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Introduction

Folk Music has been part of my life as long as I can remember. I was born in 1950 into a family that defined much of Folk Music's audience at that time- Jewish, urban, middle class, intellectual, Communists, living in one of Canada's 3 largest cities. Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, The Weavers, Paul Robeson- these were the sources of my lullabies and play songs. I remember Robeson holding me in his arms and singing to me, my mother remembers me singing with Pete Seeger at a concert when he asked for a volunteer. My first words of Spanish were Viva la Quince Brigada from the 78rpm album of Songs of the Lincoln Battalion, the American volunteers who fought for the Spanish Republic during the civil war. At camp we sang folk songs. I remember the summer a camp counselor brought up a little portable record player and the first album by a young singer named Bob Dylan. While the world was discovering the Beatles and Stones, I was listening to Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and a host of other new, young songwriters. My idea of a supergroup was Peter, Paul, and Mary. In the early sixties I marched against the bomb, and a little later sat down in front of the American consulate to support the marchers converging on Selma, Alabama. We sang Last Night I had the Strangest Dream, We Shall Not Be Moved, We Shall Overcome, and I can still remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan’s Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll, sung by a forgotten singer at an organizing meeting. I remember the songs far better than any of the speeches.

In the mid-sixties I started to go to Yorkville, Toronto's bohemian enclave. There were a dozen or more clubs. I heard traditional folk songs, singer-songwriters, veteran, rural blues singers, and the new rock music. I heard Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia. I went to the Mariposa Folk Festival in the summer of 1966 where Joni sang "The Circle Game" for the first time where I heard Doc Watson, and the first Be-In in Queen’s Park in 1967, where a poet named Leonard Cohen sang. My tastes expanded: I started to listen to Jazz, Chicago Blues, The Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground. I discovered the British folk scene and artists like John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, the first new folk experiments with groups like Pentangle and Fairport Convention. I had a voracious aural appetite and was omnivorous in my musical diet- John Coltrane, early Flamenco recordings, Robert Johnson, Fred Neil, Charlie Haden and Carla Bley's Liberation Jazz Orchestra, field recordings of Bahamian Guitarist Joseph Spence, traditional Appalachian music by Clarence Ashley and his family, Ian and Sylvia's visionary country-rock Great Speckled Bird. I was the guy in the communal house with the great record collection of obscure stuff.

In early 1972 I went to Chile. I wanted to see what socialism by the ballot box looked like. I spent more than a year there and discovered Latin American New Song. New names began to roll of my tongue; Violeta Parra, Quilapayun, Victor Jara, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Daniel Viglietti, Carlos Puebla, Inti Illimani... new names, new sounds. At the same time I realized that this was part of something I already knew. Victor Jara parodied the rich with a Chilean version of Malvina Reynolds Little Boxes. Chilean musicians regarded Pete Seeger as a god. I remember Quilapayun performing in front of a million people at a celebration of the Allende government’s second year. Here too, the music moved people more than the speeches. The crowds were bigger, the language was different, but when I heard No Nos Moveran (We Shall Not Be Moved) at a demonstration I knew that the same ethos was at work. Although Santiago was literally at the other end of the world from Toronto, there was a common vision of an empowering popular cultural movement that united singers and listeners many thousands of miles and cultures apart.

I was on vacation in Vancouver, preparing to return to Chile, when the Pinochet coup deposed and killed Allende, brought a right-wing junta to power and changed my life. For a full year after September 11, 1973, I devoted my time to working in the solidarity movement trying to open Canada's doors to Chilean refugees and raising support for the clandestine resistance organizations in Chile. I organized speaking tours, conferences, and demonstrations. I also helped organize and attended cultural events where music took pride of place, along with food, wine, and speeches. Here money was raised as well as awareness about the situation in Chile and the solidarity campaign.

Here, once again, the music usually had more impact than the speeches, bringing people together, instilling a sense of common purpose, and inspiring them to keep on working.

In the fall of 1974 I entered university as a mature student, having dropped out of high school in the mid-sixties. I studied history in general, and Latin American history in particular. By the fall of 1977 I was finishing my undergraduate degree and starting to shop around for a graduate school. I was still politically active, and had begun to host a radio devoted to Latin American Music on a local community radio station. For 3 or 4 years a friend of mine who had started a folk music festival in Winnipeg had been talking about starting one up in Vancouver. Every six months or so we would run into each other and he would tell me it was going to happen and I was going to run it. I would laugh and say sure and then forget about it. In Sept. of 1977, the call came, but this time it sounded more serious. I thought about it and decided to take a sabbatical from academic work. On January 1st, 1978, I became the coordinator of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. For the next 16 years, until March of 1994, Folk music was my trade.

In the course of my work as coordinator and, after 1979, artistic director as well, of what became the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Society I produced and booked 17 festivals, hundreds of concerts, a bunch of tours, and 30 recordings. From 1982 until 1986, I worked on a project for Expo 86; Folklife was a pavilion and a program that featured contemporary and traditional folk art, music, crafts, and more from every region of Canada. It was a big success, called more than once the oasis of Expo, and one of its best cultural accomplishments. If the Folk Music Festival became known for its diversity and eclecticism, as well as its providing a stage for political artists from around the world, Folklife was an exploration of Canada. And for me, the first time that I began to think about Canadian culture. Booking a festival I thought in terms of acts, artists; I focused on how they were as individuals. To a degree I thought about how the whole program fit together, but it was the individual attributes that most occupied my mind. In putting together regional and thematic weeklong programming segments for Expo, I started thinking about communities, about the relationship between traditional repertoire and contemporary work. I started looking at connections between the two, and how certain instrumental traditions related to each other. I discovered the work of early folklorists, Creighton, Peacock, Barbeau, Fowke, and others, and met with contemporary folklorists and discussed their work. I discovered the Folk Festivals organized by Gibbons of the CPR in the late 20`s and began to try and define in my own mind what Folk Music meant and how it had developed in Canada.

The experience of producing Folklife transformed my work at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. The 1987 festival and the seven that I booked following it contained thematic programs. I tried to bring the approach I had developed at the worlds fair into the festival. Early in 1987 I had been contracted to produce a study for the Ontario Arts Council on the feasibility of a Folk Arts program. Once again, I was in a more academic milieu, debating the concept of folk with folklorists as well as spending time with artists who carried on their cultural traditions on a daily basis outside the music industry. I started to read books on the subject and began to be aware that very little had been written on folk music in Canada. While some very good work was appearing in the United States, only a few biographies or academic studies appeared in Canada.

In December of 1993, bored after almost 17 years at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, I was interviewed for a job at the Canada Council for the Arts. In March of 1994 I moved to Ottawa. First in the Touring Office and then in the Music Section of Canada's national arts funder I administered programs in Sound Recording, Touring; national and international, Career Development and Festival Programming. The new job allowed me to gain an overview of the musical activity in Canada that my work in Vancouver did not and gave me the luxury of more time in the evenings to read and think. I began to "get it" in terms of how folk music developed during the 20th century in Canada and in particular how it evolved after the Second World War into a mass phenomenon.

In May of 2000 I resigned from the Canada Council and returned home to Vancouver. I am now engaged interviews and research that will produce what I believe will be the first history of Folk Music in Canada. I want to write a book because it has permanence that most other forms do not. I also plan to turn the interviews into a series of radio programs. Given that this is about music and it is about peoples stories radio is a different and equally compelling forum to tell the tale.

 

I want to tell the story of the popular history of the development of Folk Music in Canada as a form of popular music that embraced both traditional, anonymous songs, the classical definition of a folk song, and contemporary songs written outside the commercial music industry. I want to explain the coexistence within the folk repertoire of traditional songs and political and social "message" songs, how a singer like Ed McCurdy could write Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream, one of the first anthems of the peace movement, and at the same time record albums of traditional songs; why Edith Fowke collected Ontario folk songs and co-edited the definitive collection of North American Labour songs- Songs of Work and Struggle; why a contemporary ensemble like Stringband performed feminist songs written by a group member and traditional Quebecois folk songs and Celtic fiddle tunes. Why was this seen as one musical genre? Where do these songs come from? Where does the songwriting tradition come from?

In short I want to tell the tale of how folk music in English speaking Canada evolved through the 20th century.

I am looking for lots of information. I am also looking for the opinions of anybody who cares. This web site is where I plan to lay out my research and pose questions that confuse and intrigue me. It is also where I will list who and what I need for my research.

If you want to get in touch with me, please do.



 

 

 

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