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In the news : The Globe & Mail

New series explores folk roots


July 5, 2008

VANCOUVER -- Across the country this summer, from Bonavista (or at least St. John's) to Vancouver Island, thousands of people will attend folk festivals. Featuring artists such as Ray Davies and the Sam Roberts Band, these events have evolved far from the beginnings of the folk-music movement.

For many, those beginnings are rooted in the familiar sounds of legends such as Ian & Sylvia and Joni Mitchell - but, as Gary Cristall reveals in a new documentary series, the roots go back much further than that. The People's Music explores the origins of the genre in Canada, and starts tomorrow on CBC Radio One and CBC Radio 2.

Cristall, the co-founder and former artistic director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, has spent eight years travelling the country, interviewing folk-music artists, promoters and historians for a book (which is still at least two years from completion). From the 150 or so interviews he has conducted so far, Cristall has put together a five-part series.

Even Cristall admits it's impossible to pinpoint the birth of folk music in this land, but he has elected to start the series with Roy Mackenzie, an ex-patriate academic who in 1909 returned home to Nova Scotia to compile old ballads and preserve what he was sure was a dying tradition. Almost 20 years later, these were published in his seminal collection, Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia.

From early collectors of traditional ballads, Cristall moves, not always chronologically, to the labour movement and left-wing politics, ethnic folk festivals and finally the pop charts.

Cristall has an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. But don't ask him to define it or put walls around what can be categorized as folk. It's nebulous, even contentious, he admits, and always has been.

"There were people who would sit at the back of the clubs and say 'that's not folk music,' " he explained during an interview this week in the backyard of his Vancouver home. "We used to call them the folk Nazis."

The series moves through a wide variety of music - popular and obscure - everything from the old sea shanty Blow the Man Down to Ian Tyson's Four Strong Winds. The fact, says Cristall, that Four Strong Winds was selected in 2005 by CBC Radio's Canadian version of 50 Tracks as the top Canadian song of all time says it all: Folk is still relevant. .

But Cristall also felt strongly that there were unanswered questions about the genre. Where did these songs come from? How were they preserved?

"There is no written history. There is no history. Nobody knows who played at these clubs. I do - now."

This history is important, Cristall says, in part because folk helps to define Canada - not just to Canadians but to the rest of the world.

"I would make the case that Canada's greatest cultural export are a series of songwriters who have come out of the folk scene," he says.

"If you, say, stop somebody in the street in Italy and say 'what do you know about Canadian art,' I'm willing to bet that they do not know the films of Atom Egoyan, they do not know the animation of Norman McLaren, they probably wouldn't know the Group of Seven if it bit them. But I would be willing to guess that if you said 'do you know any songs by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen,' there would be at least a glimmer of recognition."

Copyright 2008-2022 Gary Cristall. All rights reserved.