Exhibit organized by York archivist looks at 50 years of Mariposa

Free love, peace signs, tie-dyed T-shirts, long hair, leather and fringe may be out of style, but the spirit of folk music revival lives on at the Mariposa Folk Festival, now celebrating its 50th anniversary in the place where it all began – Orillia, Ontario. And you can can re-live the grassroots beginnings of this music festival through a new exhibit, featuring photographs, festival programs, posters and historical live recordings, now on at the City of Toronto’s Market Gallery.

Mariposa: Fifty Years of Making Music, 1961-2011 is curated by Anna St.Onge, archivist in charge of digital projects and outreach at York University’s Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, along with contributions by Vito Ciraco of York University Libraries’ Sound & Moving Image Library and York University Department of Music graduate student Sija Tsai. The exhibit runs until Oct. 15 at the Market Gallery, St. Lawrence Market, 95 Front St. E., Toronto.

 A group of musicians and festival goers participate in a workshop at the Mariposa Folk FestivalRight: A group of musicians and festival goers participate in a workshop at the Mariposa Folk Festival, 1976. Photograph courtesy of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Mariposa Folk Foundation fonds, F0511, image no. ASC05944

The exhibit is selected from some 300 boxes of Mariposa materials, including buttons, posters, pamphlets, festival programs, advertisements, recordings and photos, including many from the Toronto Telegram newspaper, as well as records from the Archives of Canada. Much of the material was donated to York University Libraries by the Mariposa Folk Foundation in 2007, which St.Onge says staff are still making their way through.

“York University Libraries committed to promoting and preserving this incredibly rich body of records, not only for the members of the Mariposa Foundation, but also for the wider community of scholars who have an interest in the development of music in Canada in the late 20th century,” says St.Onge.

To get a taste of the exhibit, you can listen to a radio broadcast of the opening ceremonies of the first Mariposa Folk Festival in 1961 by clicking here. To listen to a workshop on classic ragtime to early jazz, including several performances from Mariposa in 1974, click here, or a 1970s radio jingle, click here.

Although music is at the core of Mariposa: Fifty Years of Making Music, 1961-2011, a collaboration between York University Libraries and the City of Toronto’s Cultural Services Division, other facets of folk culture, such as craftwork, traditional dance and storytelling have been featured. The exhibit also highlights some of the stars – Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Buffy Sainte-Marie – that rose through the ranks of Canadian performers and celebrates those working artists who found their niche at the festival. It explores the range of culture clashes and various venues, as well as the continuity that allows the festival to endure and to be relevant today.

Left: The audience at the 1978 Mariposa Folk Festival.  Image No. ASC05920

Through the use of QR codes peppered about the gallery, visitors can tap into online content available through York University Libraries, including a ceilidh featuring Tommy Makem, a workshop on women’s labour songs and an in-depth interview with one of the festival’s early artistic directors, Estelle Klein.

“There are also these amazing moments recorded where artists are discussing local events and social issues, all while sharing musical styles and influences,” says St.Onge. In one of the recordings, there is discussion about music coming out of social housing projects. About 25 artists gave their permission for their live recordings, from 1973 to 1976, to be digitized and included in the exhibit.

It’s also the first time an exhibit of this scale has been staged off-campus with the Mariposa archival material. “We think it’s important to celebrate the history of the festival. It’s important Ontario history,” says St.Onge. The festival, which began in Orillia, moved to Toronto for quite a few years, taking on a more international flavour, but has been back in Orillia since 2000.

Buffy Sainte-Marie performing at the 1964 festival at Maple Leaf Stadium. Left: Buffy Sainte-Marie performing at the 1964 festival at Maple Leaf Stadium. Photograph courtesy of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, F0433, image no. ASC05602. By photographer Ray McFadden

St.Onge says she has included quite a few large-scale or panoramic photographs of the crowds at Mariposa to emphasize the importance of audience participation at the festival. In fact, in past exhibits on campus, students have recognized relatives in photographs of the crowds attending a concert on the Toronto islands in the 1960s.

“I think it evokes how active and participatory history can be,” says St.Onge. “People didn’t just attend Mariposa, they really engaged and contributed to the experience.”

The strength of the Mariposa Folk Festival lies in its ability to unify a plethora of musical traditions, cultural communities and ideologies, encapsulating the Canadian cultural experience. Gathering together performers from across the country, year after year, the festival provides a forum for musical expression, experimentation and cultural exchange.

The sound recordings – especially the earliest live recordings – are on fragile recording media, such as quarter-inch audio tape. Every time a recording is played, it degrades a little more until the sound is irretrievable. The Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections is implementing a long-term preservation strategy to digitize these sound recordings so that they are available to researchers today and to future generations of Canadians.

With the assistance of federal funding through the Archival Community Digitization Program, over 600 items were digitized and made available online to researchers and the public in 2009.

For more information about Mariposa: Fifty Years of Making Music, 1961-2011, see the Market Gallery web page or contact Anna St.Onge at astonge@yorku.ca.