Mariposa Folk Foundation | History


To paraphrase a silly advertising expression from the 70’s: it’s come a long way, baby!


Chick Roberts, a performer and Mariposa supporter, said something in 1985 that still holds true: “The history of Mariposa is not any one person, it’s the history of an idea. Changing hands over and over again, Mariposa becomes like a folk tale…. The myth survives and continues to fire the blood.”

The Sixties

In 1961 at the peak of the folk revival that saw the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary rise to prominence, the concept of a folk festival was revolutionary. Ruth Jones, using the Newport Folk Festival as a template, decided that Orillia could put on a festival and in ways beyond her imagining, she founded what has become a Canadian institution.

The first two Festivals were successful, peaceful and showcased the likes of The Travellers, Bonnie Dobson and Ian & Sylvia. The third one, in 1963, was another story altogether. Festival attendees outnumbered the town’s citizens; rowdy after-show “festivities” spilled onto town streets, and police could not cope with some of the drunken and unruly behavior. As a result, town council banned the Festival from Orillia.

In 1964, a last-minute arrangement was made to put on the Festival at an aging baseball stadium in Toronto. Gordon Lightfoot and Buffy Saint-Marie played that year (the Mariposa archives house a recording of Lightfoot introducing his new song, “Early Morning Rain”).

In 1965, the Festival moved to Innis Lake, northwest of Toronto, where Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell (née Anderson) appeared. The Folk Festival was held there for the next three years and featured some of the all-time folk greats: Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Under the direction of Estelle Klein, workshops became the predominant type of performance. This innovation was eventually adapted by most folk festivals in Canada and the USA.

In 1967 Leonard Cohen, Buddy Guy, Tom Rush, Richie Havens and Murray McLauchlan played the Festival. 1968 saw the event continue its nomadic ways as it moved to the Toronto Islands, a short ferry ride from downtown. Emphasis was placed on the workshops, the crafts and demonstrations, and it was estimated that over 15,000 people came to experience the event over the weekend. That was the year that Murray McLauchlan introduced the “smiling sun” logo, replacing the initial logo that Ian Tyson had designed for the Festival’s first year.

In 1969, Joan Baez was the headline act and it was the first year that the Festival actually made a profit. Protest songs were the prevalent type of music heard that year.

In the space of eight short years, Mariposa had not only survived but had thrived through an era of changing musical styles, disruption of the status quo, radical political upheaval and cultural revolution. True to its deceptive simplicity and its intellectual honesty, folk music remained a dynamic force and Mariposa seemed to demonstrate that strongly.

The Seventies

The seventies, for Mariposa at least, opened hopefully and with abundant energy and potential. It was the era of the “singer-songwriter” as Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell hit their stride and popularized the singer with a guitar genre. One of the all-time greats in that category, James Taylor, played the Festival in 1970 for a tiny fraction of what his normal fee was because then-girlfriend Joni told him it was “the cool thing to do”.

The 1972 Festival has gone down in history for the surprise visit of icons Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan, and unannounced performances by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

As special as that was for the audience, Estelle Klein felt that too much focus on big name stars was straying from the mission statement of the Festival: The promotion and preservation of folk art in Canada through song, story, dance and craft. She led the Festival away from evening concerts and placed more focus on things like the Native Peoples area, the children’s area, the crafts area and educational workshops. She spearheaded the Mariposa in the Schools program. More and more of the entertainers came from as far away as Africa, Ireland and the southern USA, and showcased music that was new and different to the audience’s experience. Francophone acts continued to be a mainstay of the Festival and Toronto Island was securely the home of Mariposa. The organizers began to tape and archive performances and to publish regular newsletters.

Despite rain that plagued many of the festivals in that decade, attendance remained remarkably consistent and the media – mostly newspapers – gave the event the publicity it needed to stay in the public eye. Photos of the festivals show a young demographic characteristic of that Baby Boom era.

Among the well-known entertainers who graced Mariposa’s stages at that time were John Prine, Steve Goodman, Bruce Cockburn, Willie Dunn, John Allan Cameron, David Amram, Rita McNeil, the McGarrigle Sisters, Taj Mahal and Stan Rogers.

Ken Whiteley took over the artistic direction in 1978 and diversified the lineup by bringing in acts that were not strictly “folk” such as The Downchild Blues Band and Leon Redbone. Storytelling had become a standard at the Festival as well.

1979 was the final year for Mariposa on Toronto Island. The musical tastes of younger people were changing and because so many longtime Mariposa goers were having children, there was less enthusiasm for inclement weather and the logistics of spending an entire day keeping young children entertained. Mariposa was growing up.

The Eighties

The decade was one of ups and downs in the Festival’s fortunes. In the new world of Much Music videos and big hair, the folkies had a tough time holding on to a big audience. The 1980 Festival was deemed too small to take over Olympic Island anymore so a smaller – shall we say more intimate – Festival was held at Harborfront in Toronto.

There were great plans for twentieth anniversary celebrations but poor ticket sales and (once again) inclement weather meant that most events were disappointing financially though not artistically.

The early eighties saw innovations such as Mariposa in the Woods and a strong focus on Aboriginal culture. In 1981, Estelle Klein resigned as Artistic Director. Her leadership, insight and vision had driven the Festival over its first two decades and she rightly deserves a place of honour for her contribution to the Canadian arts scene. Folk festivals all across North America have borrowed ideas from Estelle and Mariposa.

Weather was a factor in the eighties as it had been throughout the seventies. Rain kept crowds away; it was as simple as that. In fact, things were so bad financially that no festival was held at all in 1982. Mariposa in the Schools split away from the parent organization in a dispute over money. Key organizers departed. There was actually a movement afoot to end the Festival and cease operation at one of the Annual General Meetings. It took a determined effort by a number of dedicated enthusiasts to keep the Festival alive.

In 1984, a savior of sorts, namely Molson Breweries, approached Mariposa organizers about moving the event to Molson Park in Barrie. A few meters off the main highway to Toronto, and with lots of trees and open spaces, it seemed a good fit for a folk music festival. A modest crowd of 2000 people attended that year, enough to establish a home for the Festival for the next several years. By the time 1989 rolled around, crowds of 25,000 were commonplace.

Big names played the Festival those years. Jackson Browne, then at the peak of his fame, was one star attraction. Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Odetta, Loreena McKennitt, Melissa Etheridge, Guy Clark, Ricky Skaggs, John Prine, Colleen Peterson, Lyle Lovett, Taj Mahal, Roger McGuinn, John Hartford, Tracy Chapman, Donovan, Arlo Guthrie and many more Canadian and international stars graced the Festival’s stages at a (brief) time in its history when the organization was flush with money. Those days have been rare indeed for the Festival and the Foundation unfortunately.

The Nineties

During the final year in Barrie, unseasonable cold and rain spoiled the fun and the Festival became mired in debt. A film of that particular Festival, Mariposa: Under a Stormy Sky was made of the event and chronicles the performances of the likes of Emmylou Harris, Buddy Guy and Murray McLauchlan. It also shows how rainy and miserable it was that year. To make matters worse, Mariposa and Molson parted company, and the Festival found itself on the road once again as it entered its third decade.

For Mariposa, Toronto was set to be home for the rest of the decade but it was a home that saw lots of ups and downs financially and a detour here and there. Ontario Place was the site of the 1991 Festival. Now marketing itself as “The Festival of Roots Music”, there were definitely some adjustments to be made in terms of volunteer base, budgets, dates and other logistics.

Dave Van Ronk, Jane Sibbery, Ani diFranco, Great Big Sea, the Barenaked Ladies, Oscar Brand, Moxy Fruvous and John Prine all put in appearances on Mariposa stages throughout those years, attesting to the fact that some of the all-time greats made their way to Mariposa.

In 1992, the Festival took over nearly all of Ontario Place, even using the HMCS Haida as a stage.

1993 saw a move back to Olympic Island (as well as evening shows at the El Mocambo, the Horseshoe Tavern and other downtown venues). The focus of the music that year was on Latin America, First Nations and the music of Quebec.

In 1994 the tradition of putting together a CD of selected Festival performers began. In 1995 the tragic subway crash that killed or injured a number of people coincided with the Festival. Not only was the tone around the city subdued, but a lack of transportation may have hurt the Festival attendance. A debt of over $50,000 was incurred, employees were laid off and bankruptcy loomed for the organization—not that it hadn’t been down that road before!

In 1996, organizers tried a new tactic and held not one, but TWO Festivals! One took place in Bracebridge, and a second one a month later, happened in Cobourg. “Mariposa in Muskoka” was a one-day event in 1997. By 1999, Mariposa was reduced to a one-day free event “from noon ’till (sic) dusk” in the Parkdale section of Toronto. The nearly forty-year-old Festival was limping badly and in need of a healthy change of scenery.