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Celebrating 40 years of folk in Victoria

For the past four decades, the Victoria Folk Music Society has stuck firmly to its original mandate: Raise the profile of folk music in Victoria.

For the past four decades, the Victoria Folk Music Society has stuck firmly to its original mandate: Raise the profile of folk music in Victoria.

The volunteer-run society has done so by hosting touring folk musicians in concert every Sunday, for which the ticket price is always the low-dough price of $5. Not surprisingly, at each of those concerts a little bit of magic comes pouring out. “Week after week, performers who are touring come and play a set for us,” said Carol Aileen, who has been a member of the society for 27 years.

“It’s very personal. It just makes you feel good all over every Sunday night.”

Aileen, who has been the society’s president since 2010, is one of a core group of organizers who keep the registered non-profit up, running and in the black. And what a remarkable journey it has been for the membership, which hovers around 100 annually. “There is nowhere quite like us,” Aileen said.

Next week, the society will stage yet another Sunday concert, this one slightly more meaningful than the rest. In Honour of the Founders: A Panel Concert will celebrate the society’s 40th anniversary while also paying tribute to those individuals who steered the society from past to present. Like always, the bash will be held at Norway House, a former one-room school situated on Hillside Avenue between the streets of Quadra and Cook.

The society first rented the 148-seat building, which is owned and operated by the members of Eidsvold Lodge, home to the Victoria chapter of the Sons of Norway, in 1975. The Victoria Folklore Society — as it was known then — had outgrown the living rooms and kitchens of its members, so an executive decision was made to find a bigger hall for functions.

One of the first Victoria Folklore Society concerts at Norway House featured U.S. folk singer Utah Phillips, a coup considering he’d been written up in Rolling Stone magazine a few years earlier. Tickets for the Phillips concert were $2. Coffee, tea, and cookies were priced at 10 cents. The next day, to celebrate the show’s success, the members held an outdoor picnic.

Denis Donnelly was the first to suggest Norway House as a possible venue. Open Space had been used at points, in addition to various other venues. Nothing could match Norway House. “It seemed like the right place,” Donnelly recalled. “I thought it would be a good place for a concert.”

Donnelly spent the early part of the ’70s teaching guitar at the Victoria Folklore Centre, a music store that sold and repaired instruments, primarily guitars. The shop — opened in 1970 by Dave and Marjorie Cahill, both passionate music supporters — had become something of a gathering place for folk-music fans in the city. With the store as a hub, the seeds of what would become the Victoria Folk Music Society were planted.

“Many of us were attending folk song circles, which were held in the studio of a classical guitar teacher on Vancouver Street,” Dave Cahill said. “It was very informal, but the consensus amongst quite of a few of us was to broaden the horizons of the things we were doing. After informal meetings at several different peoples’ homes, it was decided to start up a folk-music society.”

Cahill, who renamed the Victoria Folklore Centre as Old Town Strings in 1987, a store he still owns and operates, would eventually drop out due to the hectic pace of his business. But others picked up the idea and ran with it.

The society was formed while Donnelly was living away from Victoria, but he returned in 1976 to find the folk scene in Victoria flourishing. He was president of the society for a while and has performed off-and-on at Norway House in the years since, mostly at the open-mike portion that precedes each Sunday concert.

The magic of those early years was something to behold, Donnelly said. “The society was formed at a time when the Bob Dylans and the Peter, Paul, and Marys and the Ian and Sylvias were still ripe and resonant in the air.”

For a time in the mid-’80s, however, the society — as with folk music in general — struggled, he said. “I remember sitting around in the back room of the folk club thinking: ‘This isn’t worth it. We should just close it down.’ ”

They didn’t, and for good reason. Despite the occasional thin crowd, the society operates with a break-even budget, Aileen said. It stays manageable by being completely volunteer-run, its primary income coming from the $65 per-person annual membership fee. Monthly business meetings help steer the direction of the society, to ensure the rent gets paid.

“We’ve often attributed our longevity and success to knowing what it is we do and do well,” Aileen said. “We don’t have visions of getting bigger and we certainly have hopes that we are sustainable. We operate on that model. It’s the love of the music that brings us all together, but it’s also a real appreciation of community.”

Touring artists that play the Sunday shows are paid modestly, though well enough to cover all travel expenses and performance fees. The $5 admission is fair and therefore firm, according to Aileen.

“Sometimes there’s pressure to raise it. We’ve had a few professional players that we wanted to book as a feature, and we were willing to pay the fee that they wanted, but it was refused because we were only charging $5 at the door. Part of what we are really determined to do is make sure that it is accessible. If we can get by charging $5 at the door, then that’s what we charge.”

The concert on April 19 will feature many of the founders, and those who cannot be there in person will appear via video. Every music fan, volunteer and paid member has played a role in the Victoria Folk Music Society’s success over the decades, and Aileen and her fellow executive directors — titles that “don’t really fit right,” she admitted — want nothing more than to thank them in person next week.

“We refer to ourselves as an adhocracy. Everything is done by consensus, by whomever wants to be involved in the decision-making.”

The Victoria Folk Music Society and its membership has lent its support to various folk-related causes over the years. They helped the FolkWest festival get off the ground initially, and pledges its support to the annual Islands Folk Festival in Duncan. Folk programming at University of Victoria radio station CFUV and co-productions with the Deep Cove Folk Music Society and Sooke Folk Music Society are other ongoing projects.

Aileen does have one concern, however. The success of the society going forward depends upon new members coming to the table. Once the original crew is gone, she hopes a new generation will be there to continue the tradition. “Folk clubs, we’re a distinctly greying membership. But there are lots of young people who come to play, and we’re hopeful that before we can no longer do all the work, those young people will take over the job of keeping it going.”


The Victoria Folk Music Society will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a concert on April 19. In Honour of the Founders: A Panel Concert will be held at Norway House (1110 Hillside Ave.) and hosted by one of the society’s founders, Denis Donnelly. Admission is $5 at the door. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.