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Then & Now: Looking back on 50 years of Northern Lights Festival

NLFB is as much a part of Sudbury as the Big Nickel, porketta bingo and the Superstack. Vicki Gilhula looks back on 50 years of celebrating the best in folk, world, grassroots, Francophone and Indigenous music

Northern Lights Festival Boréal (NLFB) is as much a part of Sudbury's psyche as the Big Nickel, porketta bingo, its 330 lakes, the Superstack and our mistaken reputation as a moonscape.

The music festival, which has been an annual love-in since 1972, turns 50 this year.

In 2019, the last year the festival was held before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 13,000 people attended the festival at Bell Park.

The first festival was a one-day free party with mostly local performers such as Robert Paquette, Paul Dunn, Richard Mende and Len Hansen. Folk singer Murray McLauchlan was one of the headliners. (The talented Ian Tamblyn, who performed at early editions of the festival, returns for 2022.)

From the beginning, NLFB was a celebration of folk, world beat, grassroots, Francophone and Indigenous music. There has always been a children's stage, as well as ethnic food vendors and arts and crafts booths.

Founding organizers include Scott Merrifield, Jean-Jaques Paquette, Normand Glaude, Stan Belinski and Ray Auger. Merrifield’s son, Max, would later play a key role in administration, replacing Paul Loewenburg, who was artistic director for 17 years.

The success of the festival depends on the weather – veterans know to prepare for rain and shine – and the hundreds of volunteers who help with setup and clean-up, security, selling tickets, manning concessions, feeding performers and other tasks.

Many past NLFB enthusiasts who have moved away are expected to return to Sudbury this weekend for a reunion at Bell Park.

Broadcaster and journalist Don Hill, who now lives in Edmonton remembers, the early days.

“I had a very small hand organizing the first festival from a perch inside the federal building on Lisgar Street.

“As I recall, I was tasked with phoning Jesse Winchester, a big ’thing’ in the folk world to see if he would come play the festival. He was in Montreal. He was also a draft dodger from the USA, with a great new record that featured most of The Band as his backup.”

Convincing an artist to attend your event was a little different 50 years ago, Hill said.

“It was very easy in those days to pick up the phone and expect stars to answer your call,” he said.

“There was no cash for musicians. Jesse was none too pleased to hear that and in his quaint Southern drawl uttered two words – they were not ‘happy motoring.’ No Jesse for that festival year or any thereafter.”

Over the past 50 years, NLFB has hosted some incredible performers including Blue Rodeo, Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith, Don Mclean, Daniel Lanois, Steven Page, Sam Roberts and Joel Plaskett, CANO’s Andre Paiement and Wasyl Kohut, Jackie Washington, Willie P. Bennett, Rita MacNeil, John Allen Cameron, and Gord Downie.

More than 40 years ago, teenager Eilleen Twain performed at the festival. Country music pioneer Mary Bailey saw her perform and became her manager.

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

In 1985, Bailey drove Twain to Nashville and introduced the 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.

Twain fondly remembers her visit to NLFB. In fact, on July 6 she actually posted to Facebook about it, sharing a story of her first-ever visit to Northern Lights Festival in 1976.

“Northern Lights Festival Boréal 1976 — My first ever festival! I was a little girl, with an outfit made by my grandma and handmade moccasins … on a big stage with a bunch of adults and a huge audience watching me ... and a guitar that was bigger than me!” Twain recalled.

“Looking back, that was a really intimidating environment to be in and I'm really proud of that little kid for facing my fears and braving it out — little did I know it would be a running theme in my career! Congratulations to Northern Lights Festival on 50 years. Fond memories from my beginnings.”

Canadian musician Stan Rogers wrote his famous modern sea shanty Barrett's Privateers in Sudbury during NLFB.

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

“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."

Photographer John Davidson remembers attending the festival with camera in hand from 1972 until the 1990s.

"The summer of 1986 stands out. Colin Linden, Toronto’s Whiteley brothers (Chris and Ken), Connie Kaldor from Saskatchewan, Buffy Sainte-Marie and so many more," Davidson said.

"I recall walking through Bell Park and noticed Richie Havens, my Woodstock favourite (‘Freedom’), sitting alone, cross-legged on the grass. I politely asked if I may join him.

"He was so gracious and exactly as kind as I had imagined he would be. I recall his large hands gesturing as he spoke. At first, I thought he would say no to photographs. Thankfully, that was not the case and I got some great images.”

On a personal note, the first NLFB this writer attended was in 1986, shortly after arriving in Sudbury from Toronto.

Sitting in the amphitheatre and listening to Loreena McKennitt’s honey voice and delicate harp playing, I wondered what a Greek-like outdoor concert facility was doing in a rough mining town. Who could imagine such a grand thing? Its architect, Oryst Sawchuk, would later play a large role in my life.

The 50th edition of NLFB is four days of music with six stages, 100 shows and a variety of musical styles.

The schedule, lineup, tickets and info can be found at NLFB.ca or by phoning 705-674-5512. Children under 14 are admitted free, and afternoon passes are only $15, at the gate.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. Much of the material in this article appeared previously on Sudbury.com in July 2021.