With this old guitar, FolkFest likely to return to Prescott in 2021

George Tierney with old guitar, and Fiddler Anna Ludlow warms up the crowd (right) at Upper Canada FolkFest in Prescott. Van Dusen photos, Nation Valley News

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

PRESCOTT — When local musician, Happy Crapper, and instrument repairer George Tierney walked onto the amphitheatre stage here Saturday he had quite a story to tell and an original song to sing to the first-ever Upper Canada FolkFest audience.

With a new feather of FolkFest founder in his cap, George was holding a battered century-old Gibson guitar, the model the company put out for mail-order, which has become the FolkFest emblem. He revealed later he was able to ascertain the history from faded numbers on the instrument.

The guitar was about to be tossed into a Toronto dumpster when a pal of George’s rescued it. It’s the same make and model used by legendary U.S. blues guitarist Robert Johnson. Wouldn’t it be something to discover it was Johnson’s actual guitar, George said dreamily during an interview. But there’s no way to prove — or disprove — such a storied lineage.

Still, the artifact was worth a song — This Old Guitar — which he delivered Saturday: “She’s worn and torn and haggard but one thing`s sure to see… I may hold her, I may love her, but she can’t belong to me.”

It was a fitting way to celebrate what is expected to become an annual event, a five-hour show featuring some of Eastern Ontario’s most beloved musical artists who have toured the country and much of the world:  Terry Tufts and family, Jim Bryson, Lynne Hanson, Anna Ludlow and James Kelaghan.

It rained a little and was quite chilly for most of the afternoon but nobody left… they just bundled up a little tighter. When George — member of local folk group Happy Crap — asked for a show of hands from those who would come back in a year to see the exact same lineup, everyone in the stands grabbed for the sky.

Because of Covid-19, the audience was restricted to 80 people in a venue with a capacity of 500. At one point, Kelaghan observed what would once have been considered poor attendance was now a sold-out crowd.

Despite minimum ticket sales, George said costs for the inaugural event were covered thanks to generous sponsorships from individuals and businesses who want FolkFest to return to Prescott.

The fact that FolkFest happened at all is a minor miracle. Organizers had to tackle one C-19 stumbling block after another and weren’t sure until the 11th hour that the show would go on. FolkFest maintained its green light because it was sold in advance, well organized and staffed with volunteers policing Covid restrictions.

Every summer, the amphitheatre is home to the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival as well as Summer Concert Series, both of which fell victim to the pandemic this year. Local residents hungry for live entertainment were part of the audience as were followers of the performers from across the region.

In addition to Tierney, founding organizers include Graham Lindsey, Celtic musician and video production specialist, Arthur McGregor, former owner of the Ottawa Folklore Centre, Herb Cloutier, producer, promoter and sound engineer, and Spencerville singer and designer Mary Moore.

A major supporter who was in attendance, Prescott Mayor Brett Todd saw FolkFest as symbolic: “We need to close out the warmer weather with a party that lets everyone know we’re coming back from the pandemic stronger than ever.”

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