Hill's book on folk fest history now available
Mariposa artistic director Mike Hill holds a copy of his book The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History. PATRICK BALES/THE PACKET & TIMES
Mike Hill has been at every Mariposa Folk Festival since it returned to Orillia in 2000, first as a volunteer and more recently as its long-serving artistic director.
But his first Mariposa was 45 years ago, when the festival was housed on Toronto Island. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he was at one of the seminal moments in Canadian music history.
And initially, in that moment, he was none too happy about it.
“I was just a teenager who went to see Murray McLauchlan,” Hill recalled. “(He) said, ‘I’m giving up my set today.’ I was momentarily disappointed, but then he said, ‘My friend, Joni Mitchell, is here.’”
After four or five songs, Mitchell ceded the stage to another friend, much to the temporary chagrin of Hill. That mood changed when Jackson Browne took the stage. The next day, a similar occurrence happened when Neil Young took over Bruce Cockburn’s set.
Alongside Mitchell, Browne and Young as surprises that year were Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan. Dylan, infamously, wasn’t allowed to perform by festival organizers.
Hill got to explore this history of the 1972 edition of Mariposa alongside five decades of festivals in a comprehensive new book, The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History.
Hill has been the festival’s “unofficial” historian for a few years now, putting together pieces on the storied history of Mariposa when the situation arose. About a year ago, Dundurn Press made it known it was interested in publishing a history on the festival, and Hill was quickly drafted into action, finishing the book in about five months.
The book is a quick journey through Mariposa’s first 56 years, from the festival’s beginnings in Orillia to its time wandering through southern and central Ontario, rarely making money, and outside of decade-long stretch on Centre Island, barely staying in one location for any great length of time.
“It’s a miracle,” Hill quipped, that Mariposa made it back to Orillia in 2000 and is as a revered event as it is today.
As the de facto historian, Hill had a better handle than most on just what should be explored in a history on the festival. But his research still led him down interesting paths he wasn’t aware of, when it came to the successes and near terminal failures of Mariposa.
“The shocking thing to me was that Estelle Klein, who was the big name – her name is synonymous with the festival – in the ’80s, she wanted to shut it down,” Hill explained. “They had an AGM; they wanted to vote on whether to collapse, to end the festival. That’s when Ruth McVeigh (festival co-founder) and several of the other people – one of them who is still involved, David Warren – sort of put up a big fight and then they rallied all kinds of support.”
But he also found constants between the years. No matter how much time had passed between the initial festivals and the current incarnations, regardless of whether the concerts were held at Tudhope Park, Ontario Place or Molson Park, several key things remained the same.
“When I looked at programs in the ’70s, and Molson Park in the ’80s, and then now, I find a lot of things are very similar,” Hill said. “We have several workshops stages, a folk play kids area, a beer tent; all these different things were started way back then and have carried on. It’s a successful formula.”
Since 2000, Hill has been part of that successful formula. He joked he started volunteering as a way to get a free ticket to Mariposa when it returned to Orillia for the first time since the 1960s. But that volunteering led to becoming artistic director and turns the final third of the book into somewhat of a memoir.
That was a struggle, he said, partially because he would feel somewhat pretentious writing about himself in the third person. The switch gives the reader a more inside view of the background workings of the folk festival, from the misadventures of some misplaced marijuana, to the antics – good and bad – of the musicians who populate the lineup.
“There was nothing really conscious,” Hill said of the story selections. “My wife has clipped anything from the festival over the last 18 years, since it’s been back in Orillia ... I just sort of went through them. We had them in chronological order and then certain things just popped out.”
One of those highlights is Lightfoot’s return to performing after a near-death health scare. Dylan finds his way back into Mariposa lore here as well, with rumours long-circulated he was on his way to share the stage with Lightfoot that weekend.
Hill shines some light on that legend and many others in The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History, available now online and wherever books are sold.