We tend to look at history as a series of people or events that have made a big splash. This is disempowering, as it ignores the reality of what really happened. When you slap the surface of a pond, a ripple goes out. Big splashes happen when many of us slap the surface of the water in time, and our ripples build on each other. The people who make a big splash are the people who can get us working together.
One such person was Mitch Podolak. He understood that nothing gets people moving together quite like music. His obituary will list off his significant accomplishments: founding the Winnipeg Folk Festival, then having a hand in founding the Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, and Stan Rogers Folk Festivals, the Winnipeg and Vancouver Children’s Festivals, the West End Cultural Center in Winnipeg, and Home Roots, which organized house concerts across Canada. His obituary will list the numerous successful musicians he helped launch, including his funding of Stan Roger’s first album. The obituary will mention how he went from being a college radical to being awarded the Order of Manitoba. It will be a great obituary that befits a great man. But in doing so, it will miss the point.
Mitch’s theory on running a festival was to treat artists like visiting royalty and crew like family. Do that, and the crew will come back year-on-year as a family to create and build. For 7 years, I was a part of that family, first as a volunteer and then on the Site Crew. There were 1,200 of us, all slapping the water in time to the metronome that Mitch set, and my friends, we made a really big splash.
The magic of Mitch went far beyond the projects with his name on the marquee. At the time the Winnipeg Folk Festival was just starting, my parents were working on their own radical community experiment with KAXE, the first rural community radio station in the United States. Before KAXE, there were rural public radio stations, but it was assumed by most that community radio required a dense population of urban hippies. My folks (along with many others slapping the water in time) built a community station out of farmers, taconite miners, and pulp mill workers in Grand Rapids, MN.
The organizations grew with each other. Much of the staff and volunteers of KAXE became a part of WFF, and KAXE was, for a while, the largest box office for WFF outside of Winnipeg, but it was not easy.
For KAXE, it would have been much easier to follow a more traditional public radio model, with access to more conventional sources of funds. Mitch’s friendship with my folks, and others at KAXE, and his support of the idea of community organizations helped them through. Again in the 80’s when KCAW’s budget was cut by 40% that friendship and sense of community helped sustain my parents to persevere in keeping KCAW a community station. Finally, when the stress of my parents’ work in Serbia was taking its toll on my father’s health, Mitch took him aside and told him he had too much left to do. Dad needed to take better care of himself, so he can continue to care for his community.
Even with the thousands of people Mitch knew, he found time to keep track of what was I was doing. I left the Folk Fest to work at the Sika Fine Arts Camp, Alaska Theater of Youth, and then finally join the Board of the Three Barons Fair. Mitch proudly encouraged me every step of the way.
My friends, that’s what the obituaries are going to miss. No matter how busy he was conducting his own projects, he would always slap in time for the rest of us. His obituary will be a historical document in our current tradition. It will list him as a great man and catalog the significant events he created. It will even remeber him as a community organizer, but it will miss a point that Mitch understood and lived. Every big event is made of individuals, and our own parts, no matter how small, matter.
Most of you on this list have never heard of him, but you have felt his ripples across the water as he’s slapped his hand in time to KAXE, KCAW, and the Three Barons Fair.
Leonard, Zeke, I’m proud to be one of the thousands of people your father has influenced. I hope you can feel our love surrounding you now.