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Gary Cristall remembers Mitch Podolak

Mitch Podolak, left, with Blind Boy Paxton at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Gary Cristall ran the Vancouver Folk Music Festival for the first 17 years of its existence.  He worked in the music section of the Canada Council for the Arts for six years, and he’s represented numerous artists as a manager, including Veda Hille, Maryem Tollar, and Eliana Cuevas.  What follows are some of Gary’s memories of Mitch Podolak as told over the phone to Heather.

We grew up in the same milieu. … It was the communist Jewish immigrant area of Toronto. His uncle was the conductor of the Ukrainian Mandolin Orchestra. … We went to the same summer camp, which was where a lot of left wing Jews, especially the children of people who left the communist party … went. So I vaguely knew him then or remember him there because he was kind of a figure there because he was always making trouble and giving people a hard time and taking other kids stuff etc. … We were listening to folk music and that kind of stuff.

And then I first really got to know him when I was in the Revolutionary Marxist Group and so was he, and in the fall of 1974 – which is interesting because he’d just done the first festival – I came through Winnipeg as a translator and coordinator for a guy from the MIR, which stands for movement of the revolutionary left. … and Mitch was part of the RMG branch in Winnipeg, the Revolutionary Marxist Group in Winnipeg, and we spent a bunch of time together because we immediately realized that we were very very similar in our background. We came from the same neighbourhood in Toronto. We’d both been kind of marginal youth; we dropped out of high school; we’d heard rumours about dope peddling – not that we were ever involved, etc., so we became pretty good friends, and we would see each other at various political get-togethers.

Then at a certain point – you know he’d organized the first folk festival in Winnipeg. He said, “I want to do one in Vancouver.” … He said he was going to organize a folk festival out here, and he was going to book it, and I was going to run it, and Ernie Fladell at city hall was going to fund it, and I thought this was absolute fantasy. But in the fall of 1977, Mitch tracked me down and said, “It’s on. You start work at the beginning of the year.” … It came to pass, and we did the first festival in ’78, and the second festival in ’79, and at the second festival, we had a falling out, and when the smoke cleared, I was running the festival. … He was not without blemish in the way he dealt with things.

It took years, but we patched it up. I don’t know how many years – five, six, seven, eight years. It took a while, but we still had more in common that most people, so we became good friends again, certainly by the late 80s. … We were on the same page. We were the only two commies in the room.

Heather:  What do you think was Mitch’s biggest contribution to folk music?

It’s hard to say, but certainly the Winnipeg Folk Festival – but also Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, the Stan Rogers Festival.

I think there’s three things you can say: the festivals, but also the West End Cultural Centre, and I think Home Routes. Those were the big successes. In Winnipeg terms, the West End Cultural Centre is a very important venue. Certainly that he played a role in getting festivals going – a number of them. And I think Home Routes plays a major role today in getting people out and about. It simply wouldn’t exist without Mitch.

Maybe his biggest contribution to the festivals was not the music … but the volunteer organization. The volunteer structure at Mariposa was really bad. The volunteers didn’t get to go to the parties. You had to have a particular in. There was a lot of favouritism and cliquism, and Mitch opened that wide. … and that was important because it created a certain egalitarian feeling at the festivals. … And I think that you might say that organizationally, he might’ve contributed more than he contributed programatically.

So I think that that’s something that people overlook.

Heather:  How will you remember Mitch?

He changed my life. I was going to go to graduate school and do a PhD in Latin American history, and he saved me from that. I got to have a lot more fun. I didn’t make more money, but I did get to have a lot more fun and was able to put my politics into action in a way that I wouldn’t have if I’d become an academic or a high school teacher or whatever was going to happen to me. …

He changed my life in two ways, one of which is he got me involved in the festival, and in the end I ran the festival, and that led to the Canada Council, and that led to coming back and doing all the stuff I’ve done since.

And the other for me is, if I hadn’t’ve met Mitch, I wouldn’t’ve met Valdine (Gary’s partner), so after 30 odd years together, he was the match-maker – not knowingly, but he put us in proximity, and one thing led to another.

So I think very very fondly of him.

Heather:  Is there anything else that you think is important to say about him?

The politics were his first love. It wasn’t folk music. If he had had to choose between socialist revolution and folk music, he would’ve chosen socialist revolution. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. We talked a lot about politics, Mitch and I. We talked more about politics than we talked about music.

In a certain sense, both Mitch and I sublimated what we would’ve liked to have done, which would’ve been bureaucrats in a socialist regime, a workers government, to use folk music to the extent we could to transform society.

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