When Folk Music Ontario executive director Rosalyn Dennett called up Erin Benjamin a couple of weeks ago to inform her that she’s this year’s winner of the Estelle Klein lifetime achievement award, Erin burst into tears.
“I can’t think of a more full-circle moment in my life, to be honest,” she said.
It was Erin who had presented the very first such award to Estelle Klein herself during Erin’s first year of being the first ever FMO executive director; back then, the organization was called the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals.
“It does seem very unreal,” she said. “Because… I think her legacy is just sort of the most important in the folk community.”
Erin would go on to serve as the executive director of the Canadian Association for the Performing Arts — better known as CAPACOA — and then to found the Canadian Live Music Association, which she now leads.
But her journey into arts administration began with a dream of being a guitar player.
The flyer that would change her life
At the age of five, she badgered her mother into buying her a guitar, and by the time she was in highschool, she was writing and performing at school.
She studied theatre at Concordia University, then moved back in with her parents, who, by that point, had settled in Sudbury.
There, Erin got a regular gig performing in a local restaurant, and slowly, the work started to pile up.
“Then one day in Sudbury, someone put a flyer into my hand,” she said.
“It was like a rectangle piece of paper. And it was, like, lots of blue or red ink. It was just one colour. I can remember it. It was an entry form for something called the Songs From the Heart Competition”
Those familiar with Folk Music Ontario will recognize the name of its signature song contest, which, last year, was amalgamated into the Ontario Folk Music Awards.
From artist to administrator
Erin was one of the winners that year.
At the time, the OCFF conference, as it was then known, was a small gathering of artistic directors, not the sea of artists vying for their attention that it is today.
Erin and her fellow winners were invited to showcase for the entire gathering of ADs with no competition.
She started attending the conference every year.
Around 1998, she joined the board.
By that point, she was running record labels in northern Ontario, touring and distributing her own music.
Then the organization’s office manager passed away, and a pair of fellow board members approached Erin.
“Derek Andrews took me out into the hall and said, ‘Look, we need someone to run this organization. We want you to be the office manager,” she said. “There’s $5,000 in the bank. Would you do it?’… And all I could hear was ‘$5,000.’ … And so without blinking, I said, ‘Great, I’ll do it. But you have to call me the executive director.’”
When Erin left FMO in 2008 for CAPACOA, the organization was becoming a mini Canadian version of what was then known as the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance (now Folk Alliance International). It was ostensibly Ontario-centric, but it was a destination for artistic directors from across the country.
Erin’s natural ability to lead, organize and —vitally — obtain funding were instrumental in establishing the organization that is still central to the Canadian folk music community today.
So when she got the call informing her she’d been selected as this year’s Estelle Klein lifetime achievement award winner, it’s possible that the only person surprised about it was her.
“I was at the driving range,” she said.
“Rosalyn left me a message, and she said, ‘I have some good news,’ and I immediately thought that we were talking about something in Roslyn’s life. … “I called her back, and I had to leave her a message. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so excited.’”
Though she began her career as an artist, Erin said she’s never regretted the choice to leave music behind for a career in leadership.
“You know, I was pretty sure I was meant to be a rock star,” she said of her youth.
“But it was really through those early days at the OCFF that I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is amazing. … All the parts of me that needed to be fed were being fed through that work and still are today.”
Erin’s words of wisdom for the folk/roots community:
“At this point in our history, one of the most important things we need to be mindful of is continuing to work together. There is so much division out there, and our world is going backwards in so many ways. And nobody understands that better than the folk community, who will always stand up and sing … and tell the story the way it needs to be told. …I feel cracks all around us in the music industry broadly, and if we’re not careful, we will be consumed by those cracks that we may have created ourselves. And so working together, no matter what our differences, finding that common ground and staying the course, being united, and through Roslyn’s vision in the future of Folk Music Ontario and any other association that touches the space to really remember that we are stronger together. … We’re going need it, and we’re going to need this community, I think. Whether it’s climate change or politics or the rights of all people that are being so diminished on this side of the border and south of the border and around the world, I think that my one hope is that we can continue to work together on those common goals.”