s fest and Folk Fest. The office was at the front of City Hall. There we were. Today it would be impossible to do what we did. Young kids running a couple of festivals in City Hall. We went ahead with it. We took a lot of things Mitch had taken from Mariposa and invented a few of our own.”

The first year was held in Stanley Park. “Every time we wanted to drive a tent peg we had three engineers telling us that we were either going to destroy the drainage tile for the cricket club or blow up the gas line in the harbor.

The weather was terrible. After six hours of rain they stood up and gave a standing ovation to the artists on stage. We were on to something. People were willing to pay good money to sit in mud and listen to this music. And we thought this was good and we got good reviews. So we did it again and the first thing we did was move the SOB to Jericho.”

2nd Folk Festival at Jericho Beach with Pied Pumpkin (Shari Ulrich, Rick Scott, Joe Mock). 1979. Photo: Courtesy of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

2nd Folk Festival at Jericho Beach with Pied Pumpkin
(Shari Ulrich, Rick Scott, Joe Mock). 1979.
Photo: Courtesy of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Cristall continues, “We did 10K in the first year and 16K in the second. The sun shone the second year. The Sandinistas [Nicaraguan Revolution] took power the weekend of the second festival, July 19, 1979. While I was running a festival I was also glued to the radio. We presented many groups from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and other Latin American artists.

“At that point we lost all of Ernie’s money and he said ‘you guys have got to go independent.’ And Mitch went on to do other things. Ernie said if you want it, it’s yours and if you don’t that will be it. Then he went on to do the kids fest and I ended up with the baby.

City worker (left) Lorenz Von Fersen and (right) Gary Cristall Photo: Glen Erickson

City worker Lorenz Von Fersen, left, and Gary Cristall. 1981.
Photo: Glen Erickson

“I went out and traded some programming for a little office at the Carnegie Centre. The Chieftains – the Irish group – we had done a show and their manager asked if we could do the Western North American tour: ‘If you can guarantee us 5K [sic] per night, you can take the rest,’” Cristall recalls being told. “We made a lot of money and were able to hire staff and do the third fest. The first day it rained and I thought that’s the end of this. The second day was sunny and we sold so many tickets that we had to turn people away at the gates. That’s kind of how it began.”

Folk Music is a bit of an umbrella. On the one hand real folk music can be described as rural pre-literate music from a non-capitalist society, passed on through the generations. On the other hand, it can be contemporary songs written outside of the music industry. This can mean a lot of things.

“When I took over, Utah Philips — a great American labour organizer, poet, and musician — said two things to me: ‘Remember you stand between the workers and their bread, [and] never give the audience what it wants; give them what you think they need.’ And that was my programming. I was having fun. I was the obnoxious asshole at the party who was playing their records. There was a small group of people internationally who knew each other and were passionate about the music and we knew each other. That’s also how it was booked.” Cristall explains.

Gary Cristall today.  Photo: Brian Nation

Gary Cristall today.
Photo: Brian Nation

“My attitude used to be (and I think this is true of any artistic director), ‘If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.’ And if you like it, I get to do it again. And I went on to do it for 15 years and then I did other things.”

Cristall is currently writing a book on folk music. He lives on Commercial Drive in Vancouver. “I said I’d take a year off and do this thing. I’m still on the year off in a way. Every now and then I guiltily look at my honors BA on the Chilean mutiny of 1971 and say ‘I could have written a book.’ The people I know who went on to academics are counting the minutes and I’m still having fun.”

On politics, Cristall says, “It’s hard to believe it’s the evil of two lessers. The American ruling class makes sure that whomever assumes that office has been given their instructions.” While on protest, he asks, “is there a mass movement dealing with what went on in Iraq? No. There was a huge demonstration just before Bush invaded. But I think that has gone out. There are many, many, many people who are passionately concerned about the environment.” When asked about the future, Cristall puts it simply: “Predicting the future is a fool’s game.”

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival runs July 15 to 17 at Jericho Beach Park. Special thanks to Gary Cristall, Gwen Kallio and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

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