A 5-part documentary series on CBC Radio
on the history & development of Folk Music in English Canada,
with Gary Cristall. The series aired in the summer of 2008.
Listen to the episodes.
In a small studio in the CBC building in downtown Vancouver, an extraordinary project has been hatching over the past few months. The People’s Music is a radio documentary series exploring the early to late 20th Century history and development of folk music in English Canada. Through five one-hour shows, this series reaches back through time to introduce and reacquaint us with the people, ideas, voices and sounds of a music that has been an elemental part of Canadian life, politics, culture and identity for almost a century. This is a part of our history not told until now – offering us a fascinating and entertaining insight into the music that has touched, in one way or another, almost everyone’s lives in this country - and many beyond its borders.
In the series, folk music historian Gary Cristall shares the results, to date, of almost a decade of intensive research into Canadian folk music history - from its earliest days to the end of the 1970’s. Since 2000, Cristall has been working on a book about folk music in English Canada. This research has taken him into archives and living rooms across the country, talking to the people who were part of folk music’s past and present, and collecting its audio and paper trail of recordings, documents and memorabilia. The People’s Music not only gives us a compelling aural glimpse into what Gary has been up to for the last eight years, and a hint of the book to come, but also honours those creative and dedicated souls who gave us this wonderful musical heritage that serves as the foundation of much contemporary creation.
Gary Cristall says:
“For the last twenty years I’ve been scratching a terrible itch - how did folk music in English Canada start and get to where it is today? I started thinking about it when I was programming the Folklife Pavilion at Expo 86. How did this all start? I kept wondering.
Then, eight years ago, I started interviewing folks and squirreling away documents, tapes, records and anything else I could lay my hands on. Today I’ve got a five hundred page chronology, boxes of magazines, festival programs and photocopies, and over two hundred hours of interviews. I’m nowhere near done.
Along the way I discovered scores of artists I had never heard of and met some fascinating folks who had a lot or a little to do with the creation of folk music. I was lucky. I got to talk to people who are gone today: Frank Fowke, husband and collaborator of Edith, Canada’s most important folklorist; Sam Gesser, who made over a hundred recordings of folk music for Folkways Records and Syd Banks, who created “Let’s Sing Out”, the seminal sixties folk music television show are just a few. I interviewed the founders of the early folk clubs and the musicians who performed at them. I talked to artists who are household names- Bruce Cockburn and Sylvia Tyson - and others like Art Samuels and Claire Klein who are all but forgotten. They all contributed something and made the picture a little clearer, and they are all there in these shows - talking, sometimes singing, remembering things that happened sometimes sixty or seventy years ago.
The People’s Music is a five part series that traces the development of folk music in English Canada from the summer of 1909, when an expatriate university professor went home for a vacation to Nova Scotia and started collecting songs, through the songwriter boom of the sixties and the first world music groups.
In between are music and memories that chronicle sixty years of music and memories: the CPR folk festivals, the brief life of “Peoples Songs Canada”, Camp Naivelt and the UJPO, La Coterie, L’hibou, The Question Mark, The Couriers, The Folkmasters, Mary Jane and Winston… Don’t know who or what they are? As Ben Shek said when he told me about poet Joe Wallace, “Well you should!” They all played an important role in why hundreds of thousands of people will be listening to folk music at festivals this summer and how it became an organic part of Canadian culture. How and when did Gordon Lightfoot write “Early Morning Rain” and Bonnie Dobson write “Morning Dew”? That’s there as well. How did the Canadian version of “This Land Is Your Land” come about? That too! Over the better part of five hours the tale unfolds - sometimes throwing light on obscure corners, sometimes putting songs that have become icons into context.
The five shows that make up the series are (click title to listen):
Birth of a Genre: Traces folk music from the 1910’s, when it was unknown to all but the folk themselves and a handful of collectors, until 1949 when Newfoundland joined Canada and brought with it some of our best loved folk songs.
The Genre Comes of Age: The Fifties, when folk music began to spread its tentacles across the land, often through the left-wing children of Eastern European immigrants.
The Birth of an Industry: The long decade that began when the Kingston Trio hit the top ten with Tom Dooley and ending in the early seventies when CanCon regulations helped create a Canadian music industry.
If I Had a Song: The story of how contemporary songwriting became synonymous with folk music and how a handful of songwriters became Canada’s best known cultural exports - and its conscience as well.
We Are The World: The contradictory origins of what today is called world music and how it played a vital part in folk music from its earliest days until it flowered in the 1970s.
Of course fitting all this into five shows of just less than an hour is an impossible task. Ten shows would have still left a lot out! However, in spirited discussions with producer Kathleen Flaherty, choices were made, and in the end the outlines of what happened are there. Hopefully it will inspire folks to do their own research and more shows like it.
This is a beginning but it also tells a tale that has never been told and introduces voices and songs that have never been heard by a mass audience. It is a modest attempt to give the people’s music back to the people.”
Gary Cristall has been a full time worker in the creative music mines for over 30 years. He was the founding Artistic Director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, created Festival Records distribution and Aural Traditions records, directed the Folklife Pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver, and worked at the Canada Council for six years. He resides in Vancouver, where he manages music artists, teaches arts administration and spends as much time as he can working on his book.
The CBC Radio Producer of “The People’s Music” is Kathleen Flaherty
The host of “Inside the Music” is Patti Schmidt.