Bill Powell – Founder of Hamilton-Wentworth Creative Arts and Festival of Friends

It was announced by Lynne Powell on Sunday, September 13, 2015 that Bill Powell died. As a tribute to Bill and his life work, we are republishing Stephanie Beatson’s article below.

Bill Powell

The Dream Team

by Stephanie Beatson

[First published in Hamilton Musician Magazine, March 2015]

Bill Powell will be the first to tell you he’s the luckiest guy on the planet to have met his wife Lynne, who has been his partner in all things, since the two met in 1967. Bill and Lynne were involved with numerous festivals for 25 years until they retired in 2000. Bill was the “mouthpiece,” the talent recruiter and booking agent while Lynne worked to keep them in the black, making budgets and winning grants. Together, under the non-profit organization (later turned charity) Hamilton-Wentworth Creative Arts, they founded the Festival of Friends. The first festival debuted August 10-16, 1976 and featured over 200 folk musicians including Willie P. Bennett, John Allan Cameron, Shirley Eikhard, Ron Nigrini, Ray Materick, Bill Hughes and Sylvia Tyson.

Serendipitously, the Festival of Friends began by accident. As Bill explains, his art studio was near Gore Park and the musicians, artists and dancers used to hang around. Bill decided to hold an art show in the park, during which some people brought bongos and other instruments. Word of mouth attracted many more people than anticipated. “It smoked! It just happened. The second year got so big that we started to block traffic,” said Bill, after which they had to relocate from Gore Park.

When the Olympics came to Canada in 1976, Bill and Lynne were approached by the City of Hamilton who proposed that they jointly apply for a large grant that Creative Arts could use to organize and run a festival. They were awarded funding and the first official Festival of Friends was born. The festival was wildly successful, both in terms of attendance and financially. It simply had to continue and so the Powells, along with their many dedicated volunteers, ran the festival year after year until they officially retired after the festival’s 25th run.

The Powells had a few goals in mind with the Festival of Friends. They wanted it to be a family-friendly event, so they didn’t charge admission and they had a children’s area with various activities (they could build a musical instrument and learn to play it, they could dance, shop in a market). They also wanted to keep the festival Canadian. Their aim was to introduce audiences to new homegrown artists as well as expose artists to a broader audience. Finally, they wanted the festival to be as eco-friendly as possible. Bill would end each night by thanking the audience and asking people to pick up some trash on the way out. “The park was always left spotless” he said.

Photo: Festival of Friends archive

The Festival of Friends began a chain of events, and following its success, Bill started up Earth Song, an international festival that hosted acts from countries all over the world, held at Cootes Paradise. The values and goals were similar to the Festival of Friends; to welcome one and all and to expose people to different artists and cultures.

Creative Arts was called on to help with other festivals including the Tall Ships Festival, Jacques Cousteau Festival, the Dundas Busker Festival, Renaissance festivals, and Barton Street Bash.

Bill and Lynne were like surrogate parents to hundreds of people in varying fields, from music and art, to radio, to acting and even to the volunteers who helped run the festivals. Lynne talks with pride about their involvement: “It gave them values and they were valued. It built self-esteem.” Bill pipes in, “I know that those kids went on with their lives and used the skills that they got from us in another field.”

In the days when Bill owned the Ebony Knight and Knight II coffee houses in Hamilton they would book musicians to play to the various festivals the Powells ran. They worked with people like Jackie Washington, Harrison Kennedy, Joni Mitchell, Murray McLaughlan, Valdy, Fred Eaglesmith, Brent Titcomb, Jude Johnson, Stan Rogers, Tom Wilson, David Bradstreet, David Essig, Dave Rave, Brian Griffith, Tom Jackson, Ian Thomas, Bill Hughes, Jesse Cook and countless others.

Reflecting on what he considers his greatest contribution after over 40 years in the industry, Bill shares: “I was put on earth by the lord to lead, teach, share, and reward my fellow man. I was put here because I have a mind that has the ability to assess a person to find out what is good about that person, and how I can bring it about and help them rediscover it inside themselves and grow. I was extremely fortunate in finding [Lynne] who fell nutsy cuckoo in love with me, which was great, but she also had a mind that was like a steel trap. She could take my dreams and write them out so that other people could see the dream and share the dream. It’s important to be a good listener, a good questioner, and by all means help your fellow man.”

This philosophy is what drew people in, motivated all they did, and gave meaning to their work. The contributions of Bill and Lynne Powell have had a ripple effect within the Hamilton area arts and music scene, which would most certainly not have developed the way it did without the “Dream Team.”

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