The soulful sounds of master musicians filled the air at Drayton’s Centennial Park as the region’s role in providing a new start for former slaves was celebrated at the third annual Underground Railroad Music Festival, August 13.
Drayton is in the section of Ontario that was a main terminus on the Underground Railroad. The festival is a celebration of the lives and contributions of the early black settlers that came to Canada in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
“Many of those who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad made their way to this country through here,” said festival organizer Diana Braithwaite, a Toronto musician, whose ancestors settled in nearby Glen Allen after making their way to Canada through the “Railroad,” an informal network of secret routes and safe houses.
“A lot of my relatives came up here after Lord Simcoe declared slavery abolished in Upper Canada,” said performer Harriston Kennedy, a Hamilton native who opened his set with a haunting spiritual number before settling in to show the audience why he’s considered the “King of Acoustic Blues.”
As a musician, Braithwaite, who closed the festival with a Gospel set of her own, felt that a music festival was the perfect way to celebrate the rich legacy of the risky journey to freedom of those early pioneers.
Braithwaite said the musicians taking the stage for the festival hailed from southern USA, as well as from across Ontario.
Performers included Curley Bridges, a veteran bluesman who played with jazz giant Fats Waller and considers legendary songstress Billie Holiday among his mentors, as well as Kennedy, Kevin Breit, DouglasWatson, Chris and Jesse Whiteley, Miss Angel, Donovan Locke, Diana Braithwaite and Pastor Tim Bailey joined by the Mississippi Gospel Singers.
Both the Wellington County Historical Society and the Township of Mapleton assisted with the event and the move to the larger Centennial Park venue from the Glen Allen Park where the first two festivals were held.
“We’re going to have some wonderful memories of the Queens Bush heritage and some of the black settlements in Mapleton Township,” said Mapleton Councillor John Green, who addressed the crowd during a break in the performance.
Braithwaite said the event has been steadily growing since its inception. While the first two concerts were free, the Drayton show was the festival’s first ticketed event.
She noted the event, which features folk, blues, jazz, bluegrass and gospel music, is an inclusive event aimed at the local community, as well as those with connections to the early black settlements.
“It’s a day of music and a little bit of history,” said Braithwaite.