Canada’s music heritage preserved in digital exhibit

Fifty years after the Mariposa Folk Festival began, the Hilroy spiral notebook that started it all has been preserved by York University – digitally.

Filled with jotted-down notes from Mariposa founder Ruth Jones McVeigh, the diary has been transferred from Library and Archives Canada to join the holdings of the Mariposa Folk Foundation, held by the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections at York.

To mark Mariposa’s 50th anniversary, York is launching Mariposa: celebrating Canadian folk music, an online exhibit of a selection of photographs, festival programs and sound recordings from the festival, highlighting historical documentation from the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibit is funded by a matching grant from Canadian Heritage.

Left: Festvial-goers at the 1965 Mariposa Folk Festival. Photograph courtesy of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, F0433, image no. ASC05658. Photographer: Pete Geddes.

The Mariposa Folk Festival first appeared in 1961 in Orillia, Ont., from Aug. 18 to 19, before moving in 1963 to other locations in Ontario. In July 2000, the festival returned to its roots in Orillia. The Mariposa Folk Festival is credited with helping launch the careers of some of Canada’s most notable musicians, including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and Murray McLaughlan. The 50th anniversary festival will be held in Orillia this weekend.

Jones McVeigh was a 33-year-old mother of four in Orillia in 1961. She was inspired to create the festival after hearing radio personality John Fisher tell the local Chamber of Commerce that every community in Canada should have a hook for tourism.

"A day or two later, I came down with the flu. As any mother knows, quiet time alone is rare. It gave me time to think. I loved folk music. Orillia, at that time, was pretty tame. So I decided to bring a folk festival to Orillia," says Jones McVeigh, whose photographs and scrapbooks have also been transferred to York.

Right: Ruth Jones McVeigh with the original Mariposa program. Photograph courtesy of Ruth Jones McVeigh.

During her convalescence, Jones McVeigh wrote letters to folk music figures and enthusiasts to see if her idea of an Orillia-based festival would be supported. She received early encouragement from Alan Mills, a member of The Travellers, an important Canadian folk group, as well as advice from organizers of the Newport Folk Festival.

McVeigh’s husband Dr. Crawford Jones and her brother David Major helped finance the first festival, and Pete McGarvey, the manager of Orillia’s local radio station, got involved with the program. “From then on,” Jones McVeigh recalls, “life got very interesting indeed! David put me in touch with Ed Cowan who became Mariposa’s first producer. Musicologist Ted Schafer was artistic director and MC. His brother Larry designed the wonderfully medieval stage with its side tents of striped canvas with pennants flying. Ian Tyson, a graphic artist in addition to being one of Canada’s most popular folk singers, produced the first promotional sun motif.”

Jones McVeigh employed a grassroots advertising campaign, arranging for a promotional ticket to be attached to all milk being delivered to summer cottagers in the area. She also travelled across Ontario doing media interviews and made a special trip to her hometown of Halifax to promote the festival. “The end result was astounding,” she says. “My scrapbook bulged with newspaper clippings from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland – written before and after the spectacularly successful inaugural weekend.”

Right: Another image from the online exhibit which showcases the energy and enthusiasm of the festival. Photograph courtesy of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Mariposa Folk Foundation fonds, F0511, image no. ASC05925.

"Jones McVeigh’s diary captures the essence of the creativity and hard work required to launch a community festival," says Anna St. Onge, the York University archivist in charge of digital projects and outreach. "She documented many of the moments that led up to the first Mariposa, from speaking to enthusiastic Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker at the Toronto Clef Club in the early weeks, to booking Orillia’s community centre a couple of weeks later, for $150."

Jones McVeigh’s daily notes also reveal how far and wide she reached to promote the festival: “June 6 – Wrote letters and sent brochures the other day to Newsweek, Life, Nat[ional] Geographic, New York Times and Barrie TV.” 

For more information, visit the Mariposa: celebrating Canadian folk music exhibit.