For Toronto-born blues singer Diana Braithwaite it was the history of her family and others with similar stories that keeps her inspired to host the annual Underground Railroad Music Festival .
“The festival was created to celebrate the lives and contributions and the living history of the area including the Underground Railroad and the early black pioneers that settled in Wellington and Waterloo counties,” said Braithwaite.
In the early 1800s, African-Canadian immigrants began to develop the vast unsettled land between Waterloo County and Lake Huron, known as the Queen’s Bush, building farms and homes in the wild.
The Queen’s Bush Settlement includes the western portion of Woolwich Township and the northern half of Wellesley Township, with the majority of the immigrants settling in the southern half of Peel Township in Wellington County.
By 1840 the settlement was home to between 1,500 and 2,000 black immigrants. These free and formerly enslaved people had built churches, schools, farms and communities across the region.
The settlement was short-lived, as the government ordered the district surveyed and many of the settlers could not afford to purchase the land they had laboured so hard to clear; by 1850 a mass migration out of Queen’s Bush had begun.
“I wanted to do something to acknowledge and celebrate my ancestry, and music is a natural way for me to do that,” explained Braithwaite. “My family on my mother’s side came to Canada through the Underground Railroad and this gives me a personal connection.
Being a blues singer I thought I could give back through the music I love.”
The music festival will feature a number of different musicians, all performing to honour the Underground Railroad and the pioneers who settled in the region. The festival is the only one of its kind in North America.
This year’s line up will include Harrison Kennedy’s take on the blues, Curley Bridges a piano and vocal performer, Kevin Breit, a Juno and Gemini Award winning folk singer and guitarist, Miss Angel known as the Mississippi Delta Queen of the Blues, and Douglas Watson, a Chicago Blues singer, as well as many others, including Braithwaite and her husband Chris Whiteley.
“It’s a celebration of all different kinds of music,” she said. “There will be some gospel, some blues, bluegrass, world-class folk and a bit of jazz.”
Braithwaite’s inspiration comes from her mother, Aylestock, 87, who is one of the oldest living descendents of the Queen’s Bush pioneers.
“My mother has always had a great interest in history and wanted us to know our history,” said Braithwaite. “I am thankful for that as she has passed along a lot of information to her children. We learned about our history from a young age. It’s so important to take pride in where you come from.”
This year’s festival has been moved from Glen Allan Park to Drayton, as organizers look to expand the venue to accommodate more visitors.
“It has really taken off. Here we are three years later and we have grown – this year’s festival is going to be the best one so far,” said Braithwaite.
The festival takes place Aug. 13 between 12 and 7 p.m. at Cenntenial Park in Drayton. On hand will be food vendors, this year offering a mixture of Caribbean and soul food. Everyone is invited and welcome to attend.
For more information or to purchase tickets visit the festival’s website at www.braithwaiteandwhiteley.com.