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Memory Lane: Celebrating Northern Lights Festival Boréal (while we await its return in 2022)

One of Canada’s oldest music festivals, the pandemic forced the cancellation of Northern Lights for the past two years. Since we can’t attend this year, let’s relive the memories of one of the Nickel City’s premier summer events

Northern Lights Festival Boréal (NLFB) is one of Canada's oldest music festivals. Cancelled in 2020 and 2021, organizers have boldly announced they will celebrate its 50th anniversary from July 7 to 10, 2022.

In recent years, NLFB has been held the first or second weekend in July. It is an important date on the city's arts calendar. 

In 2019, more than 13,000 people attended the festival at Bell Park.

The first festival was a one-day event and it was free. From the beginning, it was a celebration of  folk, world beat, grassroots, Francophone and Indigenous music. Organizers have always made sure there was a children's stage and lots of activities for kids.

NLFB has grown to a three-day festival and often there have been offsite concerts at places such as The Townehouse Tavern downtown. In normal times, NLFB sponsors concerts throughout the year.

Over the past 50 years, NLFB has hosted some incredible performers: Murray McLaughlin, Blue Rodeo, Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith, Don Mclean, Daniel Lanois, Steven Page, Sam Roberts and Joel Plaskett, to name just a few of the preeminent musicians who have graced its stages.

In the early 1980s, teenager Eilleen Twain performed at the festival. Country music pioneer Mary Bailey saw that performance and was impressed.

"I saw this little girl up on stage with a guitar and it absolutely blew me away. She performed Willie Nelson's Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain and Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Her voice reminded me of Tanya Tucker, it had strength and character, a lot of feeling. She's a star, she deserves an opportunity.

"She sang a few songs that she had written, and I thought to myself, this kid is like 19 years old, where does she get this?”

Bailey became her manager and convinced Twain to concentrate on country music instead of rock 'n' roll. She helped her get a contract to perform at the Deerhurst Resort in Haliburton. 

In 1985, Bailey drove Twain to Nashville and introduced the young singer to her contacts in the country music industry. A few years later, Eilleen changed her name to Shania, signed a contract with Mercury Nashville and was on her way to becoming a music superstar.

In a story famous in Canadian folk circles, Canadian musician Stan Rogers wrote his famous modern sea shanty Barrett's Privateers in Sudbury because he did not know any traditional sea shanties to perform at a collaborative workshop with the Friends of Fiddler's Green at the festival.

Musician and Ottawa university professor Adam Oliver Brown's father, Alistair, was a member of the Friends. On his blog, Brown related this story. 

"Much like at many other folk festivals, the stories arising from the after parties at the hotel/lodgings are among the most legendary and this anecdote is one of those cases,” he said. “At the Sudbury folk festival (probably 1972 or 1973), one of the jam sessions at the after party (this time in the university dorm) was being dominated by the Friends, singing their large and boisterous repertoire of sea shanties. Stan Rogers, at the time, didn’t sing songs of this kind, and reacted by noisily and visibly stormed out of the party in a huff. 

"The following morning, Stan approached the table at which the tired and groggy FFG were eating their breakfast, slammed down a piece of paper and blurted out, 'Suck on this, you limey bastards!' That piece of paper contained the lyrics to Barrett’s Privateers, which he had written in his room out of spite for the Friends."

Since we can't party at NLFB this year,  Sudbury.com invites readers to share their memories of the music, performers and friends they met, the food, and the arts and crafts. Many couples met at the festival and we'd love to tell those stories in the follow-up Memory Lane article July 13.

Send your memories and photos to editor@sudbury.com or vgilhula@gmail.com

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. She is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living magazine, and has a special interest in local history. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.