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Music Mitch Podolak, 71, was Canadian folk music’s beloved radical patron

Mitch Podolak, centre wearing a baseball cap, was variously described over the years as a 'bearded, chain-smoking radical,' a 'chubby working-class hero,' a 'banjo-playing… Trotskyite who could pass for a biker' and part of 'a cabal of deranged artist types.'

Dave Landy/Courtesy of the Winnipeg Folk Festival

Mitch Podolak was 13 when his older sister, Alice, took him to a Pete Seeger concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1961. There, his life changed.

“Something happened that day,” Mr. Podolak would recall in a 2013 interview with the CBC. “I caught something that day from Pete.”

What he caught was not only a love of the banjo and folk music, but also a political ideology and way of seeing the world that would shape the rest of his life.

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“He was just transformed. He just got his worldview, right then and there,” says Mr. Podolak’s son, Leonard. “He called himself a communist, and I think in terms of the actual original vision of what communism was supposed to be, that would be accurate in certain respects of his life. But he was really a Pete Seeger-ist.”

Mr. Podolak’s belief in the power of music became a guiding force in his life, and affected the lives of countless others through the cultural events and institutions he created and helped to create. His efforts included co-founding the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, forming a record label to release Stan Rogers’s first album, and the creation of Winnipeg’s storied West End Cultural Centre.

Mr. Podolak died in Winnipeg on Aug. 25, 2019, at the age of 71, of complications from septic shock. He leaves his wife, Ava Kobrinsky, his three sons, Leonard, Zeke and Max, three grandchildren, and extended family.

Mr. Podolak was born in Toronto on Sept 21, 1947, the youngest of three children in a home filled with political discussion and music. In interviews, Mr. Podolak described himself as a “red-diaper baby” and his parents as socialists and “working-class radicals.” His father immigrated to Canada before the Second World War and one of his grandfathers died in the Holocaust.

Mr. Podolak’s father passed away when he was nine, and Mr. Podolak struggled and rebelled. He dropped out of school in Grade 8, though tests later showed him to have a genius-level IQ. After seeing Pete Seeger perform, he pawned his clarinet for a banjo.

In his teens, Mr. Podolak began working at the Bohemian Embassy, a seminal Toronto coffee house at the heart of the 1960s folk revival in Canada. There, he once refused to book a young Neil Young because he thought Mr. Young couldn’t sing, a decision that Leonard Podolak says became one of his father’s “larger regrets.”

By his early 20s, Mr. Podolak was a political activist and avowed Trotskyist, travelling the country to start branches of the Young Socialists Alliance and the League for Socialist Action. He met Ava Kobrinsky in Toronto, and the two soon married and returned to her hometown of Winnipeg in the early 1970s.

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They would have one son, Leonard, and later adopted two teenagers, Max and Zeke Preston, after their mother died in the early 1990s.

It was in Winnipeg that Mr. Podolak and a friend applied for a grant to host a folk music concert as part of the city’s centennial year celebrations in 1973. The show was hosted by legendary CBC broadcaster Peter Gzowski, and took place on the grounds of Birds Hill Provincial Park, outside the city the following summer.

They hired Bruce Cockburn, the show was free and 9,000 people came, Leonard says.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival was born.

The event was not only about music. Mr. Podolak believed in music as a powerful ­way to spread ideology – even to spark revolution – and he brought political organization to his approach to festival planning and the broader tenets of the event.

In those years, every performer was paid the same amount, and volunteers and performers were treated equally, including being fed the same and having the same parties. Mr. Podolak said he modelled the volunteer system on the Bolshevik Party of 1917.

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“He used to tell every volunteer crew that they were the most important crew,” Leonard says. “And, the thing is, none of it was a lie.”

A 1984 book about the Winnipeg Folk Festival said Mr. Podolak created it “almost as a singular act of bravado.”

Mr. Podolak was a perennial presence amid the sea of blankets and bodies at Birds Hill, a large man with wild hair and beard, dressed casually in black T-shirt and jeans, sometimes hitched up with suspenders. (He once told a reporter he disliked barbers and had one suit and two ties, for “funerals, weddings and bar mitzvahs.”)

He was variously described in news stories through the years as a “folk festival guru,” a “bearded, chain-smoking radical,” a “chubby working-class hero,” a “banjo-playing… Trotskyite who could pass for a biker,” part of “a cabal of deranged artist types” and “a transcontinental telephone screamer and cajoler, ego masseur, bully-boy, fiscal conjurer, seat-of-the-pants strategist, romantic and catalyst.”

Among the tributes that have flooded in since his death, he has been called “folk music’s radical patron.”

Mr. Podolak left his position with the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1986, after years of heavy rain dampened attendance, put the festival in debt and stressed Mr. Podolak, who said he would start dreaming about rain in January. Leonard says his father’s decision to leave the festival was also greatly affected by the death of his good friend Stan Rogers, in an airplane fire in 1983.

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In addition to his vital role in creating the festivals in Winnipeg and Vancouver, Mr. Podolak helped with the creation of several others, including the folk festivals in Edmonton and Calgary, and the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival. In 1987, he led the transformation of a church in Winnipeg’s core into the West End Cultural Centre, which would become another beloved city institution.

His most recent endeavour was Home Routes, which connects performers with circuits of home concerts around the country. Leonard says the organization maintained the ideals to which Mr. Podolak had adhered throughout his life, including that everyone was paid the same and an equal member of the team.

“My dad hated capitalism so much," Leonard says. “So, so much. He believed the profit motive was the root of all problems, and that people should be treated as fairly as possible.”

Friends and family recall Mr. Podolak’s roaring laugh, and his love for good food. Though he could be brash and was famously opinionated, Leonard says his father was also open to changing his mind ­– even accepting electric guitars at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a significant shift at the time.

Mr. Podolak had little patience for rules and bureaucracy, joking on more than one occasion that he thought “after the socialist revolution, we'd hang the last capitalist with the guts of the last bureaucrat,” and rebelling even against the strictures of the ideologies to which he subscribed.

“I’m a communist. My own kind of communist,” he said, in a story in The Globe and Mail in 1986. “I belong to my own political party. That’s the Mitch Podolak communist party. One member. No dues, no committees, and no damn meetings.”

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Mr. Podolak had struggled with his health since a fall in 2016, and his condition deteriorated rapidly this past summer. Before his death, family and friends gathered at his bedside in Winnipeg, singing and performing.

Mr. Podolak was buried quickly, in the Jewish tradition. A broader memorial will take place in November, fittingly during an upstart Winnipeg arts festival. Leonard says the event will be called the 2nd Annual Winnipeg Crankie Festival Honouring Mitch Podolak, and will include performances, workshops, classes and variety shows over three days. Plans are also being made to create a foundation in Mr. Podolak’s name.

“His main mission was to make change, and make the world a better place,” Leonard says. “There’s a lot he couldn’t do anything about. But what he did do affected a lot of people, and a lot of people that don’t even know it affected them. He mentored hundreds, he created work for thousands, and he created fun for millions.”

Asked by a reporter in 1993 what he would like his epitaph to say if he was “called tomorrow to that big folk festival in the sky,” Mr. Podolak responded: “I hope it says something like: ‘He taught a lot of people a lot of music.’”

This summer, more than 76,000 people attended the Winnipeg Folk Festival, breaking all previous attendance records.

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