In honour of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 75th birthday tomorrow (February 20) I thought I’d take the opportunity to recall one of my most cherished memories, seeing and hearing her perform at the 1964 Mariposa Folk Festival.
There were other performers there as well who made it very, very special: the young Gordon Lightfoot, and the then recently re-discovered blues legend Mississippi John Hurt.
Let me set the scene first. That year’s Mariposa festival was held in Toronto, in Maple Leaf Stadium. Located on the waterfront, beside the grain elevators east of the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, it was a classic, 20,000-seat, baseball stadium. At the time it was home to the Toronto Maple Leaf, Triple-A baseball team, then in its International League-dominant heyday. Unfortunately Maple Leaf Stadium, a heritage-building gem if there ever was once, was torn down long ago.
The Mariposa Folk Festival got started in 1961 in Orillia, which the great Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock re-named Mariposa for his book of short stories, Sunshine Sketches of a little Town. Sadly, there was little sunshine in the hearts of Orillia residents after the 1963 festival degenerated into uncontrolled drunkenness. After the town council banned the festival from being held there, organizers had to find another location and venue. So, Maple Leaf Stadium it was in 1964.
To be honest, I’m not sure now where the stage was. I know my friends and I, four or five of us, ended up sitting on the centre-field grass; so the stage may have been more or less at home plate.
It was a very pleasant, warm midsummer evening. And the vibes, the vibes were wonderful. The 1964 festival quite possibly restored the annual festival’s spirit and reputation. By the way, it returned to Orillia in the year 2000.
In 1964 Buffy Sainte-Marie and Gordon Lightfoot were rising stars in the then very popular folk-music scene.
I have a clear recollection of the 23-year-old Buffy singing the lyrics and playing a mouth harp (at the same time!) in an obviously memorable performance of the traditional Appalachian folk song, Cripple Creek. It was one of the songs on her debut album, It’s My Way!
I say “obviously” because it was after all more than 51 years ago. I was amazed then, and I’m amazed now, remembering it. And now there she is, at age 75, still going strong, showing no signs of slowing down, as the irrepressible, CBC Radio-2 host Tom Allen said today. Indeed, he added, with his trademark delight, she seems to be “hitting her stride” again. Her 2015 album, Power in the Blood, won the Polaris Music Prize.
I recall as well during her 1964 Mariposa appearance she looked a little awkward on stage, as if she was still trying to find her comfort zone before a large, live audience. But it struck me at the time, as it does now in memory, as endearing. Somehow it just made her seem more, well, real, which is what Buffy Sainte-Marie is.
I can’t let this go without saying something about the wonderful feeling Mississippi John Hurt left us all with that evening. He would have been aged 72, or thereabouts. (Apparently there was some uncertainty about his actual birth date.) He had made some blues recordings in the late 1920s, but dropped out of sight and went back to farming in Mississippi. He was re-discovered by blues enthusiast Tom Hoskins in 1963. By the Mariposa festival of 1964 his gentle vocal and unique guitar styles had gained a wide following, and put him solidly in the forefront of the blues tradition alongside other greats.
I became a huge Mississippi John Hurt fan after that night out there in centre field. His Today! Album issued by Vanguard records in 1966 remains my all-time favourite. I wore out more than one vinyl copy. I regret I never saw him perform live again. He died in November, 1966 of a heart attack. But his spirit certainly lives on. New generations of Blues and Rock musicians have acknowledged the influence Mississippi John Hurt had on them and their music.