This weekend, July 5 – 7, the Midsummer Music Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary.
“Be ready to be exposed to all kinds of different sounds and people,” one of the long-time organizers Norma Stokes said.
“It’s a real cross-section of people that come, an eclectic mix of people.”
Eclectic is the right word to describe not only the mix of people listening to the music, but also the musicians scheduled for this year’s festival, including Latin guitarist Oscar Lopez, folk musician James Keelaghan, singer-songwriter Del Barber, the multi-faceted Hey Ocean, the inimitable King Crow and the Ladies from Hell, Calgary-based Ramblin’ Ambassadors and Will Stroet, not to mention a ton of homegrown musicians including Rachelle van Zanten and The Racket.
The motivation for the first festival in 1984 was quite simple – provide local musicians with the opportunity to play their music in public.
With that in mind, local musicians like Karen Diemert, Norma and George Stokes, Kevin Widen, Marion Rose and Ted Turner went to work, first establishing the Bulkley Valley Folk Music Society and then putting together a one-day festival.
“That was key, people were doing this so we could play music,” Norma said.
“There were all these bands that were part of the organizing team and that’s what made it.
“Yes, we’ll work really hard so we can play songs on the stage.”
The first festival in 1984 was a modest affair, Norma said, with about 500 people in attendance.
“That included patrons, volunteers and musicians,” Norma said.
In addition to Paddy Hernon headlining the show, festival organizers benefitted from a little serendipity as they got wind of a Chilean band, Kuya y Taripay, passing through the Bulkley Valley.
The band graciously accepted to hit the festival stage.
“Thank God because they made the festival,” Stokes said.
“It was really awesome.”
Inspired by the fun had by all, the group of friends decided to make the Midsummer Music Festival a permanent fixture on the local music scene.
“It was a fun time and we didn’t lose our shirts,” Stokes said.
To add to their original budget of $500 the BCFMS started holding fundraisers as well as their Valentino’s Night where Driftwood Hall was turned into a 1930s jazz club.
With each passing summer the festival grew, more people came and musicians lined up to play at the festival.
Today, musicians still line up to play at the festival knowing full well they won’t be paid to perform, in fact only headliners receive a modest payment for their appearance.
“We’ve always been a volunteer-based organization, we’ve never paid any of the local musicians,” Norma said.
“It’s sad, but we give them food and camping and let them come and play music.
“We feed them very well.
“Often they sign up to come back, people love playing at the festival.”
Looking back, Stokes becomes emotional with thoughts of amazing moments and the sense that the festival is truly a family affair.
“It’s like a big family, you go through stuff with your family,” Norma, who had a two-year-old son when she and George helped with the first Midsummer Music Festival, said.
“That’s why I’m here, it is like a family.
“Especially in the early years, we had meetings and potluck suppers and that’s how we built this festival.
“We would have a festival meeting, everybody hanging out, kids sleeping on the floor and then your drinking beers, being goofy and playing music.”
The number of patrons and the amount of music played at the festival nowadays is a far cry from the very first effort, but the sense of family is something that has remained and that is precisely why Cynthia Rondeau joined the BVFMS as public relations co-ordinator last year.
“I wanted to volunteer for something that mattered to me and I love music,” Rondeau said.
“I thought the kind of people that go with music are usually family-oriented folk that like to have fun and you can bring your kids along.
“That was important to me because I’m a single mom and I’ve got a little guy and I thought he’ll make friends and I’ll make friends and we’ll have a family.
“I feel like I am a part of something, they’re like a family and they look out for you.”
Over the years organizers have accumulated many favourite moments and, when asked, for her favourite moment, Norma teared up.
“Seeing Gail Jenne,” Norma started, wiping away a few tears.
“She was a mom too and she’s a great singer and she was headlining.
“She was just crazy nervous, it just shocked me because she was a professionally-trained singer.
“It was just awesome because she was so nervous and she just nailed it on the main stage and just rocked, that was a great moment for me.”
Of course, as with any long-lasting endeavour, funny moments also accumulate, although they’re not always funny at the time.
For Norma, some of the funniest moments are those when Mother Nature ignored organizer’s prayers for good weather.
“One year we made big papier mâché forms and of coursed it rained really hard so we had papier mâché everywhere,” she said.
“It was just a mess.”
Another year the decision was made to have blocks formed from cardboard boxes.
“We collected boxes for weeks and weeks, we taped them up and made a huge pile of blocks in the kids area,” Norma said.
“The kids built these huge crazy things and then of course on Sunday it poured rain.”
A suggestion to repeat the activity the following year was voted down.
Through it all, the process of organizing the festival has remained simple.
“You have to be doing this because you love it, otherwise don’t do it,” Norma said.
“That’s how we try to keep it rolling.”