Profile by Jane Ledwell
Debbie Atkinson volunteered for the first East Coast Music Awards that came to Charlottetown, in 1996, out of love of music and challenges. Debbie says: “I caught on with traditional music, and I didn’t know I would. I didn’t think I would love fiddles.” Debbie has now been part of bringing live traditional music and storytelling to every corner of Prince Edward Island for ten years, as festival manager of the PEI Mutual Festival of Small Halls.
Despite growing up in Charlottetown surrounded by music, “I had never really been put in front of really good fiddle music,” Debbie says, “but I could see the talent of these guys. They were not just out of the barn.”
Debbie volunteered in the office for the 1996 ECMAs because “My kids were growing up, and I didn’t have a job that year,” she recalls. Electrified by the talent she saw, she continued work in the music business, as performance coordinator for the “huge production” of Bridge Fest in 1997, and as event manager when the ECMAs returned to PEI in 2001: “I was terrified I was going to fail, but I didn’t.”
The timing was right in 2008 when Ray Brow and Ward MacDonald dreamed up a traditional music festival for small halls across the Island. They approached Debbie just six weeks out from that first proposed festival. “I have to pay homage to Ray and Ward. Neither is involved now, but they invented the festival; they were the brains, and I was the admin at first.” That first festival “worked, and it worked well.”
“People would be amazed how many people come to PEI just for the cultural experience,” Debbie says. “On PEI, we have talent that can rival anywhere in the world.” Debbie credits festival programmer Cynthia MacLeod for “a fantastic Festival this year,” adding, “I am deeply indebted to her for her work for many years with the Festival.” Cynthia programs 40% from “away” and 60% artists from here; they put on 40+ shows, year after year, and people come out and pay to hear the locals as much as the “from aways.”
The festival and its sponsors have a rural feel, Debbie says. “I grew up in Charlottetown,” she says, “and I didn’t know where Lot 7 was, or Lot 16 or Munn’s Road. And now I’m running the roads, seeing these gorgeous venues in beautiful places, and the sweet hospitality. It’s a typical ‘Island’ thing to do.” Many of the small halls across the Island are run by volunteers, and Debbie says, “I’ve loved getting to know them. I never imagined that I would know the Island like I do now.”
She smiles, “I’ve moved to Cornwall now, but in my mind, I’m in the country.”
Debbie gets to every show she can—“certainly every day of the festival.” This year, she is especially looking forward to “reprise” shows Cynthia MacLeod has organized, to bring back shows from past years that people particularly loved. Often, Debbie says, “I have to emcee a show, or take tickets or serve food. We have to do whatever we have to do.”
Sometimes, at a late-night, post-show jam, she will add her own guitar to the melee of instruments. “I’ve played guitar for years, as a church youth leader, around campfires and with youth groups. I play guitar in a rock band at church. It’s great for mental health. Some people cook, some people garden—I like music,” she says.
When the PEI Mutual Festival of Small Halls begins, “I’m just a cog in the wheel,” Debbie insists, but she laughs, “I’ve been a constant cog—I’m the only original cog left.
“Every year for the festival, we have to hire new staff, and they are often 20-somethings with not a lot of knowledge of traditional music, Debbie says. She gets to see them awaken to it, just as she did, to discover “the value of music handed down from one generation to the next.”
This happens “in rural kitchens everywhere,” Debbie says, and she’s proud to support small halls across PEI that are like kitchens more people can fit into.