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.