By David McPherson, for Folk Alley
Music heals. It is a connector that brings people from all walks of life together. In a divisive world this elixir—even if only for brief moments—makes people forget about life for a little while, put on a smile, and get lost in stories and songs. That is what happened this past weekend at Tudhope Park in Orillia, Ontario, when music lovers from far and wide flocked to the Mariposa Folk Festival.
2020 was set to mark the 60th anniversary of one of North America’s longest running folk festivals. Artists were booked. Tickets were flying. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. No one imagined that this annual festival, born in 1961, would be cancelled for two years in a row.
The brainchild of Ruth Jones and her husband, Dr. Casey-Jones, the Mariposa Folk Festival sought advice from the Newport Folk Festival in its early years. The moniker given to this annual music gathering came from the town in Canadian author Stephen Leacock’s famed novel Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town, loosely based on Orillia. Ian & Sylvia and The Travellers were a couple of the acts that performed in the inaugural year.
The festival grew quickly by word of mouth and, by year three, music lovers from as far away as Detroit headed to this town by the lake to get their folk on.
Joni Mitchell made her Mariposa debut in 1965 and since then a who’s who of the folk and broader music world—Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Taylor, Leon Redbone, and Bonnie Raitt to name a few—have played Mariposa. You can learn more about the rich history of this folk festival in this book.
Capturing three full days of music and a festival of this magnitude is hard, but here are my Top Five moments.
1. Generation Next on Friday night
Like most folk festivals, Mariposa realizes that to appeal to a younger generation, who will be the supporters of their event for years to come, they need to book some acts that are not traditional folk. This year, Friday night saw a pair of Canadian pop-leaning stars, who’ve received success south of the border, return home for some charged performances.
First up was 29-year-old J.P. Saxe, who admitted that, one-hour before his set, he jumped into the lake in his underpants. Armed with only a Korg and a pair of Gibson acoustics, Saxe sang beautifully with a voice full of soul. He offered fans many of the break-up songs and innermost feelings from his 2021 EP, Dangerous Levels of Introspection. The highlight was his megahit “If The World Was Ending,” written with his former girlfriend Julia Michaels and nominated for a Grammy.
Lennon Stella headlined the Friday line-up and took the stage shortly before 10 p.m. As teenage girls screamed ‘Oh my god’ before each song, families sang along to all of her radio-friendly and TikTok-famous hits, and bugs swarmed above her. At one point, a front-row fan threw a hat she had knitted onstage and the songwriter put it on for the remainder of her set.
Saxe returned to join Stella on the song they had recorded together—“Golf on TV.”
2. Souvenirs to Savor: The Songs of John Prine Shine
Flash back to that 2020 Mariposa: John Prine was booked to perform. We all know what happened. Unfortunately COVID-19 took this beloved songwriter from us far too soon. Fortunately, the storied songs he wrote remain, and so does his band.
In one of the repeated workshops throughout the weekend that included a main stage set on Sunday afternoon, Prine’s long-time band (guitarist Jason Wilber, bassist David Jacques, multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, and drummer Bryan Owings) were joined by John’s son Tommy. They performed many of the late folk icon’s fan favorites.
3. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings Deliver Frolicking Fun
The headliners Saturday night saw the return of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings to the Mariposa stage. The band, originally formed more than 25 years ago as a tribute to songwriter Willie P. Bennett, is still going strong and singing for the sake of the song.
Last week, they released a brand new record (O Glory) and their supercharged set at Mariposa featured many of the songs off this fine new offering. The three pals (Tom Wilson, Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden), all successful artists in their own right, were all smiles. They had the sold-out crowd dancing and singing along to their roots rock. One of the many highlights was when Wilson brought out his son Thompson to join him and the band on the haunting song “Grand River.”
4. Outside Child Allison Russell Roars
When I interviewed Allison Russell before her late Sunday headlining set, she used the word “surreal” when talking about her journey the last 14 months since the release of her solo debut, Outside Child. The adjective is apropos; the record was nominated for three Grammy awards, won a JUNO in Canada for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year, and is up for three Americana Music Association Awards, including Album of the Year and Artist of the Year. Russell was backed by an all-female band that she referred to as “goddesses,” and showed why she is an artist that matters with so much to say.
5. Hall of Fame Inductions: The Legacy of McLauchlan & Lightfoot
The Mariposa Folk Festival and the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (CSHF) used the opportunity of the large gathering to honor two of Canada’s legendary songwriters. First up, late on Saturday afternoon, before Blackie & the Rodeo Kings hit the stage, the CSHF inducted Murray McLauchlan as its newest member. Gordon Lightfoot said a few words about his long-time friend and fellow songwriter before McLauchlan joined Blackie to play harmonica and sing his hit song, “Down by the Henry Moore.”
As the festival entered its final hours Sunday evening, and the sun was setting over the lake, it was Lightfoot’s turn to be feted when he was officially inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.
Lightfoot sang one of his most beloved and oft-covered songs, “If You Could Read My Mind,” and then Tom Wilson did the honors, telling the crowd that “Gordon Lightfoot is in our blood.” An all-star band that included the Good Brothers, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Serena Ryder, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo, and James Keelaghan, then gathered onstage to join the legendary songwriter in a rousing rendition of his hit “Alberta Bound.”