A Successful Reprise
In 2000, for the first time since 1963, Mariposa Folk Festival returned to its original host community of Orillia. Artists, perennial supporters, new friends, the music industry, and a curious but generally welcoming local community celebrated the homecoming. Mariposa had attracted little media attention in recent years, but this time, as its 13th configuration and 39th festival neared, major media outlets were paying attention.
For years a determined group of local dreamers had lobbied the Mariposa Folk Foundation to bring Mariposa back to Orillia. By the fall of 1999, the Mariposa Folk Foundation was taking the idea seriously. Several members of the community formed a non-profit corporation called Festivals Orillia (FestO) with the intention of partnering with the Foundation. Towards the end of that year, Mariposa Folk Foundation and FestO signed a formal agreement to produce Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia for the next three years. Leaders in both organizations jumped into action, making arrangements for what would be its largest and most complex festival in years. They had a short seven months to make it happen.
One of the biggest challenges was that neither the fledgling FestO nor the Mariposa Folk Foundation had any money. What’s worse, the Mariposa Folk Foundation was carrying substantial debt on its books.
But thanks to a longstanding relationship between the president of the Mariposa Folk Foundation and a board member of the Philadelphia Folksong Society (producer of the Philadelphia Folk Festival), the Folksong Society granted FestO USD $3,000 – a favourable exchange rate of almost CAD $5,000. With that first and very important infusion of cash, FestO could begin making financial commitments for Mariposa Folk Festival 2000.
During the early weeks of planning, FestO considered whether to produce a modest event in Orillia, or recapture some of the Mariposa Folk Festival’s past stature with an event that would be important once again on the provincial festival calendar. The bolder vision won the day.
There was a lot of enthusiasm for restoring Mariposa Folk Festival to Orillia, but the return had its naysayers too. One of them was a renowned former artistic director of Mariposa Folk Festival, who chose not to attend the festival, and was quoted in The Globe and Mail on June 22, 2000, stating, “I don’t like sentimentality. I’m not given to nostalgia. I take what’s important from the past and move on.”
But Mariposa Folk Festival 2000 was an artistic, financial, organizational, and audience development success. A large base of loyal volunteers worked hard to ensure everything ran smoothly. The Mariposa Showcase auditions, a new programming initiative to discover up-and-coming and under-recognized artists, was a successful innovation. And despite a modest artistic budget and the festival’s well-known organizational and sustainability issues, Orillia native Gordon Lightfoot agreed to headline. With that show of faith, the festival in 2000 was able to command much-needed attention, sell tickets, and become financially viable.
The festival’s future was secure.
Soon after the 2000 festival was over, the presidents of FestO and Mariposa Folk Foundation worked towards merging the two organizations, and making Orillia the permanent home of Mariposa Folk Festival. They agreed to discontinue a one-day Toronto Mariposa Festival so that all resources could be focused on the resurgent Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia.
The two presidents faced internal political challenges within both organizations, particularly during the 1999-2001 period, and they worked together to manage personalities and general angst. Passions were high, relationships were new, and trust was still being built. Some among the Orillia contingent saw themselves as rescuers of the festival and the Toronto folk as obstacles. Others of the Mariposa Folk Foundation were concerned about being sidelined and felt the Orillians were assuming too much control.
The truth was that both sides desperately needed each other. The Orillians had energy, resources, and enthusiasm, and the Toronto folk had hard-to-replace artistic, production, and technical experience. Although the relationship had its challenges early on, it grew to become a strong, trusting, and lasting union.
Even before the three-year agreement between the two organizations expired, FestO disbanded and Mariposa Folk Foundation, with its long history, became the sole successor organization.
Stability At Last
Since 2000, Mariposa Folk Festival has encountered ups and downs, but—despite challenges, glitches, and internal squabbles along the way—overall it’s been a period of stability. In recent years, the festival has been on an upward trajectory and now hovers around maximum attendance, allowing the Mariposa Folk Foundation to build a significant financial reserve as protection against future shocks.
The relative calm and forward progress are a marked departure from some of Mariposa’s difficult past and a tribute to the strength of its volunteer leadership both on the board and among the Festival Organizing Group. The festival’s artistic direction has been remarkably stable as well, and headed up at different times by three volunteers.
Since 2000, Mariposa has delivered innovative, crowd-pleasing artistic surprises while consistently providing high quality folk/roots presentation based on the format pioneered at Innis Lake and fine-tuned at Toronto Island. It has kept faith and built loyalty with its core audience while attracting new attendees – people will buy tickets without even seeing the line-up because of Mariposa’s reputation.
Over the last two decades, Mariposa has grappled with the role of headliners on the festival bill. The magic of Mariposa and the rich experience the audience truly value, often happens during performances and workshops on the festival’s more intimate stages. But headliners on the evening Main Stage are critical to audience development and generating overall excitement. The perennial challenge has been to secure appropriate headliners that will complement and enhance the core artistic offering. In recent years, a proliferation of summer music festivals and events across North America has meant more competition for booking talent, making the challenge of landing headliners more daunting. Luckily, the Mariposa Folk Festival brand is strong and well-recognized in the music industry, giving the festival a competitive advantage.
Some of the notable artists who have performed at Mariposa Folk Festival since 2000 include: Alan Doyle, Arlo Guthrie, Barenaked Ladies, Billy Bragg, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Bruce Cockburn, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Colin James, Daniel Lanois, Don McLean, Downchild Blues Band, Emmylou Harris, Feist, Fred Penner, Gord Downie & The Country of Miracles, Gordon Lightfoot, Half Moon Run, Ian Tyson, Jann Arden, Jason Isbell, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, John McDermott, Johnny Clegg, Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Matt Andersen, Moxy Früvous, Murray McLauchlan, Rita Coolidge, Ron Sexsmith, Rosanne Cash, Serena Ryder, Stars, Steve Earle, Susan Aglukark, Sylvia Tyson, Taj Mahal, Tegan & Sara, The Milk Carton Kids, The New Pornographers, The Proclaimers, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider, and Walk Off The Earth.
Much of Mariposa Folk Festival’s success back in Orillia is attributable to its large base of loyal volunteers from the local area and elsewhere. The board of Mariposa Folk Foundation also tends to be comprised of locals and people from other communities in Ontario. Similarly, approximately 40 percent of the Mariposa audience is from the local region and about 60 percent travel from across Ontario, and other provinces, the United States, and abroad.
The Mariposa Showcase Auditions discovers emerging artists. Introduced in 2000, it has become a key feature of Mariposa Folk Festival. It serves an important practical utility, helping manage expectations among local artists dreaming of performing at Mariposa, who have to compete for the opportunity with others from across Ontario and sometimes further away. And it’s been instrumental in launching the careers of artists such as Dala and Union Duke.
In 2005, the festival inaugurated the Mariposa Hall of Fame to honour performers and volunteers who’ve made extraordinary contributions to the festival. The 30-plus inductions to date include pivotal artists from the festival’s 60-year history, the original founders of Mariposa Folk Festival, the four people most responsible for returning the festival to Orillia and securing its future there, and other notable volunteers.
In 2007, Mariposa Folk Foundation donated its archives of audio and video recordings, photos, programs, newsletters, posters, clothing, primary documents, and other items from Mariposa Folk Festival’s storied history to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University. Before then, the archives had been precariously stored in the basement of 1313 Queen Street West in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, a former police station and the location of the final Toronto office of the Mariposa Folk Foundation.
Mariposa’s archives are considered the largest and most comprehensive collection of folk festival memorabilia in Canada and one of the most important in North America. Selected pieces of the archives have been digitized by the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, and the Mariposa Folk Foundation is now exploring the feasibility of digitizing remaining items, particularly audio and video recordings, to protect them for posterity and make them accessible to researchers and academics.
As the next logical step along the path of its social mission, the 2009 Mariposa Folk Festival undertook a greening initiative that resulted in massive waste reduction. As of 2019, thanks to advances like banning single-use water bottles and mandating the use of compostable dishes and cutlery for food and beverage service, 84 percent of the festival’s waste is diverted from landfills and composted, recycled, or reused.
In recognition of its environmental leadership, Mariposa received a Sustainable Tourism Award from the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario. The festival also participated in a research project to study environmentally sustainable recreation practices in the Lake Simcoe watershed, conducted by Ryerson University and funded by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. A festival/event resource guide called A Guide to Green Festivals came out of the project, while the single-use water bottle ban inspired a local business to develop an infra-red water filtration/dispensing unit. The hydration station has become a staple service at festivals and events around the world.
During the first decade of Mariposa Folk Festival’s return to Orillia, camping on the festival site—the city-owned J.B. Tudhope Memorial Park—was restricted to festival volunteers. The City granted this permission in recognition that many volunteers travel from afar and accommodation in Orillia is typically sold out on Mariposa weekend.
For the festival in 2012, Mariposa received permission to open up camping to the general audience. For the first two years, tent camping was available in vacant pockets of the actual festival site, but camping proved so popular that Mariposa decided to consolidate it in the eastern acreage of the park. On festival weekend this treed area adjacent to Lake Couchiching is named the Peter Seeger Memorial Campground and provides a high-quality festival camping experience for festivalgoers staying in tents and RVs. In recent years audience camping has sold out prior to the opening of the festival, accommodating over 1000 campers.
Gordon Lightfoot: Hometown Hero
A review of the period since 2000 would be woefully incomplete without acknowledging the crucial role that Orillia native Gordon Lightfoot played in rebuilding Mariposa Folk Festival. In the early days leading up to the festival’s return to Orillia, Gordon Lightfoot readily agreed to headline Mariposa, a real show of faith given that in recent years Mariposa had been a small event drawing modest crowds. That year, the festival had an artistic budget of $53,000, and to support Mariposa financially, Lightfoot performed but waived his fee.
Lightfoot returned to Mariposa as a headliner in 2005, 2007, and 2010, and as a surprise guest nearly every year after that. Mariposa is his adopted festival, and festivalgoers have been delighted by his regular performances, appearances, and accessibility for a photo or a chat.
In October 2015, beside a section of the Trans Canada Trail appropriately named the Gordon Lightfoot Trail (on the point jutting into Lake Couchiching), a beautiful bronze statue of Gordon Lightfoot was erected. He is seated, playing his guitar, a halo of leaves surrounding him. The leaves represent the songs on Gord’s Gold, his celebrated greatest hits album.
In 2004 organizers expected him as a backstage guest to witness a tribute to him on the evening Main Stage. After suffering a life threatening ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, he had not performed in public in nearly two years. When Lightfoot arrived at the festival, he had his guitar with him and made it known that he wanted to perform. Festival organizers were delighted and obliging. The audience response when he mounted the stage was a roaring mix of joy and astonishment. He performed one song, “I’ll Tag Along,” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience as they listened in hushed reverence.
In 2005 Gordon Lightfoot was scheduled to close the festival as the Sunday evening headliner. Soon after he took the stage, the heavens opened with thunder, lightning, heavy rain and wind. His fans stayed put, covering themselves with whatever could deflect water, and Gordon Lightfoot proved his loyalty by pressing on. Seeing him perform “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to the accompaniment of an angry storm is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. When he walked offstage, Lightfoot turned his guitar upside down and emptied the water that had accumulated through the sound hole.
Celebrating the 50th and 60th Anniversaries
In 2010 Mariposa Folk Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary. Given its turbulent history, this was a major milestone many thought the festival would never see. The 2010 festival turned out to be a new high-water mark for Mariposa, with the largest audiences since the early 1990s. The line-up featured a strong nostalgic dimension with luminaries from Mariposa’s past such as Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, Murray McLauchlan, Sylvia Tyson, Oscar Brand, and Sid Dolgay. In a surprise appearance for the delighted audience, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor played a set of Blue Rodeo tunes. In a particularly emotional moment, Sylvia Tyson joined Ian Tyson on stage for a rendition of their fan favourite folk song, “Four Strong Winds”, the last time the iconic former duo would perform together. The audience’s reaction was emotional.
Entering the Seventh Decade
As Mariposa Folk Festival enters its seventh decade, it’s now firmly re-established on the Canadian scene and recognized as a key player in the North American music industry.
The Mariposa Folk Foundation is devising ways to enhance its relevance and further deliver on its mission, including a branding project that retains Mariposa’s iconic lion’s face sun logo and refreshes the look and feel of the organization’s public presence.
Mariposa is also taking steps to build on and leverage its online presence, including mining its rich archives to make them digitally accessible.
At 60 years old, Mariposa Folk Festival continues to strive for greater artistic and cultural relevance. Twenty years since its return home, Mariposa is taking nothing for granted.