Summerfolk History

The little festival that survived seemingly insurmountable odds.

What can you say about a festival that has experienced 20 years of rain since 1976 ? Plus lack of proximity to a large population base.

These references are meant to serve as examples of Summerfolk’s seeming independent will to survive the obstacles that have been in her path. And so it leads us to want to discover what it is that makes an event like this so powerful that no individual negative force seems to make it crumble.

In 1975, the idea of Summerfolk was largely due to two brothers, Tim and John Harrison: and the Grey-Bruce Arts Council. The Harrison’s were local boys, gifted with vision, and a love of music and the arts. The site selected was Kelso Beach Park in downtown Owen Sound. The park looked radically different then. It was just a dump for battered down factories and torn up streets. It was a low, flat, wet area with a small sandy beach on Georgian Bay. The ground proved to be soaking wet, so much so, that early organizers sold garbage bags as seating pads. That first event proved a refreshingly relaxed affair, while affording a richly hospitable welcome to performers and audience alike. It played host to such Canadian artists as: David Wiffen, Shirley Eikhard, Willie P. Bennett, and the Original Sloth Band (Ken & Chris Whiteley.) All who shared the occasion must have felt the magic.

Original A.D. Tim Harrison, grappled with the concept folk music, finding the term difficult to define. Folk music, according to Harrison, is the music of all people, from different classes and different settings. This extremely elusive definition meshes closely to the concept of Summerfolk held by many people throughout the years. The magic that is constantly alluded to by Summerfolk patrons is perhaps due to this early effort by organizers to cultivate this spirit. True to Harrison’s folk music definition, early festivals hosted a wide variety of performers, notables such as Bruce Cockburn, Stan Rogers, Don MacLean and David Amram. The success of the festival was then and is now, due to the enormous amount of time and energy contributed by willing volunteers.

Development of the site over the following years included the limestone amphitheater and the main stage “Stan Rogers Memorial Canopy”. Odetta, Tom Paxton, Gamble Rogers, Ritchie Havens, Michael Smith, Valdy, The McGarrigles, and Eric Bogle all braved the rain thru those first years firmly establishing Summerfolk as one of the premier events in the industry. Summerfolk was among the 6 original member festivals that started the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals. The O.C.F.F. is now recognized as the hottest circuit of its kind in North America. Summerfolk has won the exalted status of “Performers Choice” and continues this reputation to this day. Each year, we receive close to 1000 performer packages from across the planet, “pleading” to play our stages.

Patrons come from every province and 30 States. Perennial favourites Trout Fishing In America included this blurb in their recent newsletter;

“We don’t often single out performances or venues in this newsletter, but the Summerfolk Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario was one of the major highlights of our Summer. The music we got to hear and the people we got to interact with were positively inspiring. It had been a long time since we played Ontario and playing Summerfolk felt like an incredible homecoming.”

Summerfolk is all about stories. Whether sung, spoken, crafted, or lived, those memories will continue and guarantee that the word will be passed from generation to generation. The little festival that survived seemingly insurmountable odds survived and will continue.