Festival History – Tottenham Bluegrass Festival
The Birth of Bluegrass in Tottenham
How did the Tottenham Bluegrass Festival Begin? Whose idea was it?
Who is responsible for this annual musical treasure now famous in Canada and throughout North America?
Well…thirty-four years is a long time to look back, and some of the original founders have passed on; but two facts seem certain:
Penny McMullen and Alice Forrestal of the Tottenham Centennial Committee conceived the idea of a music festival to celebrate
Tottenham’s 100 years as a town. They thought “the pond” west of town was the ideal place, as it had a natural amphitheatre. The committee approached the local Lion’s Club for help.
Lion Al Benner, Jim Mannel and his Lion buddies took it from there. The project took off. Legend has it that a coin was tossed under a blue moon to choose either a folk festival or a bluegrass one. Fate chose the latter, and the race was on to find and hire some good bands. That’s when Peter Deveau came to town. One of Al’s neighbours worked at Labatt’s with “this guy in cowboy boots who manages a bluegrass band and is always talking about Bluegrass.”
Peter was invited to a Lion’s meeting and it was decided to bring a band to town so people could hear this exotic hillbilly stuff for themselves.
Shin Van Avery and a collection of skilled players from “Cross Country Bluegrass” gave a concert at St. James Catholic school in Colgan. Colgan is a little Irish village
a kilometer from town with a huge church, and they love anything with a fiddle in it.
Later Al Benner asked the music teacher, Mike Kirley to explain Bluegrass to the Chamber of Commerce. He promptly did so, explaining that the blue in Bluegrass was for the sky, and the word grass was for the ground. That’s why Bluegrass is best played outdoors. As the Chamber members shook their heads, he and Al lit into a blistering two-chord instrumental taken from the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies”.
Since that humble beginning with Shin Van Avery and Eddie Leblanc, over 250 bluegrass bands have performed at the pond; the cream of the crop from USA and Canada.
For one magic music-filled week in June bands play in schools, legions, and bars as well as at the pond. The whole community is involved with over 200 volunteers giving of their time.
Ever since the strains of Bluegrass blew into town, local musicians and bluegrass wannabes began forming jams in each others homes. Expeditions were taken to Peter Deveau’s “Winter Concerts” in Scarborough to study how the Americans played this genre of music they invented. People enrolled in banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, dobro and bass lessons. Plinking and plunking sounds could be heard early in the day and late at night all over town.
The first local band to emerge was Hometown Bluegrass, and it rose quickly to both regional and provincial acclaim over the years from 1985 until 2014 with a few minor interruptions. Next came “North of Nine’, a Kirley family band that went on the Ontario Festival circuit in the ‘90’s. Gene Gouthro, a Beeton fireman, joined the renowned band SilverBirch, and produced the award winning series of Bluegrass Sampler CDs called “North to Ontario”. Following later was “Smalltown Gurlz, an all woman band that
performed at Deerhurst.. After that came “ The Simcoe County Ramblers”, with Jill Jones. Jill then formed a band with Emory Lester, the internationally famous mandolin player. Presently we have “Beeton Creek Rising”, who will be on this year’s lineup. They have played at the Bluegrass Awards Show in Deerhurst at Huntsville as well.. Wayne Douglas, originally living in Tottenham and singing for Hometown Bluegrass, now sings for “The Grassheads” with Leslie Dawn Knowles in Toronto. And of course, the band “Switchback Road”, with Mike Kirley and Drew Elmer is on the festival circuit as well.
Quite a few “young’uns” have decided to study music full time due to the influence of the Tottenham Bluegrass Festival. The Children’s Stage featured young hopefuls honing their skills for monetary prizes while proud parents cheered them on. Names like Nicole Scott, Dan and Colin Kirley, Evan Switzer, the Lawless Family, and Drew Elmer come to mind.
Other community events in the surrounding area have been enriched by local bluegrass bands; the Beeton Honey Fest, the Beeton and Schomberg Fairs, the Alliston Potato Fest, the Riverdale and Tottenham Park Concerts as well as the Dufferin County Museum have all hired local Bluegrass bands that grew out of the Tottenham Bluegrass Festival.
A great deal of planning goes into carrying out a large event like this festival, and certain names have been there for many years: Al Benner, Helen Mabee, Jim Mannel, Jerry Switzer, Bill and Wendy Kippen, Cathryn McGregor, Rosie Deveau, Mike Kirley, Lee Whyte, John Holland, Steve Blanchard, Terry Calvert, David and Brian Simms, George Stamper, Wilf Trahan, Ralph Wilding, Mike Pare, Eric and Beverly Robbins, Drew Elmer, Beth Wink, Barb Duncan, Kent Broom, Jill Jones, Laura Fox, Linda Gamble, Terry Calvert, Bill Perry, Bruce and Joy Proudfoot and Glen Schleuter, to name a few. Meetings are held all year long with executive committees, sub committees, and meetings of the whole. Strong friendships have developed over the years, and many have taken up picking and singing for themselves. Some in their “senior years”, no less! At a recent benefit for Joy and Bruce Proudfoot, members banded together and raised $7000. This was a true testament to the festival committee members’ spirit!
Drop by the weekly jam on Monday nights at the Rusty Nail on Mill Street and you can hear us carrying on the Bluegrass torch…singing our hearts out. You will feel welcome, and who knows…maybe you will even start “pickin’ and grinnin’” yourself!