Holly & Jon interview: The A–Z of the Blues

Holly Hyatt. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Holly Hyatt. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

INTRODUCTION: I’ve been following the music of Holly and Jon for about 10 years now, ever since being utterly gripped by Holly’s clarion voice and Jon’s pristine blues picking. In the Kootenays they’ve become something of a blues institution along with Lazy Poker Blues Band and Bill Lynch. Sadly it may be that their evolution as a father-daughter duo came just a little too late to capitalize on the blues booms of previous decades. Still, in an era when the market has changed drastically toward electronic trance music on the one extreme and ‘Newgrass’ or New Folk on the other, their latest album Shufflin’ the Blues has hit #12 in Canada on the Roots Music Charts and #2 on the Acoustic Blues Charts. Not bad for homegrown Slocan Valley talent! But then, we always suspected we were world class…

SEAN ARTHUR JOYCE: First things first. Gimme your influences! It may sound trite but in the blues especially—or any music for that matter—it’s ALWAYS relevant. Tell me why, Holly, you like Bonnie Raitt but not so much Big Mama Thornton. Or Jon, why you favour Albert King more than BB King, if you do. Talk a little bit about what makes their technique the one you like, the sound you love.

Bonnie Raitt has inspired many women to play the blues.

Bonnie Raitt has inspired many women to play the blues.

HOLLY HYATT: Some of my biggest blues influences are Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, Maria Muldaur, Delbert McClinton, Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I remember watching a video of Stevie Ray when I was a kid. He was sweating and playing his heart out and it just shook me to the core. That was the real deal, soul and passion. I had the same feeling when I first heard Bonnie Raitt’s voice, and to see a female guitar player really expanded my ideas of what a woman could do as a musician. I love that Susan Tedeschi and Robert Cray create such great original blues songs.

I’ve based a lot of my vocal style and phrasing on jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Karyn Ellison, and Ella Fitzgerald. Just hearing what these women can do with their voices is so inspiring, and I’m a big fan of hanging out behind the beat vocally. Etta James has also been a huge vocal influence for me, I learned a lot of Blues Mama phrasing from her. I love Eva Cassidy and how she uses her voice to convey the emotion and story of the songs she sings. I am also a huge fan of Jewel and Neil Young, their songwriting and poetic lyrics have inspired many songs I have written. I love Willie Nelson for his beautiful melodies and his ability to blur the lines between genres. He is just so unique. Esperanza Spalding is my number one pick, for an amazing singing and playing bass player. She is phenomenal!

JOYCE: Jon—same question. Influences?

Jon Burden performing in 2009. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Jon Burden performing in 2009. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

JON BURDEN: I think the first time I heard the blues was The Rolling Stones recording of Little Red Rooster. I didn’t know it was blues, I just knew it sounded different than all the other music on the radio at the time. It was darker, edgier and sexier than She Loves You or I Wanna Hold Your Hand, but at the same time it sounded a bit contrived, like it was an imitation of something else. It was only later, after hearing blues played by black musicians, that I realized that there was a difference. So the early Stones with Brian Jones were my first blues influences.

Then, when I heard Hendrix’s live version of Red House on the In the West album, I finally got what blues was really about. He was the first black musician I heard doing blues. And then I heard Freddie King. Johnny Winter then became an influence. It’s My Own Fault from Johnny Winter And Live was played endlessly at my house when I was in junior high, so I guess Rick Derringer was also an influence because he was the other guitarist in the band and played great rhythm behind Johnny. He was also a fantastic blues soloist in his own right.

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.

Then it was The Allman Brothers version of Stormy Monday on Live At The Fillmore East. I guess I had an affinity for live albums, which is fitting, seeing as our latest album is live. In the early ’70s when I acquired a friend’s record collection, which was all black blues, is when I really became interested in that style of music. It was Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Otis Spann, Freddie King etc. Muddy Waters, at that time, was not my cup of tea. It was only much later that I learned to appreciate what Muddy was all about. Now he’s my man! I even drove all the way to Rolling Fork, Mississippi just to see where he was from and walk where he had walked.

I did the typical thing that serious guitar players do, and that is, I started listening to the rock players and then followed it back to the roots and I’m still discovering older players today that I’ve never heard before, So the influences keep changing.

JOYCE: So what about it, Jon—Freddie King, Albert King or BB King—which is it for you?

The late great, underrated Freddie King. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The late great, underrated Freddie King. Courtesy Wikipedia.

JON: I liked Freddie King more, as opposed to BB King at first, because Freddie had a rock edge and BB was too show biz or something. Now I appreciate what BB was. He was so classy and could say so much with one note. When I first heard Albert King, I didn’t get it. Then I listened to Live Wire Blues Power (another live album) and I got it! Big Time!

JOYCE: It sounds like we have the same blues collection!

JON: That album was a huge influence along with Freddie King’s Texas Cannonball. I wore out copies of those two albums. Buddy Guy, I always thought, played too fast, although I think Junior Wells kept him in line. I gravitate to the slower, ‘say it with one note’ players. Now I really appreciate the jump blues players, like T Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, Ronnie Earl Earl, Hollywood Fats and Anson Funderburgh.

JOYCE: Let’s talk about your evolution as a musician. Jon, being Holly’s father you obviously have a lot more experience to draw on. But both of you, trace for me how you see your musical arc having developed over the years to where it is today. What pushed you this way but not that?

Holly & Jon recording at home, circa 2010. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Holly & Jon recording at the Burden home, circa 2010. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

HOLLY: I started performing as a child; I would sit in with Dad on his gigs and sing a few songs. This developed into me singing more songs and accompanying him on bass. Eventually I taught myself to sing and play bass at the same time. It was a painful and frustrating process for me, because I felt like I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to, vocally or as a bass player. It got better with practice though, and now playing and singing is very harmonious. In my late teens we started billing ourselves as ‘Holly and the Hippie’ and then ‘Holly and Jon.’ I began songwriting more and we started to incorporate some original material into our sets. In my early to mid twenties we toured a lot, playing mainly bars and cafes. We performed as an acoustic duo and a full band. All the performances helped me to get more comfortable on stage and develop my skills as a musician. I started to get pretty burned out and discouraged though. I didn’t want to be another cover band or background singer. I wanted to perform original music at concert venues, where people would sit down and listen. I wanted to engage the audience and connect with them. So I took a step back from touring, focused on starting a family and defining my goals as a musician. I discovered that music is in my soul. I must sing and share my songs, but I need to be selective in how I do that. We began focusing on promoting our original songs and performing primarily at concert venues. I have been enjoying this process and love connecting with people through music. I am excited for the next evolution in my musical life!

JON: I started singing My Old Man’s A Dustman, There’s A Hole In My Bucket and Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight, and Lonnie Donnegan skiffle stuff when I was 5 or 6 at community concerts that my maternal Grandmother would organize. She was kind of a pillar of the small community in our village in England when I was young and bought me my first guitar. Then, after moving to Canada, I sort of lost interest in it for a while. I went through a cowboy phase. Then I got back into music and got serious about the guitar as an adolescent. The first song I learned to play and sing was Paint It Black and then I joined a band as a rhythm guitarist/backup singer, who sang a couple of leads. I was earning money performing before I could really play. I could play enough to strum a few chords. I was very undeveloped but music is an eternal learning experience. You just keep discovering and growing.

Blues, folk and the rootsier styles of music have always appealed to me much more than mainstream stuff. Mainstream, commercial music was nice and happy, bright and hummable, but it always seemed shallow to me. I wanted something deeper, darker, earthier. When I played top 40 bands I would always bring in the obscure songs and blues material to learn. When I played in country rock bands, I’d bring in the southern rock stuff to do as well as playing as much original material as you could get away with: Which wasn’t much, as you had to be a human juke box for the most part and play songs that your audience had heard.

Jon performing at the Silverton Gallery, Aug. 15, 2013. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Jon performing at the Silverton Gallery, Aug. 15, 2013. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

I’ve always been attracted to the singer/ songwriters and love the early Neil Young, Jackson Browne and James Taylor albums (not much blues in those, although Steamroller Blues by Taylor is probably the best rendition of a blues song by a singer/songwriter that I’ve heard). Later, I got into the Texas songwriters such as Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt (these latter two were very influenced by Lightnin’ Hopkins) and James McMurtry. I love it when a song can paint a picture in your mind when you listen to it.

My musical taste, vision and direction haven’t really changed a great deal as I’m still embracing the obscure and like to go against the grain. I guess what pushed me in the direction I went, musically, was just trying to keep it real and say something that means something. It’s much more important to me to use music and songs as a means to make people think and open their minds, than as purely entertainment.

Another of the great blues pantheon: Lightnin' Hopkins.

Another of the great blues pantheon: Lightnin’ Hopkins.

JOYCE: How have changes in the music industry affected you? Jon, you especially have been around long enough to have seen plenty of changes, especially in terms of musicians’ earning capacities. What do you see that’s negative? Positive?

JON: I came into music in the early stages of the BC bar scene. Before the mid ’70s live music was only played in Legions, community halls and cabarets. Then BC changed their liquor laws to allow live music in beer parlours. Alberta and Ontario had allowed it for years but BC has always been behind with their liquor laws. One of the people that taught me a lot about the guitar, like playing bar chords as opposed to open chords, said to me: “When they start allowing music in the taverns, I want you to be there.” And I was.

At first the scene started off very gradually. A venue would try it for one night a month or something. Then they started building dance floors and stages in the venues and it exploded. Bars were hiring bands 6 nights a week and every venue had entertainment. Strippers in the daytime and live music at night. You could stay on the road continuously or get a 2–4 week residency in your hometown and then rotate. I stayed on the road. First doing a solo act, then a duo and later a full band, while still doing solos and duos on the side. I made a living through the ’70s and ’80s. In the ’90s, venues started cutting back to three nights a week, then two nights a week and then one night. Now venues don’t have an entertainment budget, so you play for the door or for tips.

But, there is a positive side to these changes. By playing for the door and doing concerts, you get to play the kind of music that you want to play because the people who come to your shows come to hear and see what you have to offer and they pay attention. You’re not background music for somebody’s night out on the town drinking, carousing and fighting. Back when I was playing full time in smoke filled bars, it felt like hard work. It was a grind and there was many a gig that made me feel like packing it all in. Now that I’m able to play for respectful, listening audiences, I don’t want the night to end.

Holly performing in 2012. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Holly performing in 2012. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

HOLLY: During the past 15 years I’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of venues that have live music. One of my first regular gigs was at the Prestige Hotel. I played there every Sunday night, and they had music on many other nights of the week as well. This was a common practice for venues and it enabled us to play multiple gigs in one week. The pay scale is about the same, there may be a slight decrease but it depends where you’re performing. On the positive side I think there are more community concert events and local arts councils that are supporting live music. The second biggest change for me is the lack of music education in elementary and post secondary schools. I started performing in band in grade four and continued to do so until I graduated. School band was one of the most positive musical influences in my life. I discovered jazz: Etta James, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and the upright bass, because I was in two different big band ensembles in high school. The music composition course I took in grade 12 sparked my desire to become a songwriter. It makes my heart break that my children may not have these same opportunities during their schooling years. The high school I attended currently has no music programs at all; this is a huge disservice to our youth!

JOYCE: Where do you see your art form going in future, both personally and as a genre?

HOLLY: As a genre I hope Blues will open up to more diversity and be discovered and loved by the younger generations. The standards need to be shared and appreciated, so people learn the history behind the music. I hope younger artists will take that knowledge and create their own original blues songs, and then push the boundaries of the genre with those songs. Indie Blues, people! For myself, I want to focus on creating music that connects with many people and withstands many years. I want to blur the lines of the genres and mix old and new sounds. I want to sing my heart song, with soul and joy!

JON: We have to find a way to draw a younger, fresher audience to the blues, as the folks that listen to blues are the baby boomers, which are an aging demographic. But, in all honesty, I think there will always be people of all ages that want to hear honest music, played by real people.

JOYCE: Amen to that! To quote ‘Uncle Neil,’ long may you both run…

Visit their website at: http://www.hollyandjon.com

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Review: Shufflin’ the Blues by Holly & Jon

The third album from Holly & Jon features classic, smouldering blues.

The third album from Holly & Jon features classic, smouldering blues.

This is classic blues, all down the line. Jon gets his guitar tone exactly right, no small achievement in a live setting, where even the most rehearsed songs can be subverted by bad acoustics or unexpected PA system fails. There’s a sweet fatness to his tone, not ripped up fuzz like Johnny Winter but just a little south of B.B. King’s clean, lean and pure guitar tones. Holly’s bass work is the engine of the duo’s rhythm section with drummer Marvin Walker. But where she really shines is in her interpretations of old standards. As if born to the blues, she nails it every time. Resonant, rich and deeply expressive, Holly’s vocals propel these songs to another level. Having been in the room the night this set was recorded at the old Silverton Gallery three years ago, I can safely say this recording captures the swing, the sweetness and the soul of that special evening.

Jon Burden at the Silverton Gallery, August 15, 2013. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Jon Burden at the Silverton Gallery, August 15, 2013. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Jon too on that night was in probably the best voice I’ve ever heard him. And I’ve been hearing these guys live for the best part of a decade, all over the Kootenays. Holly and Jon are dealing from the Classic Blues deck, reminding us why generations continue to be inspired by it. In addition to Muddy Waters’ Blow Wind Blow Jon uses a nimble slide to pull Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen out of the battered body of a guitar known as Gonzo. Holly’s originals Let’s Boogie, Lowdown Blues and Get Your Own Man swing and sway as naturally as if they were themselves old blues standards. When she gets into the scat vocals on Slushy Blues, the room warms up yet another notch. Here she’s as good as any blues torch singer ever was. Moving to a fast shuffle beat, this is no slow seduction. She’s astutely taken her cues from her heroines—Eva Cassidy and Bonnie Raitt—and has made of them something distinctly her own.

Holly Hyatt at the Silverton Gallery, August 15, 2013. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Soul Bliss ‘n Blues: Holly Hyatt at the Silverton Gallery, August 15, 2013. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Jon’s social conscience is often subtly reflected in his song choices on their three albums. Memphis Slim’s Mother Earth Blues and Left-Handed Soul tip his hat toward a concern for the planet and the impact of consumerism. Yet he manages to avoid making you feel like you’re listening to a sermon, achieving a languid groove and soul-inflected vocal to lull you into the dance. Its refrain is in perfect tune with the blues spirit: “I feel so cold / living in this right-handed world / with my left-handed soul…” Blues, by making social problems deeply personal, roots them in the real. This takes them from something esoteric to something anyone can relate to. It’s something black people have known since the earliest field chants, with their coded messages about ‘the man.’ In that respect, Son House was wrong: it ain’t all just about a man and a woman. Read between the lines of the early classic blues songs and coded messages of slavery and abuse practically leap out at you.

Jon gives Gonzo a workout. Silverton Gallery, Aug. 15, 2014. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Jon gives Gonzo a workout. Silverton Gallery, Aug. 15, 2014. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Black Crow is an utterly wonderful original with a lovely acoustic guitar line anchoring and propelling the song. The lyrics represent a fascinating growth in their songwriting: “So much possibility / so much probability… So many questions / so many answers / will they meet up in the end?” This is a questing, questioning soul, keen to make the most of possibility. And aware that it requires a crow’s watchfulness, its legendary ability to shapeshift to a new form to meet life’s challenges.

Holly takes us gracefully shuffling home in Slushy Blues, leaving you wishing there’d been time for about 10 more songs. This is the magic of the blues—you walk out half on air. That it’s taken three years to bring this impeccable performance to record is an indication of just how tough it is for blues purists trying to make a living at their craft.

WATCH for the supporting tour this fall for Shufflin’ the Blues at: http://www.hollyandjon.com

Shufflin’ The Blues CD Release Tour

  • Friday, November 18, 7:30 pm, Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre, 1007, Vernon Ave, Revelstoke, BC
  • Saturday, November 19, 8:00 pm, Lorenzo’s Cafe, Mable Lake, Enderby, BC
  • Sunday, November 20, 8:00 pm, Firevalley Concert Series, Legion Hall, Edgewood, BC
  • Friday, November 25, 7:30 pm, Silverton Memorial Hall, Silverton, BC
  • Saturday, November 26, 8:00 pm, The Front Room, Front St., Nelson, BC
  • Saturday, December 17 7:00 pm, Studio 64, 64 Deer Park Ave, Kimberley, BC

NEXT POST: Holly & Jon Interview: A–Z of the Blues.

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Introducing Dead Crow: The Video Launch

Imagine a character tens of thousands of years old, a changeling capable of appearing both as a human or a crow. His name is Dead Crow—a demigod changeling with a bad attitude. Now he’s decided for the first time to share his story—imagine the tales he could tell, with a lifespan like that! Exiled to Earth for a sin of pride by a mysterious godlike race known only as The Makers, his sentence is to act as their Watcher. Essentially immortal, he has the long view of history. His trickster nature constantly tempts him to interfere in human affairs. The Prologue gives us his backstory, introducing audiences to this quirky, sharp-tongued yet highly observant character cloaked in black feathers. Today I’m releasing the video production of Dead Crow: Prologue and will be following up the release with a small tour of the West Kootenay. The Prologue and its soundtrack will be performed live with musician/composer Noel Fudge, and was premiered at Kaleidoscope Arts & Culture Festival in Kimberley, BC this August.

Dead Crow gets animated to make a point. Kaleidoscope Arts Festival, Kimberley, BC, August 10, 2016.

Dead Crow gets animated to make a point. Kaleidoscope Arts Festival, Kimberley, BC, August 10, 2016. Photo by Anne Champagne. Mask by Isaac Carter. Headdress by Sweet Pea Creations.

The story is excerpted from a book-length manuscript titled Dead Crow and the Spirit Engine that has been a work-in-progress for seven years now. Composed of two prose stories and a long sequence of narrative poems, its unorthodox structure veers from human prehistory through the rise and fall of empires and finally to the present. Along the way Dead Crow has plenty of time to ponder the great mysteries and attempt to reconcile the contradictions of corporeal existence. It’s a spiritual journey we all must make. My goal during the next year is to obtain funding to create a full one-hour show based on the manuscript.

Although I’ve recited original poetry to audiences since the 1980s, this is my first foray into performance poetry complete with a costume designed by local artisans. There are elements of both ‘black box’ one-act theatre in The Prologue as well as current trends in spoken word that combine music and sound effects with poetry. I wanted to take poetry into another realm altogether, one that combines elements of sci-fi with the grand narratives of ancient mythology. We’re hearing a lot lately about the need for a ‘new mythology’ that better serves 21st century values so this is my stab at that. The great myths transcend cultures in a language that speaks across generations and across the ages. And mythic stories are in the midst of a revival. Witness the mass popularity of such TV series as Once Upon a Time and the many feature films produced in recent years re-imagining the classic myths and fairy tales.

Dead Crow at Kaleidoscope Arts Festival. Photo Anne Champagne.

Dead Crow at Kaleidoscope Arts Festival. Photo Anne Champagne.

Thus, in Dead Crow: Prologue, audiences will thus hear elements of West Coast Raven mythology—the Trickster god; and the Celtic Morrigan—a shapeshifting goddess in Irish mythology associated with battlefields and the underworld. Added to Dead Crow’s poetic ruminations is the film noir drawl of a Philip Marlowe, another character who struggles to reconcile a jaded view of human nature. A draft of the poems was evaluated by Gary Geddes at an Oxygen Art Centre workshop in 2011. “Your Crow seems to me the voice of a more apocalyptic time, prepared to take on larger issues than (Ted) Hughes or (Robert) Kroetsch’s raven poems and What the Crow Said took on, and doing it equally well. Dead Crow is the Grim Reaper’s clean-up squad, customer at the Roadkill Cafe with a B.A. in philosophy, a sort of lower-case Satan-cum-Nietzsche on a rant.” Given that Hughes’ classic book of poems Crow has always held pride of place on my bookshelf, I consider this a great compliment, one I can only hope I merit.

Freya performing at the 2016 Hills Garlic Festival, New Denver, BC. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Freya performing at the 2016 Hills Garlic Festival, New Denver, BC. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

For now, live performances will include the Prologue, original songs by Noel Fudge, and poems from my latest collection of poetry, The Price of Transcendence. (Poet Tom Wayman offered editorial assistance on the book, for which I’m very grateful.) My poetic ethos has been to try to reflect empathically the voices I hear around me in nature. Living in a remote corner of British Columbia next to Valhalla Provincial Park, a wilderness reserve with an intact mountain ecosystem, I’m given an intimacy with wildlife that seems to be fast disappearing from our urbanized world. Biologists are making incredible discoveries about the innate language capacities of birds, whales, dolphins, and land animals. What if they also had their own millennias-old cultures, just as humans do? What would those look like? As a poet I try to imagine those cultures into being. At least, until the day we can better understand them on their own terms.

Dead Crow mask by Isaac Carter. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Dead Crow mask by Isaac Carter. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Meanwhile poets have shown a remarkably accurate intuition about such things well in advance of science, even before the 19th century Romantics. This year I published my poetics thesis, A New Romanticism for the 21st Century, in the University of Western Ontario journal Canadian Poetry. In it I argue that the time for a poetics of obfuscation and art for art’s sake is past. With the environmental crises now upon us, it’s time for poets to return to their pre-industrial role as what Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “the conscience of the race.” In an age of Narcissism that also implies learning to turn our ears outward again, from our own inner voices to the voices crying out to us from the wilderness (what’s left of it). For writers this acquires a new sense of urgency as global cultures become more and more urbanized and further removed from nature.

Nelson writer Brian D’eon wrote in a review of The Price of Transcendence: “Joyce’s language is often haunting and his insights powerful. In reading his most recent collection of poems, I often find myself in a trance-like state, letting the sheer musicality of the language wash over me.”

Noel performing with Freya at Songs for a Winter Night, December 2015. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Noel performing with Freya at Songs for a Winter Night, December 2015. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

And now some words about Noel Fudge, the composer of the soundtrack to Dead Crow: Prologue. I can honestly say I’ve waited a lifetime to meet and work with a creative collaborator like Noel. Thoroughly professional in his work ethic, capable of playing guitar in any style, and bursting with originality, it has been an incredible pleasure to work with him on this video. His portfolio ranges from film scores to choral and orchestral works, to singer-songwriter and instrumental music. He holds a BFA in composition from Simon Fraser University, and wrote and performed with the band Crop Circle, a group that received extensive radio play and toured Western Canada, opening for ZZ top and Bif Naked. Noel and his partner Martine denBok form the popular West Kootenay-based guitar/violin duo Freya. Martine is a classically trained musician currently serving as second violinist with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra. A debut Freya album is due out this year. WEBSITE: http://www.fortheloveoffreya.ca

Finally, a word about ICandy Films, comprised of Isaac and Orsi Carter. Isaac trained at the Vancouver Film School and has travelled to Europe to create promotional films for artists from Bulgaria to France and the Netherlands. He combines his training with a natural talent for imagery that takes it far above average. Although his ‘bread and butter’ includes making promotional films for realtors and other businesses as well as enchanting wedding videos, he confessed to me that films like Dead Crow: Prologue are what he really lives for as a filmmaker. The results speak for themselves. Be sure to check out their other short films at these links:

Thanks guys—it’s a pleasure working with you all! And last but never least, I credit the unflagging support of Anne Champagne, who remains my greatest ally in life and art.

TO VIEW DEAD CROW: PROLOGUE VISIT THE ICANDY FILMS VIMEO CHANNEL HERE (Please note, your Internet bandwidth—or lack of it—may cause some ‘clipping’ in the sound): https://vimeo.com/185383029

dead-crow-tour-poster-dates-low-resDEAD CROW FALL 2016 TOUR DATES (all tickets at the door):

  • Bonnington Arts Centre, Nakusp, BC, Friday, October 28, 7 pm
  • Café Langham Inspired Ideas Series, Langham Theatre, Kaslo, BC, Thursday, November 3, 7 pm
  • The Front Room, 901 Front Street, Nelson, BC, Thursday, November 10, 7:30 pm
  • Bosun Hall, New Denver, BC, Saturday, November 5, 7 pm

P.S. FOR THE LATEST EXCITING DISCOVERIES IN BIRD AND ANIMAL LANGUAGE, VISIT: http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/the_real_twitter_feed_that_we_have_lost_track_of/

Posted in Arts & Culture, Music, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Share the Love—Coco Love Alcorn in Kaslo

Coco Love Alcorn at the St. Andrew’s United Church, Kaslo, Sunday, September 18, 4 pm, sponsored by The Langham’s Guest Artist Series.

Coco Love Alcorn, St. Andrews United Church, Kaslo, BC, Sept. 18, 2016 image Sean Arthur Joyce

Coco Love Alcorn, St. Andrews United Church, Kaslo, BC, Sept. 18, 2016 image Sean Arthur Joyce

One thing Coco Love Alcorn has always been great at—blending her singing and songwriting gift with an upbeat optimism. I’ve been a fan of hers now for nearly 10 years and can safely say she’s never given a bad show. A natural performer, she has a way with an audience that makes them feel instantly at home. Having been the Arts and Culture Editor for the Valley Voice for nearly as long, I’ve seen a seemingly endless parade of singer-songwriters pass through the West Kootenay. But few of them have the grasp of songwriting skills Coco makes sound so effortless. ‘Many are called but few chosen,’ as the old saying goes.

Coco’s current tour follows a four-year hiatus as she raised her daughter Ellie from infancy to preschool age. Her time off, if anything, has only enriched her abilities. Her 2011 album Play was a jazzy tribute to motherhood and to Ellie herself but to my ears failed to capture the instantly memorable tunesmithing of earlier classics like Joyful (2009). But with her new album Wonderland, she’s achieved that rarest of accomplishments for a songwriter: making the music simultaneously of-the-moment and timeless. The musical approach is stripped down, bringing her amazing vocal range and emotive qualities to the fore, often accompanied by only backup vocals, strummed ukelele and percussion. As a production decision it makes perfect sense, since Coco’s greatest instrument by far is her voice.

Coco with the Wonderland Choir, Kaslo version, Sept. 18, 2016 image Sean Arthur Joyce

Coco with the Wonderland Choir, Kaslo version, Sept. 18, 2016 image Sean Arthur Joyce

Almost all the songs reflect a gospel sensibility, so having today’s concert in Kaslo’s historic St. Andrew’s church was absolutely fitting. Coco was joined by her ‘Wonderland Choir,’ a group of locals who convened only this afternoon to learn a few of her new songs, which are ideal vehicles for a massed vocal treatment. The effect was luminous and—to borrow her own title—joyful, enhanced by the soaring acoustics of the vaulted church ceiling. As Lynn van Duersen, who coordinates The Langham’s guest artist series, said, Coco’s “spiritually uplifting collection of songs” lent itself naturally to such a setting.

Without knowing the details of Coco’s personal life, it would seem she’s had her fair share of trials the past five years. It’s evident in many of the lyrics on Wonderland, which show a more mature take on positivism than the naïve optimism of earlier songs like Joyful and Hope for the World. At the St. Andrew’s church concert she prefaced her new song Old Habits Die Hard by saying it was inspired by the continuous flood of feelgood books, magazines and websites all telling people how they can be better somehow. The reality is that change is difficult for the best of us, and as we age it only gets harder. Transformation gurus would have you believe otherwise but they would, wouldn’t they—it’s their living.

John Foster brought electronic percussion to Coco's vocal layering on the loop station. image Sean Arthur Joyce

John Foster brought electronic percussion to Coco’s vocal layering on the loop station. image Sean Arthur Joyce

On Wonderland she delves deeper than she has in the past while still retaining her apparently innate and perennial optimism. Album opener Good News keeps the sunny side up but already by Trouble we know her optimism is more hard-won now. The River sounds like it was plucked from a hymnbook in a deep southern revival church, as so many of these songs do. By the time she gets to Unbreakable, it’s clear this statement of survival in the face of an often hostile universe is the product of real living, not just wishful thinking. Tiny Lights was borrowed from the tiny folk festival of the same name at Ymir, BC, near Nelson, and riffs beautifully on the theme of each individual’s intrinsic value. Roots and Wings expresses the artist’s need for both a stable home—providing the security within which to create—and the need to experience the wider world, whether to tour new work or get inspiration for new works.

The St. Andrew’s church concert was—true to Coco’s inimitable form—as much a love-in as a performance. The audience was invited to sing along and did so magnificently. The locals in the Wonderland Choir did an amazing job for amateurs. In the second set Coco and percussionist John Foster did what she called “a kind of theatre sports for music,” inviting the audience to submit words to improvise to—anything from business cards and receipts to hastily scribbled poems. Using her loop machine along with Foster’s electronic percussion, Coco somehow managed to turn the most mundane material into magic. It was a gutsy move that paid off, though in the hands of a lesser talent it could have been disastrous or merely boring.

Coco gets spiritual. Let the spirit be moved! image Sean Arthur Joyce

Coco gets spiritual. Let the spirit be moved! image Sean Arthur Joyce

She finished up with the classic Revolution from the album Joyful, with an encore of another audience favourite, Fiori Modena, about her favourite Italian-made bicycle. I would have loved to also hear earlier songs like Where Do the Robots Go When They Die or Intellectual Boys, but by now she’s earned the right to move on with her work. No one has worked harder touring her music to audiences across the country. Fittingly, Coco and John received a standing ovation.

In an era when so many songwriters seem to opt for the meandering and almost tuneless—if they’re capable of writing original material at all—Coco Love Alcorn shines as a beacon of the art and craft of songwriting. (Of course, it helps that she has killer vocal cords.) As she writes in the liner notes: “Everything I’ve ever done has led me to here. To Wonderland, a collection of songs that are an invitation to connect, an invitation to sing, and an invitation to myself to dig deeper than ever before.” Amen to that!

Check out Coco on her Wonderland tour—share the love! http://cocolovealcorn.com/tour

And while you’re at it dig deeper into Wonderland: http://www.cocolovealcorn.com/wonderland

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Historical Amnesia: Remembering History’s Ignored Children

Imagine that a mass amnesia had gripped society and we suddenly lost our memory of history. Then imagine that history was rewritten for us, leaving out the entire story of the civil rights movement in the ’60s, or the Suffragettes’ campaigns for women’s vote. Or, to take it to a more Canadian-specific level, imagine that this newly rewritten history left out entirely the Riel Rebellion, or the On to Ottawa trek of unemployed men during the Great Depression, or the role of Tommy Douglas in universal health care.

Of course, political power interests rewrite history all the time. Note that it’s the history of resistance that is itself often ignored or rewritten. It happens daily in the corporate-owned media, which recasts events such as the police shooting of black Americans in a light favourable to authority and can even ignore mass global protests that break historical records. Hence the old expression, “The victors write the history.” Thankfully more honest historians such as Howard Zinn have helped provide balance to this skewed picture of history along with other conscientious writers.

Life for the poor in the early days of capitalism was bleak. Image public domain

Life for the poor in the early days of capitalism was bleak. Image public domain

Now imagine that 100,000 people, whose descendants number up to four million in Canada today, were erased from this new history. Their lives wiped out like text on a whiteboard, their contribution to the building of our nation eliminated. I speak of course of the British Home Children, who due to an accident of birth found that their lives amounted to a zero on the balance sheet of capitalism. These boys and girls, ranging in age from 5 to 16, faced a bitter future in 19th century Britain: scrabbling together a life on the streets of Birmingham, London, Glasgow or Dublin, the brutal regime of a workhouse, or what few overcrowded orphanages provided food and shelter. In Malthusian terms they were viewed by emerging capitalist barons as “surplus population,” an inferior stock in need of culling anyway. Obviously not all of the British elite shared this view. Many aristocrats such as Lord Shaftesbury were all too happy to fund emerging philanthropists such as Annie Macpherson and Dr. T.J. Barnardo in the building of ‘day schools’ and eventually orphanages. But with the industrial revolution displacing more workers than it could employ, even these well-intentioned relief efforts were soon overrun by those in desperate need of help. Remember: this is the era before social programs and welfare, the law of the capitalist jungle: You either do well or you die, period. And if you don’t do well, it’s your own damn fault—you’re defective so you deserve your fate. Sadly, we’re hearing this sociopathic litany repeated in the political rhetoric of late, whether it’s regarding immigration in the EU or poverty in America.

A popular portrait of Dr. Barnardo, whose organization emigrated some 30,000 children to Canada.

A portrait of Dr. Barnardo, whose organization emigrated some 30,000 children to Canada.

So with the orphanages packed to the rafters and a political regime still almost a century away from creating the modern welfare state, there was only one recourse: export the unfortunate children to the British colonies for use as indentured labour. In purely Machiavellian terms, it was a stroke of genius, solving both the social problem at home and the labour problem in the newly developing colonies. The one thing it left out of the equation was the human factor—the tearing effect of separating children from their families and their country of origin and sending them across an ocean to an alien land with almost no one to help them. The descendants of these families are still dealing with this legacy a century later. In recent decades there have been many fine books and documentaries—and one feature film, Oranges and Sunshine—made to redress this gap in our official histories.

And now there’s another chance to set things right. Former Member of Parliament for BC Southern Interior Alex Atamanenko, prior to retiring from politics last year, introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for an official apology to the British Home Children (BHC) and their descendants in Canada. Former Prime Ministers of both Australia (Kevin Rudd) and Britain (Gordon Brown) have already offered official apologies and some restitution. This is not about ‘compensation,’ but a long overdue acknowledgement of the critical role these neglected children played in an early stage of Canada’s development as a nation, and an apology for the neglect or abuse they suffered. We’re willing to thank our war veterans for their sacrifices but we need to do the same for the families of these children. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to come clean and apologize for past wrongs.

The real reason poor British children were brought to Canada—to work. From the image on the 2010 Canada Post stamp. Image: Library & Archives Canada

The real reason poor British children were brought to Canada—to work. From the image on the 2010 Canada Post stamp. Image: Library & Archives Canada

Atamanenko’s successor, MP Richard Cannings, reintroduced the apology motion as Private Members’ bill M-51 in April this year. The text of the motion reads: “That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) issue a formal, unequivocal and sincere apology to Canada’s British Home Children and child migrants, including their families and descendants, for the injustices suffered as a result of its participation in migration schemes between the years 1869 and 1948 thereby enabling the importation of an estimated 100,000 orphaned or destitute children from Britain to provide indentured labour for Canadian farms and households; (b) express its gratitude and appreciation to the families whose ancestors were responsible for building up Canada’s agricultural industry at a critical early point in its development; (c) assist in a coordinated effort with survivors and descendants to track and record their genealogies and ensure that reunification with lost family members is made possible; and (d) take steps to ensure that all Canadians are informed about this important period of history in a way that makes certain it is never forgotten by present or future generations.”

At a time when we are re-examining our public school curriculum to teach the terrible legacy of the Native residential schools, the story of Canada’s British Home Children deserves equal consideration as a vital component of public history. As much as anything, it reminds us that capitalism’s victims are of any colour or ethnicity. An estimated 10 percent of Canadians are descended from these children.

“Torn from family, friends and country, these children were met with severe discrimination and often placed with no further monitoring in harsh or abusive situations where they were exploited,” noted Atamanenko in February 2015.

The famous image of a shipload of Barnardo girls arriving in Halifax, circa 1920. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

The famous image of a shipload of Barnardo girls arriving in Halifax, circa 1920. British Home Children were typically exported in large groups like this. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

Lori Oschefsky, founder and CEO of British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA), has been collecting signatures for a petition calling for the apology for some time. “For the most part, these children were not picked up from the streets but came from intact families, who, through sickness or even death of one of their parents, had fallen on hard times,” says Oschefsky. “Because there was no social system in place to help them get through these difficult circumstances, the family had no other way than to surrender their offspring” to the various organizations offering assistance, such as Barnardo’s, Quarriers, National Children’s Homes, etc.

“Never should defenseless, lonely, loveless children be treated in such a way anywhere in the world,” declared Tom Isherwood, a Child Migrant brought to Canada at the age of 8 with Fairbridge Farm Schools. “When asked to be heard, nobody listened, not even God, as we were to be seen and not heard.”

ACTION: To support MP Cannings’ motion you can sign petition e-312 at the Parliamentary website here: https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-312

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Richard Cannings’ website: http://richardcannings.ndp.ca / Cannings’ motion on the Parliamentary website: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members/Richard-Cannings(89327)/Motions?sessionId=152&documentId=8175447 / British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association (BHCARA) website: http://canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com

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Nakusp Medieval Days a blast from the past

Turns out there’s far more going on at Nakusp Medieval Days than just an exercise in nostalgia. Far more than merely a forum for staged battles, the festival boasts a wide array of revived ancient skills. Although numbers were down slightly this year, Daniel Abraham, Nakusp Medieval Society (NMS) president, says the event was a success. Judging by the delight I saw on the faces of young and old watching ‘sword’ combat, archery skills, Highland games, and jousting matches with competing ‘knights,’ I’d have to agree.

Don't panic! No sharp blades were used. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Don’t panic! No sharp blades were used. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The partnership this year with the NMS and the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) was a first for both organizations. The SCA was established some 50 years ago and represents “over 1,000 years of history from pre-17th century Europe and the cultures that influenced Europe.” For those new to this event, a little explanation helps. “Participants in the SCA develop a persona which represents an individual from the Middle Ages who might have existed (but not based on a real figure from that time…) For most SCA participants this means selecting a particular time and culture from the Middle Ages, building a name from documented historical records from that culture, and wearing clothing that someone from that culture would have worn.” And indeed, it’s this colourful array of costumed characters that helps create the unique allure of Medieval Days.

The Jousting Alliance of Washington State brought in fully armoured ‘knights’ competing with lances on horseback – another first for Nakusp Medieval Days. The event featured a ‘page’ or announcer who goaded the audience to cheer for just about any competitor besides the Black Knight, who delighted in taunting both his competitors and the audience. For safety the lances are designed to shatter on impact, but this is not a sport without risk. The female Green Knight, Ariana Wolf, sustained a slight injury at Saturday’s match when a lance deflected off her shoulder armour and caused a bruise on her cheek. Nakusp resident Richard Sahlman was ‘knighted’ for coming to their assistance when he drove to the border to tow a horse trailer when one of the jouster’s trucks broke down. The crowds loved it.

The Green Knight chats with admirers after a jousting match. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The Green Knight chats with admirers after a jousting match. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The war on Saturday pitched the principality of Tir-Righ, comprising BC and part of Washington, and Avocal, the kingdom to the east, comprising Alberta, Saskatchewan and part of Idaho. Contestants compete for ‘war points’ at various events throughout the year that can determine who rises to the position of royalty in the kingdom. Sunday’s Highland Games featured a half-dozen kilt-clad competitors displaying feats of strength and agility with such sports as the shot putt and caber tossing.

In an era when we’re accustomed to seeing everything from thumbtacks to iPads made in China or Malaysia, the merchants at Medieval Days are more artisans than mere retailers. William Litwin, a.k.a. Taliesin ap Hafgan, specializes in calligraphy, and explained the painstaking process he uses to create ink from black walnut, among other sources for his inks. His partner Christopher ‘Topher’ Mackenzie creates chain mail as well as being a spinner and weaver. Kimberley Grigg, a.k.a. Duchess Meaghan, hosted a sewing and weaving circle teaching young women her skills, including Norse knotwork (nálbinding) that predates modern knitting by some 2,000 years. Stuart Tringle and Aleyn Wyckington displayed handcrafted medieval period lyres and encouraged festival patrons to try them out. Metal artists displayed handcrafted armour for sale and there were blacksmithing demonstrations from Nelson’s Kootenay Arts Studio. Leather workers such as Vargas Hides and Dyes happily take commissions for armour or belts and pouches made to last. Someone at the festival was the lucky raffle winner of a handcrafted longbow by Kootenay artisan Clark Dennill. A medieval-style furniture maker came all the way from Denver, Colorado with his wife, who displayed a beautiful tapestry-in-progress. The festival also teamed up with Nakusp Secondary to create swords for sale to would-be knights.

This women's sewing circle hosted by Duchess Meaghan taught ancient skills. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

This women’s sewing circle hosted by Duchess Meaghan taught ancient skills. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

“We recognize that there’s a lot of traditional handcrafted arts around here,” says Abraham, “so we thought one way to promote tourism is to give them a chance to promote their wares at our festival. Last year we had 28 vendors but this year we had about a third more. We try to keep things as local as possible, as relevant as possible.”

No medieval festival would be complete without music and featured strolling musicians John Anderson on flute and Kootenay Kiltie Pipe Band bagpiper Dale Morris. Multi-instrumentalists Suzanne LeClerc and Bryn Wilkin, known as Vazzy, held court in their music tent, performing award-winning renditions of traditional French, Celtic, Métis and Canadian songs. Dr. Kevin Zakresky, who recently performed at Britain’s Wembley arena with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, offered short presentations on medieval musical history and Gregorian chant. Nakusp’s own Nikki Cole kept the kids’ tent well entertained with puppetry.

This woman's voice and medieval lyre were hauntingly beautiful. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

This woman’s voice and medieval lyre were hauntingly beautiful. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The food and beverage department was a blend of ancient and modern. A bakery vendor sold both traditional and gluten-free goodies. A big hit was the tent offering ‘Irish-style’ whiskey (only whiskey made in Ireland can be called ‘Irish whiskey’). Award-winning Kootenay Craft Distillery was there with their regular and flavoured vodkas. The Burton City Cidery offered a distinctly medieval touch to its high-test ciders. The festival tavern sold out of everything they ordered. “Last year we were a little more strict on the food, that it had to be medieval food,” says Abraham, “but we had only two vendors and they sold out fast. So this year we thought, we can sacrifice authenticity to keep peoples’ bellies full. And it worked.”

Haggling with a merchant at the armoury shop. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Haggling with a merchant at the armoury shop. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The festival closed around 6 pm each day, making it both a family-friendly and easy on the neighbours. Look for another exciting event at next year’s Medieval Days. For more information visit www.medievaldays.ca or www.sca.org.

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Avoiding the Circus of Fear

UPDATE: I wrote this poem following a harrowing period in my life during the latter days of the Stephen Harper regime, when he appointed Steven Blaney as his Minister of Public Safety. Photos of the man expostulating in Parliament were shocking: Blaney looked like a rabid demon foaming at the mouth. I was used to hearing such inflammatory rhetoric from American politicians but coming from a Canadian minister of government it was deeply jarring. I was shocked that our country might be following the path to perdition laid down by our disintegrating neighbours to the south.

Then one night I had an epiphany: if these men are so terrified of the world they feel the need to cage us in an ever tightening ring of security and surveillance, then they are truly to be pitied. Why should I fear them? They’re actually quite pathetic creatures. Thankfully with the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, Canada has veered away from the abyss the United States and other countries seem to be plunging headlong into. For now. However, the old saying is true: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

What I learned from my Long Night of Fear under Harper is that it’s as essential to manage one’s own fear as it is to monitor those who cultivate it to their own ends. Once we can do that we can’t be manipulated nearly so easily.  It’s an especially important lesson as we watch the chaos unfolding in Turkey, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the world. Put simply: Don’t get sucked into the Circus of Fear.

Artwork created in 2015 to accompany the poem. ©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

Artwork created in 2015 to accompany the poem. ©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

Exorcising Demons

I saw you on TV—tongue

flicking fear

into our bones.

Haggard as a demon

on a three-day bender.

Bald as a bullet

biting the air

for its target,

halo of knives glinting

in oily light.

Your skin long abandoned

by touch, the leap

in the breast

all but forgotten.


Collars wrap serpentine

around your neck,

and everywhere you go,

you look over your shoulder,

listen for grit

beneath a boot.

And no matter

how many minds

you tie in knots,

they need only relax

to escape. After all,

the dead can sing

through anything.

While the armour

closes over your body,

they dance naked

in the streets.


Why should I fear you?

Your eyes are dark moths

beating weakly

against a screen—


for incandescence.


©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

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