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April 8, 2020

Man of the People

by Rob Williams

Mitch Podolak attended his final music workshop Sunday.

      The 71-year-old, whose legacy includes co-founding the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the West End Cultural Centre, died of complications from septic shock after witnessing one more jam by local musicians and family members in his hospital room.

      “We played some songs for him. It was Bright Morning Star I learned from (British folk act) the Oysterband. I sang him that and he was gone,” said his son Leonard Podolak.

      It was a fitting tribute for a man who dedicated his life to fostering an environment where musicians and music fans could connect.

      “He uplifted hundreds, created work for thousands and created joy for millions,” Leonard said.

      Mitch Podolak was born in Toronto on Sept. 21, 1947, the youngest of three children. His clarinet-playing, classical-music-loving father died when he was nine, and he was raised by his mother, sister Alice and brother Mark.

      His life and political views changed when Alice took him to see folk musician Pete Seeger at Massey Hall when he was 13, Leonard said.

      “He saw Pete Seeger play and the next day he bought a banjo and became a communist,” Leonard said with a laugh.

      He ran a coffeeshop in Toronto and famously turned Neil Young down for a gig because he said he couldn’t sing. (“That was one of his mistakes,” Leonard said.) He headed west to set up a chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance in the late 1960s.

      Podolak made radio documentaries for CBC, and he and his wife, Ava Kobrinsky, moved to Winnipeg in the early 1970s, about the time the city was looking for projects to fund as part of its centennial celebrations.

      In 1974, Podolak and partner Colin Gorrie got $77,000 from various levels of government to stage the Winnipeg Centennial Folksong Festival at Birds Hill Park in August. The free event featured 42 artists, with headliners including Bruce Cockburn, Leon Redbone and Murray McLauchlan.

      “This weekend you can hear music of the southern appalachians, of the Canadian Prairies, of the New Orleans honky tonks, of the big cities, of the Irish revolutionaries, of the East Coast fisherman, of farmers and hoboes, rich men and fools and of many of the people that make this world what it is,” Podolak and Gorrie wrote in the festival program.

      Podolak would stay with the organization, which became the Winnipeg Folk Festival, until 1986.

      “He wanted to make the world a better place,” said Leonard, 44. “The folk festival was a tool of that, that way he could create a utopia one weekend at a time with folk music at the centre.” 

      The event served as a template for numerous other festivals in North America, and Podolak went on to help found the Vancouver Folk Festival.

      ‘Folk festivals are uniquely special communities with a lot of heart and a huge reliance on volunteers. It really takes a village to build a folk festival and they’ve all developed that way because of the model that Mitch created,” Winnipeg Folk Festival executive director Lynne Skromeda said.

      “He was a mentor and he was a friend, to me and to the organization as a whole. He will always be a part of us and what we create in Birds Hill Park for every year to come. We love him and will miss him greatly.”

      Podolak’s next local passion project was the renovation of a former church at the intersection of Ellice Avenue and Sherbrook Street, which opened as the West End Cultural Centre in 1987, and continues as a live-music venue to this day.

      “The people who tell me their stories about putting up the drywall at the West End, who were painting the walls minutes before the doors opened for the first time, all speak as though they can’t believe it actually happened and continues to happen. There’s something very special about that,” said Jason Hooper, the West End Cultural Centre’s executive director.

      In 2007, Podolak started the house-concert touring circuit Home Routes as a way to provide musicians with more opportunities to perform across the country, including in small towns without any music venues.

      “It’s such a simple idea: we give people 12 gigs in 14 days, everybody puts them up and feeds them, so performers go home with money and they can buy groceries and pay their rent,” he told the Winnipeg Free Press in 2010.

      The project was a natural extension of who he was, said Leonard, who, inspired by his father, went on to become a musician, playing in bands such as the Juno Award-winning/Grammy nominated traditional group the Duhks, and now runs Home Routes.

      “That was just the kind of stuff he would do: help foster the community of folk music. It’s a tribe that exists globally, and folk music is a function of a goal of making the world a better place and championing human beings, the environment, sustainability and justice,” he said.

      Podolak put his organizational skills to work for various causes over the years, raising money for American folk legend Utah Phillips with a benefit show in 2007 when the musician couldn’t tour anymore owing to congestive heart failure.

      In about 1990, according to testimony during the inquiry into David Milgaard’s wrongful conviction, Podolak helped Joyce Milgaard write and record a song about her son’s case, which was sent to the justice minister.

      “He got a posse of Winnipeg musicians together behind Joyce Milgaard and they had a press conference at the West End Cultural Centre and got some press,” Leonard said. “It was picked up by Now magazine in Toronto and made national news.”

      The impact Podolak had on the community was evident when he needed help.

In 2016, he fell and sustained an injury that required him to undergo surgery on his cervical vertebrae. He needed to use a wheelchair following the surgery, so the initial plan was to retrofit his two-storey Wolseley home.

      Local musician Heather Bishop set up a GoFundMe campaign with the goal of raising $20,000 — an amount the fund raised in one day.

“That’s the kind of guy Mitch was. He gave everything he had to the music business, so when he was in trouble, he had no backup, and I knew that,” Bishop said. “And I also knew that if people knew he needed help, they’d be there. And in an instant we raised 40-some-thousand dollars.”

      Retrofitting the house proved unrealistic, so the money was used to help fund a condo where Podolak and Kobrinsky had been living until Podolak was hospitalized last month.

      His work earned him accolades from every corner of society. In 2015, he was made a member of the Order of Manitoba; the same year, he received an honorary doctor of laws from Brandon University.

      In 2013, he was recognized with a lifetime achievement honour, the Unsung Hero Award, from the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

      “Mitch was a giant figure, and the swath he left was so huge; you would be hard-pressed to find a folk musician in this country who was not at least influenced by him, if not absolutely helped,” Bishop said.

      As helpful as he was to the artists, he could also rub some people the wrong way with his straightforward manner, Leonard said.

      “He was one of a kind and they don’t make them like that anymore… but he wasn’t perfect. He pissed off a lot of folks. His brashness didn’t always serve him. He was so stuck by his principles. If he lost some rich person’s money, he was, ‘Oh well, he was rich,’ instead of ‘Oh well, too bad it didn’t work out,’” Leonard said with a laugh.

      “His vision of socialism and his vision of communism — I guess people would refer to it as the ideal way of looking at it — is we have enough resources for everybody, so if we could ensure everyone was educated and had health care and we lifted up everyone, we all as individuals would flourish. It’s rise up instead of trickle down.”

      Podolak’s family — which includes Zeke and Max Preston, the sons of a close childhood friend whom he and Kobrinsky took in after her death — is in the process of organizing a memorial service for family and friends, and are exploring the idea of holding a larger community celebration of life that anyone could attend.

      “He’s going to be here forever,” Leonard said. “Everybody has a Mitch story and the community he created around him.”

— with files from Erin Lebar and Jen Zoratti

By: Rob Williams, Story and Photo credit to Winnipeg Free Press – permission granted to reprint