Contemporary Bluesmen Shine

In previous reviews I’ve written about the rise of women in contemporary blues, highlighting their impressive accomplishments reinvigorating the form. (See LINKS below.) But from all this it might seem the men are lagging behind. Nothing could be further from the truth! While in mainstream pop music the business seems to have devolved mostly to same-sounding divas and manufactured ‘stars,’ with originality in short supply across the spectrum, in the blues both men and women are injecting new life into an old genre. I thought it was well past time to catch up with the guys.

Matty T. Wall

Australian bluesman Matty T. Wall rips it up.

Matty T. Wall: Sidewinder (2018). This album kicks out of the gate with the high-powered instrumental Slideride, featuring Wall’s electric guitar slide work backed by his tight rhythm section in a fast uptempo groove. The album’s energy never lets up, and when it does—as on a cover of the Trombone Shorty song Something Beautiful, Sam Cooke’s Change Is Gonna Come, or the acoustic Leave It All Behind, a Wall original—it’s never cloying or sentimental. The Australian bluesman combines a blues and hard rock sensibility that builds its power as much on a keen sense of the song arranger’s art as it does on his impressive chops as a guitarist. Wall has the rare gift of a voice equally as attractive as his axe skills, well suited to both hard and soft numbers. Although he mostly stays in the blues-rock vein, his forays into R&B (Change Is Gonna Come, Ain’t That the Truth) ballads (Something Beautiful) and the socially-conscious singer-songwriter (Leave It All Behind), the final cut on the album (Mississippi KKKrossroads) veers into rap territory without seeming lame or out of place. Something Beautiful is easily the standout track here, beautifully arranged with a pizzicato guitar line, smooth but unobtrusive vocal harmonies, and a positive message we can all use in these crazy-ass times. This is one of those albums that gets heavy rotation on my stereo.

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Canadian bluesman Steve Strongman. Photo Matthew Barnes, courtesy band website.

Steve Strongman: Tired of Talkin’ (2019). Canadian bluesman Steve Strongman turns in another strong effort. (I reviewed his excellent previous roots-blues album No Time Like Now in ‘Catching Up on the Canuck Blues.’) On Tired of Talkin’ Strongman opts for a more straight-ahead blues-rock approach, but with his usual fine ear for arrangements. This is one guitar hero who knows how—and when—to employ restraint, even as he’s no slouch with the fast licks. Strongman comes on with a muscular groove in Tired of Talkin’ and Paid My Dues, tipping his hat to the hard road all blues musicians must face, before slowing the pace on Still Crazy ’Bout You and Just Ain’t Right. The Hammond organ groove on the latter tune is a tasty echo of the glory days of modern blues in the ’60s. Rock numbers like Livin’ the Dream and Hard Place and a Rock, have a feel reminiscent of fellow Canadian Tom Cochrane’s Life is a Highway, and tip the hat lyrically to Strongman’s Canuck roots. Tasteful ballads like That Kind of Fight, Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, Bring You Down and the Delta blues number Highway Man (a Strongman original) sit comfortably alongside the more intense tracks. The album was recorded in Hamilton, Ontario and Nashville with no loss of consistency in the production and overall tone. Multi-talented collaborator Dave King produced the album, played drums, and co-wrote nine of the 12 songs.

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Canadian blues master Terry Robb. Image courtesy band website.

Terry Robb: Confessin’ My Dues (2019). If you’re looking for a change of pace, a downshift into a stellar set of acoustic blues, look no further than this album. Robb is clearly a living master of the guitar with more of a debt to ‘gentleman blues’ players like Chet Atkins and Les Paul than the all-out electric blues of Johnny Winter or Jimi Hendrix. And he’s Canadian! Currently living in Portland, Oregon, Robb received the Muddy Award for Best Acoustic Guitar by the Cascade Blues Association for 19 consecutive years, from inception of the award category in 1992 until it was renamed in his honour in 2011. His fingerpicking finesse opens the album with Butch Holler Stomp and Still on 101 and carries seemingly effortlessly throughout the album on both acoustic and resonator guitars. Like his guitar style, his vocals are clear and precise, not at all your prototypical sandpaper-throated classic blues singer, as on How a Free Man Feels, Confessin’ My Dues, Heart Made of Steel and Keep Your Judgment. Robb works with a traditional three-piece combo of guitar, drums (Gary Hobbs) and standup bass (Dave Captein), and seems most comfortable on the many instrumental numbers on the album. On numbers like Darkest Road I’m Told and High Desert Everywhere you can clearly hear echoes of Robert Johnson, still resonating (pardon the pun) with blues players nearly a century after his heyday. Though it’s probably more accurate to say that High Desert Everywhere is Johnson filtered through Ry Cooder. There truly isn’t a weak number to be heard anywhere here, thanks to Robb’s fluent, crystal-clear technique and compositional ability. A pristine delight from start to finish.

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The Ellis-Mano Band, managed out of Germany. Photo courtesy band website.

Ellis Mano Band: Here and Now (2019). I had a musician friend tell me the other day: “A bad singer’s a deal-breaker for me. Good singers are hard to find.” Well, Chris Ellis is a standout vocalist, with a wide range of expressive abilities. At times he reminds me of the gorgeously resonant singing done by Daniel Lanois on his classic album Acadie. The band is named for Ellis and guitarist Edis Mano, and what a combination! Like Matty Wall, the sound is a blend of rock and blues, hard-hitting when it needs to be—as on Whiskey—and shifting down a few gears for tracks like Here and Now, Where We Belong, Goodbye My Love and others. Ellis has the ideal ballad singer’s voice, with a broad range, effortless vibrato and passionate delivery. Ellis and Mano’s songwriting displays a keen understanding of how to build emotional dynamics in a song. One of the standout tracks on the album is Badwater, which starts off understated but gradually builds in intensity thanks again to Ellis’s vocal sensitivity. The album closes with the joyful Dixie jazz stomp of Jeannine. Keyboard player Manuel Halter’s Hammond organ links the band’s sound to classic blues but never dominates the proceedings. Guitarist Mano is similarly restrained, sacrificing showboating for overall texture and mood. This may not be the album for guitar hero worshippers but for those looking for well-crafted songs delivered by a soulful vocalist it’s sure to please.

LINKS

‘March of the Blues Divas’ June 11, 2017 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/06/11/march-of-the-blues-divas/

‘Queens of the Gutbucket Blues,’ February 5, 2018 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2018/02/05/queens-of-the-gutbucket-blues/

‘Thornetta Davis: A New Blues Classic,’ February 16, 2017 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/02/16/thornetta-davis-a-new-blues-classic/

‘An Interview with Ice Queen Sue Foley,’ July 31, 2018 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2018/07/31/an-interview-with-blues-ice-queen-sue-foley/

‘Holly Hyatt Releases Solo Album Wild Heart,’ April 29, 2019 https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2019/04/29/holly-hyatt-releases-solo-album-wild-heart/

‘Catching Up on the Canuck Blues,’ February 27, 2018

https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2018/02/27/catching-up-on-the-canuck-blues/

Matty T. Wall website: https://www.mattytwall.com

Ellis Mano Band website: https://www.ellismanoband.com/band/

Terry Robb website: https://www.terryrobb.com/home3

Terry Robb on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Robb

Steve Strongman website: https://www.stevestrongman.com/home

 

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Analog Sea a Delightful Return to Deeper Currents

Every so often I’ll come across a collection of poetry that stands head and shoulders above the torrent of mediocrity being published these days. When it does, I feel it deserves a much wider audience than poetry typically gets. With Songs of Waking by Jonathan Simons, I’ve found such a book. The way I came across this lovely collection is a story in itself. Bundled with my contributor’s copy of Acumen literary magazine from England came something called The Analog Sea Bulletin, an extract from The Analog Sea Review. It states proudly on its cover that it is “an offline journal.” Akin to the current movement for ‘slow’ food and slow living that allows space for deeper contemplation, it’s the very antidote we need to the 24/7 wall of entertainment and rage-baiting fake news now engulfing us.

I was so impressed with the Analog Sea Bulletin—which stated that it welcomed handwritten or typewritten letters—that I pulled my dusty old Majestic typewriter off its shelf and hammered out a letter to its editor, Jonathan Simons. I think it was the first time in 25 years that I’d actually written anything other than a poem on a typewriter. It wasn’t as easy as I remembered, even though I started my writing career on a typewriter. By its very nature a typewriter is an intensely physical instrument—one doesn’t just touch the keys as on a laptop but must strike the keys with some force. And then of course there’s the physical action of returning the carriage to start the next line. In any case, my typing facility on computer keyboards has seriously degraded in recent years, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the caustic nature of digital technology, being exposed to an illuminated screen all day. There have certainly been studies suggesting that computer screens can damage eyesight and interfere with circadian rhythms.

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The Analog Sea Review #2 and The Analog Sea Bulletin

So I sent off my typewritten letter to Austin, Texas—one of the two offices maintained by The Analog Sea. (The other is in Freiberg, Germany, where publisher Simons lives.) After some weeks—speaking of a return to the analog world—I received more copies of the Bulletin to distribute as a teaser for the forthcoming Review. The wait for that response was a return to the days before instant email communications, when half the delight of correspondence was the delicious anticipation—waiting for a thoughtful reply. Can you imagine future collections of emails in book form? Hardly. One of my most prized books is The World’s Great Letters, published in 1940 and spanning from Alexander the Great to Thomas Mann. The very nature of the medium—having to sit down and pick up a pen, or flex your fingertips over a typewriter—tended to reward a more thoughtful approach. The slower time scale of the postal system imposed another limitation, one we often used to bitch about. Still, I found it made me conscious of making each letter count. And that meant composing it with nearly the same care I would give to composing a poem. Even writing a blog post can work against the ethic of craft, with its instant publishing button. The return to this kind of ‘slowness,’ the more meditative, considered way we used to communicate, is one of the signal mandates of The Analog Sea. With the package was a handwritten postcard on beautiful art quality paper that read:

Dear Arthur: We were all blown away by your incredible letter from June. Please expect a more thoughtful reply from me in the near future. In the meantime, we wanted to make sure you received the enclosed materials announcing the second issue of the Review. Let me know if you have any trouble obtaining a copy. I’m interested in your feedback.  —Jonathan Simons

Majestic 612 A

My Majestic 612 typewriter with its lovely sky-blue baked enamel finish. A thing of beauty.

A second package then followed shortly afterward, containing more copies of the Bulletin, which arrived just in time for my 60th birthday. With it was a typewritten letter from Simons. In it he wrote, among other things (the letter was 7 pages on postcard-sized paper stock):

Dear Arthur: Although we have the endangered pleasure of receiving many paper letters sent to our small editorial office, it’s quite rare we receive one which so clearly echoes our own thoughts and efforts. What led me to start all this madness in the first place was an assumption that there must be many others with similar passions and values as mine, and concerns for how the digital revolution is gutting these very values from our collective consciousness. I saw Analog Sea as a sort of search-and-rescue operation for fellow castaways—other poets and dreamers still thinking and feeling amid the numbing glow of a society increasingly electrified, digitized, and severed from the Real. After two years and tens of thousands of letters in bottles thrown into the analog seas separating this diaspora of vitality, I can safely say, yes, there are others—what I call “the living-living” in my poem Salt Spring Island. Surprisingly, though, I’ve discovered that there are really very few; which is to say, alas, our society is mostly asleep. So letters like yours, and knowing that we are not entirely asleep, motivates me to continue and not (yet) return to the bliss of a much simpler, hermetic life, as I had before.

This prompted another letter from me—again typewritten—this time sent directly to Jonathan at the Freiberg office:

Mr. Simons: I received both your welcome packages containing copies of the Analog Sea Bulletin, Winter 2018–19 issue. I look forward to reading the full Analog Sea Review when ready. Incidentally, your second package arrived just two weeks or so before my birthday September 28 and it’s a milestone—I’ll be 60. Can’t believe it but there it is—time marches on and our bodies betray us no matter how young we feel inside. Some part of me will forever be 16, while other aspects of one’s identity feel 100. In that respect I suppose we are all composite beings.

Along with the letter I sent him a revised and fact-checked version of the previous letter—really an essay I titled Finding a Lifeboat in the Analog Sea—that had prompted our correspondence. I thanked him for his response to it and interest in possibly publishing it, or an excerpt of it, in Analog Sea: “In a three decades long career as a freelance journalist, poet and author, it will rank as among my proudest moments, and takes me back to those early days starting out with nothing more than a compact manual typewriter with a baked blue enamel finish very much like the one I’m writing this letter on.” I had forgotten to make a copy of my original letter so this time I scanned the second letter for future reference. Our culture is now so impregnated with digital tools that it becomes difficult to fully disengage from it, at least for recording purposes if nothing else.

In my letter to Simons I reflected on how I often “feel like a man out of his time”: Which probably explains my love of all things analog, and why I resonated immediately with Analog Sea. Who knows which authors will still be read from our era in 100, 500 or a thousand years? Being a bestseller today is no guarantee your work will continue to have resonance. I think this is something the digital, instant gratification culture has made most of us forget. It has harried and bullied us into possibly the shallowest perspective ever, a historically narrow mindset that limits both our scope and our creativity.

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One of the packages received from The Analog Sea. The books are hardcover, with sewn bindings, high quality acid-free paper and woven page markers.

Then about a week after my birthday arrived the third package, containing with another letter from Simons a copy of Analog Sea Review #2 plus a review copy of his poetry collection Songs of Waking. Unsurprisingly, I’m finding Analog Sea #2 a delightful read. Certainly there’s the delight in seeing one’s own thoughts reflected back from the page, which some might call mere solipsism. But it’s far more than that. It’s a kind of call to arms for people to wake up from the consumerist digital trance that we’ve been gradually lulled into, to the point where, as Simons wrote in his second letter, “we’re not far from needing an algorithm just to help us brush our teeth!” In Songs of Waking, Simons states the mission succinctly in the poem Thirst:

Because all you know

is thirst,

because you pledge allegiance

to yourself,

because your tomahawk

is sheathed

in silk and feather,

 

because your heart

is just a muscle,

because you shoot

from the hip,

because your smile

consumes you,

 

you will find me enlisted,

drunk on my vow,

parading the front

with my little flag,

warning the others,

extracting the hook.

 

In the poem Simons alluded to in his letter, Salt Spring Island, he telescopes into a single verse—as the best poets often do—the nub of the problem facing contemporary society:

We, the dreamers,

the living-living and the living-dead,

have already lost our game.

Living in the constant state of distraction predicted by Guy Debord in 1967 in The Society of the Spectacle (as discussed in Analog Sea #2), in this poem Simons sees us “directed only by the speed / of running / from something / too soft to hold / within the icy arms of trade.” But his is no mere poetry of elegy, mourning over what’s been lost. He reminds us—as all poets ought to—that there remains within the human frame an ancient, rooted urge for genuine connection, not only with each other but with the Earth that is both our cradle and our very blood itself:

But the marrow

still boils in the bone,

the ocean still pulses

through soft chambers

of the heart,

our constellatory minds

carry still

those ancient maps of stars,

a compass of beauty

not yet sold

at the garden’s gate…

There’s a beautifully ornate echo of this in a superb poem published in Analog Sea #2 by Lesley Saunders, titled Polyphony. Once again the poet cuts to the heart of the chase, noting how we’ve accepted this voluntary social isolation wrought by technology, even as that innate desire for beauty, for contact, scratches at the windowpanes like a Brontëan  tree in a windstorm:

we sit in our own shadows, falling into fugue,

souls trapped between either and or.

at our backs, behind the locked door,

stand indigo, kingfisher, turquoise, perse,

azure, jasper, smalt, violet, ultramarine,

arms raised in a Gloria, force-fields

of heteroglossia, pageants of richness,

tall guardians against the violence of binary.

The entire poem deserves wide reading. Both Simons and Saunders avoid the trap one can so easily fall into as a poet writing poems with sociopolitical content—devolving to a screed, a Jeremiah howling in the wilderness. Certainly we need such prophets, but it takes great skill as a poet to craft verse that simultaneously critiques and enlightens. Analog Sea is meant to be a beacon in the digital wilderness, and it succeeds brilliantly, with excerpts from great thinkers and poets like Debord, Oliver Sacks, Lin Yutang, Antonio Machado, Robert Bly, and so many other writers keeping our fingers on the pulse of what it means to be fully human.

In that respect it reminds me of Lapham’s Quarterly, the wonderful journal founded by former Harper’s Magazine publisher Lewis Lapham. Both Analog Sea and Lapham’s intelligently shatter the 21st century mold of shallow, instant perspectives devoid of historical context by drawing upon writers across the ages whose work still speaks to us as vividly as when it was first set down. Lapham’s uses a revolving central theme with which to select its timeless writing, providing a multiplicity of viewpoints on a given topic—not necessarily congruent, but enriching and deeply thought provoking. Analog Sea—at least, so far—seems to focus around the thesis expressed in the letters and poetic excerpts I’ve quoted. Namely, that it’s well past time we stepped back from the nihilistic brink of technologized, consumerist society and rediscovered the simple, profound pleasures of slow, deep and wide thought. It’s a river that connects us to all species, moving us not only backward through time but forward more thoughtfully into the future.

Lapham's issues

Lapham’s Quarterly: a deep, wide antidote to mainstream media culture.

If like me you’re interested in seeing a return to the more thoughtful currents of analog culture, you can write a letter to Analog Sea Review at: Basler Strasse 115, 79115 Freiberg, Germany; or Box 11670, Austin, Texas 78711, USA. Trust me, the wait will be well worth it.

 

Posted in Arts & Culture, book reviews, Poetry, social commentary, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering History’s Overlooked Children

Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. —Lewis B. Smedes

Gibbs Home Sherbrooke

Just one of many large groups of child immigrants brought to Canada, today known as British Home Children. The author’s grandfather was brought to Canada by the Church of England.

2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the first small group of British Home Children arriving in Canada with English social reformer Maria Rye. (More on this story to come.) So it’s worth thinking for a moment: imagine if their stories had been lost forever. They very nearly were. Now imagine that we lost other pivotal stories in our history: the Suffragettes’ campaigns for women’s vote, or the civil rights movement in the ’60s. Imagine what Canadian history would be if we left out entirely the Riel Rebellion, 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. It happens daily in the corporate-owned media, which recasts events such as police shootings of black Americans in a light favourable to authority and ignores record-breaking global protests. 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.

Barnardo's Peter St. home Toronto

A group of older boys at Dr. Barnardo’s Home in Toronto, date unknown.

Now imagine that 100,000 people, whose descendants number up to four million in Canada today, were erased from this revised 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: scratching together a life on the streets of Birmingham, Manchester, 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. “The ‘mob,’ the ‘dangerous classes,’ or the ‘residuum’ were terms variously applied to those who suffered the poverty and uncertainty of an economic order unable to provide them with permanent work,” writes historian Roy Parker in Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867–1917.

Obviously not all of the 19th century British elite shared this view. Many aristocrats such as Lord Shaftesbury, William Booth and the Rowntree family were themselves reformers. Some of them funded the building of day schools and orphanages operated by philanthropists such as Annie Macpherson and Dr. Barnardo. But with the industrial revolution displacing more workers than it could employ, even these relief efforts were soon overrun. Remember: this is the era before social programs and welfare. The law of the 19th century capitalist jungle was: You either do well or you die. And if you don’t do well, it’s your own fault—you deserve your fate. Sadly, we’re hearing this antisocial litany in 21st century political rhetoric, whether it’s regarding immigration or the growing poverty gap in Western nations.

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Group of girls at Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School in Duncan, BC, showing the range of ages of immigrant children. Courtesy Ron Smith / Fairbridge Chapel Society

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 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.

Lori Oschefsky, founder of British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA), has been frank about past attempts to whitewash the child immigration movement. “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. 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.

Once they arrived in Canada, the lives of these children offered them little security, uprooting them frequently from one farm to another. “Hardly any of the people had stayed in one place until they were 18,” writes Parker. “Unhappiness, the end of a short-term engagement, being considered ‘unsatisfactory’, running away or being removed because of ill-treatment, all contributed to this history of unsettlement. Indeed, a pattern of ‘moving around’ and restlessness, particularly among the boys, was liable to continue into adult life… Eighteen percent… described harsh physical treatment (boys and girls in equal proportion) and a fifth of the women… said, or strongly implied, that they had been sexually abused by some man in the families to which they were sent.” The descendants of these families are still dealing with this legacy a century later. It’s arguable that the Home Child legacy of constant movement across the landscape has become a formative aspect of Canadian character.

Barnardo boy ploughing 1900

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

“Together with a minority of upbeat accounts,” notes Parker in Uprooted, “there were those that were deeply sad and where that sadness and distress had persisted through to retirement and beyond. Those who wrote about such distress tended to do so in some detail. Typically, they emphasized their feelings of loneliness, of being unloved, of being stigmatized as a ‘home child’ and of feeling a deep sense of psychological damage. Here are some illustrative extracts: ‘I was sure I would die of loneliness.’ ‘I was given to understand that an orphan was the lowest type of person on earth… and the insults I had to take… have always stayed with me.’ ‘My background of life has given me a restless nature. As I grew up there was always the question in my mind. Why, for what reason did our family have to be broken up?’”

In October 2018 the Scottish government was in phase three of its Child Abuse Inquiry, including a forensic historical examination of the abuse of children held in care. In 2010, successful Scottish businessman David Whelan published his memoir No More Silence, relating the abuse he suffered as a ward of Quarriers childcare organization. As phase three of the inquiry opened, Alice Harper, chief executive of Quarriers, said: “Quarriers repeats its unreserved apology to survivors of abuse while in our care,” an apology first offered on May 31, 2017. Naturally, many victims’ families were not satisfied by apology alone. An article in The Herald reported Janine Rennie, Chief Executive of survivors’ support charity Wellbeing Scotland, as saying: “Some people walked out of the hearings. A lot of us feel frustrated that the inquiry seems set to focus on institutional failures. Those are blindingly obvious, what victims want is justice and accountability for individual abusers.” Barnardo’s during the hearings refused to admit abuse actually took place, angering some in attendance.

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. In recent decades there have been many fine books and documentaries—and one feature film, Oranges and Sunshine—made to redress this gap. It’s a reminder that capitalism’s victims can be of any colour or ethnicity. An estimated 8–10 percent of Canadians are descended from these children.

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The author with Ivy Sucee in Peterborough, 2012.

We can be thankful that, due to the dedicated efforts of people like Dave and Kay Lorente, Ivy Sucee, Perry Snow, Judy Neville, Lori Oshefsky, and many others over the years, awareness of Canada’s British Home Child history is emerging from the shadows. We can be especially thankful to far-sighted people like Phyllis Harrison, who in the late 1970s placed ads in Canadian newspapers asking British Home Children to send her their stories. These firsthand accounts are now priceless historical documents, since so many of these people have passed on. In addition we can be grateful to authors who devoted considerable time to researching and writing about them during the ‘wilderness period’ in the early 1980s when few Canadians had even heard of British Home Children: Joy Parr, Kenneth Bagnell, and Gail Corbett. Thankfully that list of authors has since grown to encompass a whole new category of Canadian history.

And we can be thankful to those politicians who took up the cause of social justice in the face of the monumental indifference of various Canadian governments: NDP MP Alex Atamanenko, NDP MP Richard Cannings, Bloc Québécois MP Luc Thériault—all of whom championed Parliamentary motions for apology. Although the Canadian Government itself has yet to formally apologize, Thériault’s motion for a House of Commons apology passed unanimously on February 15, 2017. I was proud to have co-authored Cannings’ speech to the House in favour of the motion. This was quickly followed on February 7, 2018 by the successful motion posed by Conservative MP Guy Lauzon for a national British Home Child day on September 28. These MPs and all those who supported them deserve our thanks.

Tom Isherwood, a child migrant brought to Canada at the age of 8 with Fairbridge Farm Schools, sums it up poignantly: “Never should defenseless, lonely, loveless children be treated in such a way anywhere in the world.” Let’s hope our leaders learn something from this sad chapter of history.

Sean Arthur Joyce, the descendant of British Home Child Cyril William Joyce, is the author of Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West (Radiant Press). He is the author of 7 books including poetry, Western Canadian history and a novel. Joyce will host a celebration of British Home Child Day at the Camp Café in Silverton, BC on Friday, September 27, 2:30 pm, with all BHC descendants welcome. To mark the 150th anniversary of the first British Home Children arriving in Canada, the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association is sponsoring light-up events across Canada. For a full list of events visit: https://www.britishhomechildren.com

LINKS: David Whelan, No More Silence: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9318460-no-more-silence

‘Unreserved’ apologies over abuse fail to satisfy victims, Stephen Naysmith, The Herald, May 31, 2017: https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15320364.unreserved-apologies-over-abuse-fail-to-satisfy-victims/

Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, by Sean Arthur Joyce, Radiant Press: https://www.radiantpress.ca/shop/laying-the-childrens-ghosts-to-rest-canadas-home-children-in-the-west

 

Posted in Barnardo's Homes, History, Home Children, social commentary | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Another Social Justice Pioneer Has Left Us

Betty Daniel, activist extraordinaire, has died at age 97 in Nelson, BC. She was a veteran of the US Navy who served in World War II but spent most of her life fighting for peace and social justice. Betty and her then husband came under the watchful eye of the FBI during the tumultuous days of the Sixties due to their peace advocacy work, leading to their decision to emigrate to Canada. Incredible that any government would waste money and violate democratic rights surveilling citizens whose only desire is to bring an end to an unjust war, but that’s the world we live in. The same has occurred recently in Canada, with CSIS prying into the lives of protestors of the Northern Gateway pipeline. Sadly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Betty's 90th 1

Betty with Sally Lamare at the 90th birthday celebration, Hidden Garden Gallery, New Denver, BC, June 22, 2012. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce.

But that didn’t stop Betty, who remained a dedicated social justice warrior to the end of her days. As will be seen from the tribute reprinted below, she was a pillar of the community both in Nelson and New Denver, where she had lived for many years with her partner Penny Bonnett prior to her death in 2013. My partner Anne Champagne served with Betty on the Hidden Garden Gallery for about a decade and they became fast friends. Anne recalls that Betty’s navy training came in handy during board meetings—as chairperson she knew how to keep wandering board members on track. She had that rare blend of firmness and kindness, with a laser focus to get the job done.

I’ll always remember Betty as one of the most balanced activists I’ve ever met. The unfortunate thing about passion for a cause is that in the face of repeated struggles and disappointments it can turn people bitter or make them fanatical. But not Betty. Although a stalwart for social justice, she was never an evangelist. Although a firebrand, she was always well grounded and sensible, with a keen intelligence and a ready sense of humour. In short, the ideal person to have on your side, and a ready friend to many.

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Betty the Birthday Girl talks about turning 90. Hidden Garden Gallery, June 22, 2012.

Author Caroline Woodward, a longtime friend of Betty’s, has written a heartfelt tribute, reprinted with permission here. I expect Betty’s family will issue an official biography and publish an obituary soon.

“There are some amazing people I want to live forever but only in good health, of course. Such a one was Betty Daniel, my beloved friend since 1984 when, to add insult to injury, the provincial government of the day moved several government centres from Nelson to the Okanagan and then shut down the David Thompson University Centre, a dependent of the University of Victoria for degrees and Selkirk College for diplomas.

“The latter move was apparently because the relatively puny annual budget for the university was needed to build about three yards worth of the Coquihalla Highway then underway. Anyway, the next thing the demoralized citizens of the West Kootenays who hadn’t voted right heard was that a couple of trucks from the Okanagan were headed our way to scoop up the DTUC Library, which included a Special Collections archive of books, maps, photographs and priceless letters called the Kooteniana Collection, most of it donated by regular citizens and not purchased by any academic institution.

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Betty was also a champion for art in the community, serving for many years on the Hidden Garden Gallery board in New Denver, BC. Here she is at her 89th birthday party in 2011 with Eleanor Spangler. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

“What to do? In the spirit of the times, we organized a sit-in, a 24 hour round the clock one with a number of elders and two students willing to stick our necks out to prevent scholarly jackals from raiding our Library. Without the Library, the chances of us attracting another post-secondary institution to the Kootenays would be seriously hampered. Little did we know our sit-in/sleep-in would last 96 days and that several hundred citizens would occupy in shifts, with a maximum of six people at a time if memory serves, and many others would bring us casseroles and salads every single day. Betty was our leader, a wise, fierce, smart strategist and as a retired university instructor herself, she had lots of experience dealing with bureaucrats.

“I also worked shifts at a group home so my dog and I popped in and out of the Library Occupation all spring and summer. Senior activists were especially gleeful about the sit-in and several of them avoided lawn-mowing and controlling spouses for three months by virtuously standing up for literature. Here we are, the original Gang of Five at the end of our successful Occupation, with Betty, who passed away yesterday at the age of 97, delivering a witty speech. The photo is by Rita Moir, author of three award-winning non-fiction memoirs and at the time a journalist stringer for the Globe & Mail and the CBC. She later wrote a five-part radio play based on the Occupation which aired on CBC Radio. I think Bill Richardson played Sadie Brown, my dog but this needs corroboration!

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Betty (centre) organizes the ‘Gang of Five’ to save the DTUC university library in Nelson, c. 1984. Photo courtesy Rita Moir.

“From left to right in the photo: Sam Dodds, author of The Sedentary Tales, the Canterbury spoof of our Occupation, Hobarth Sorenson, Betty, Jacqueline Cameron, writing student (who became a librarian as well, working in Whitehorse and now, Victoria) and myself, writing student and still writing away, thanks to the brilliant working writers I had as instructors and the 400+ lively and talented students in all arts disciplines plus rural education teacher training who made DTUC a five-year wonder. Betty Daniel was incredibly active in Nelson and in her later years, New Denver. She was a creative spark plug for the film society in Nelson and the Women’s Centre, the DTUC Support Society, the Hidden Garden Gallery, and many, many other community groups and worthy causes. She had friends of all ages all her long and well-lived life and we all loved her. Farewell Betty and may you organize the angels and form a heavenly film society next!”

—Caroline Woodward

Posted in Biography & Obituaries, Democracy, The Kootenays | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aldous Huxley on Hospice Care

Aldous Huxley has since my youth been a huge influence on my thought and writing. Most famous for his essential novel of technological dystopia, Brave New World, his essays and novels spanned almost every conceivable topic in the arts and sciences. His final novel, Island, was his concept for a utopia based on a lifetime of study. Inevitably, it goes wrong, as all utopias do. But some 60 years before today’s critiques of capitalism, in Island he deftly satirizes the economic system that has so degraded our global environment. “Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste and moneylenders were abolished, you’d collapse. And while your people are over-consuming, the rest of the world sinks more and more into chronic disaster.” (Island, Granada Publishing, London, 1979 ed., originally published 1962, p. 170.)

Aldous Huxley Wikipedia

Aldous Huxley. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Huxley was perhaps among the last of the ‘Renaissance men,’ whose intellectual capacities and achievements ranged wide and deep, with a penetrating perception and subtlety of thought. Such a contrast to the digital era, with its emphasis on the specialist, the one-trick pony who knows everything about only one area of expertise but almost nothing else. Yet cultivating interest in a broad range of subjects, and reading widely, is the best way to develop a balanced perspective on the world. It was an omnivorous habit of mind Huxley called “rich mixed feeding.”[1]

As even the Harvard Business Review has noted recently, the age of the specialist may be ending. “The future may belong to the generalist,” notes writer Vikram Mansharamani in ‘All Hail the Generalist. “There appears to be reasonable and robust data suggesting that generalists are better at navigating uncertainty.” Not to mention, having a much broader view of the world.

Huxley wasn’t just a cool intellectual though. He seemed to possess intellect and heart in equal capacity, and cultivated a well-informed intuition. He was among the earliest thinkers in the West to explore Buddhism, along with Alan Watts. Huxley also explored shamanic cultures and the use of hallucinogens in his quest for spiritual enlightenment. In fact, with Canadian scientist Dr. Humphry Osmond, he coined the term ‘psychedelic.’ As Huxley’s second wife Laura Archera Huxley wrote in her biography of Huxley, This Timeless Moment, the 1960s popular drug culture succumbed to the use of LSD, psilocybin and mescaline as a recreational drug and paid the price for it. Now, five decades later, there’s been something of a revival of hallucinogens as a path to spiritual development.

In this passage from Huxley’s biography, published in 1968, she writes about the final days of his first wife Maria, who was dying of cancer in 1955. It’s an amazing document, quoted directly from Huxley’s diaries, showing what incredible insight, intuition and compassion the man possessed. It also reveals his pioneering use of the technique in the mid-1950s that we today sometimes refer to as ‘healing touch,’ or what he called ‘magnetic passes.’ There’s a beautiful section where he relates the tender way he eased his wife into her death using a form of light hypnosis that we today would probably call ‘guided meditation.’ He does it with the skill of a Buddhist master, whatever your view of the concept of transmigration of souls and the bardo. In my view, it’s a passage that could be used to guide anyone through their final hours with compassion, love and dignity. Sixty-five years later, hospice care workers could still learn a lot from Huxley. All quotations are taken from This Timeless Moment, Laura Archera Huxley, Ballantine Books, 1968, pp. 19–22.

Aldous Huxley bio cover“I spent a good many hours of each day sitting with her, sometimes saying nothing, sometimes speaking. When I spoke, it was always, first of all, to give suggestions about her physical wellbeing. I would go through the ordinary procedure of hypnotic induction, beginning by suggestions of muscular relaxation, then counting to five or ten, with the suggestion that each count would send her deeper into hypnosis. I would generally accompany counting with passes of the hand, which I drew slowly down from the head towards the feet. After the induction period was over, I would suggest that she was feeling, and would continue to feel, comfortable, free from pain and nausea, desirous of taking water and liquid nourishment whenever they should be offered. These suggestions were, I think, effective; at any rate there was little pain and it was only during the last thirty-six hours that sedation (with Demerol) became necessary. These suggestions for physical comfort were in every case followed by a much longer series of suggestions addressed to the deeper levels of the mind.”

“Overhead the sky was more deeply blue than ever. But in the west there was a great golden illumination deepening to red; and this was the golden light of Joy, the rosy light of Love. And to the south rose the mountains, covered with snow and glowing with the white light of pure Being—the white light which is the source of the coloured lights, the absolute Being of which love, joy and peace are manifestations, and which all dualism of our experience, all the pairs of opposites—positive and negative, good and evil, pleasure and pain, health and sickness, life and death—are reconciled and made one. And I would ask her to look at these lights of her beloved desert and to realize that they were not merely symbols, but actual expression of the divine nature; an expression of Pure Being, an expression of the peace that passeth all understanding; an expression of the divine joy; an expression of the love which is at the heart of things, at the core, along with peace and joy and being, of every human mind. And having reminded her of those truths of our being, which some know consciously but only theoretically and which a few (Maria was one of them) have known directly, albeit briefly and in snatches—I would urge her to advance into those lights, to open herself to joy, peace, love and being, to permit herself to be irradiated by them and to become one with them. I urged her to become what in fact she had always been, what all of us have always been, a part of the divine substance, a manifestation of love, joy and peace, a being identical with the One Reality. And I kept on repeating this, urging her to go deeper and deeper into the light, ever deeper and deeper.”

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Aldous Huxley’s final novel, c.1962

“So the days passed, and as her body weakened, her surface mind drifted further and further out of contact, so that she no longer recognized us or paid attention. And yet she must have still heard and understood what was said, for she would respond by appropriate action, when the nurse asked her to open her mouth or swallow. Under anesthesia, the sense of hearing remains awake long after the other senses have been eliminated. And even in deep sleep, suggestions will be accepted and complicated sentences can be memorized. Addressing the deep mind which never sleeps, I went on suggesting that there should be relaxation on the physical level, and an absence of pain and nausea; and I continued to remind her of who she really was—a manifestation in time of eternal, a part forever unseparated from the whole, of the divine reality; I went on urging her to go forward into the light.”

“A little before three on Saturday morning the night nurse came and told us that the pulse was failing. I went and sat by Maria’s bed and from time to time leaned over and spoke into her ear. I told her that I was with her and would always be with her in that light which was the central reality of our beings. I told her that she was surrounded by human love and that this love was manifestation of a greater love, by which she was enveloped and sustained. I told her to let go, to forget the body, to leave it lying here like a bundle of old clothes and to allow herself to be carried, as a child is carried, into the heart of the rosy light of love. She knew what love was, had been capable of love as few human beings are capable. Now she must go forward into love, must permit herself to be carried into love, deeper and deeper into it, so that at last she would be capable of loving as God loves—of loving everything, infinitely, without judging, without condemning, without either craving or abhorring.”

Aldous Huxley 1959

Aldous Huxley c.1959

“And then there was peace. How passionately, from the depth of a fatigue, which illness and a frail constitution had often intensified to the point of being hardly bearable, she had longed for peace! And now she would have peace. And where there was peace and love, there too there would be joy. And the river of the coloured lights was carrying her towards the white light of pure being, which is the source of all things and reconciliation of all opposites in unity. And she was to forget, not only her poor body, but the time in which that body had lived. Let her forget the past, leave her old memories behind. Regrets, nostalgias, remorses, apprehensions—all these were barriers between her and the light. Let her forget them, forget them completely, and stand there, transparent, in the presence of the light—absorbing it, allowing herself to be made one with it in the timeless now of present instant. ‘Peace now,’ I kept repeating. ‘Peace, love, joy now. Being now.’”

“For the last hour I sat or stood with my left hand on her head and the right on the solar plexus. Between two right-handed persons this contact seems to create a kind of vital circuit. For a restless child, for a sick or tired adult, there seems to be something soothing and refreshing about being in such a circuit. And so it proved even in this extremity. The breathing became quieter and I had the impression that there was some kind of release. I went on with my suggestions and repeating them close to the ear. ‘Let go, let go. Forget the body, leave it lying here; it is of no importance now. Go forward into the light. Let yourself be carried into light. No memories, no regrets, no looking backwards, no apprehensive thoughts about your own or anyone else’s future. Only light. Only this pure being, this love, this joy. Above all this peace. Peace in this timeless moment, peace now, peace now!’ When the breathing ceased, at about six, it was without any struggle.”

[1] This Timeless Moment, Laura Archera Huxley, Ballantine Books, 1968, p. 179.

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Kaslo Jazzfest a Hit—Again

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The lovely Kaslo Bay—a perfect setting for an intimate music festival.

Clearly the team at Kaslo Jazz Etc. have hit upon a winning formula—already by July 28 single day tickets for Saturday, August 4th had sold out. The festival runs from August 2–4. Friday night saw a younger artist take the MainStage whose popularity has been rising fast – Nahko and Medicine for the People. Add to that a healthy component of local talent, such as Five Alarm Funk, Lost Ledge, Red-Eyed Soul, Wing and Bone – Kaslo-based singer-songwriter Dominque Fraissard – and Kootenay Music Award ‘Artist of the Year’ award winner Naturalist, and you have a genuine feast for the ears and eyes. There isn’t much jazz left in the program, but the shift to music for a younger demographic has proven hugely successful.

Selected as one of the “Top ten places to get out doors and be in tune,” by USA Today, and one of the “Top 10 places to enjoy outdoor summer music” by Reuters, the Kaslo Bay floating stage has been recognized as one of the premier outdoor music venues in the world. The geography of Kaslo Bay Park limits the size of the festival to about 2,000 people, helping preserve an intimate, family-friendly atmosphere. The entire village enters the festival spirit, with music in the Kaslo Hotel pub and main street restaurants Buddy’s Pizza and the Bluebelle Bistro.

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The annual main street parade in Kaslo kicks off the festival spirit for the weekend.

The festival weekend kicks off as usual with the parade on Kaslo’s main street, featuring local favourites the Moving Mosaic Samba Band and the more recent addition of percussion group RhythmDance Drum Orchestra. It’s a living cornucopia of colour and sound, proving once again that people do indeed love a parade. As if reminding the audience that our climate is in an often-chaotic state of transition, a freak windstorm Friday afternoon forced festival organizers to close the Kaslo Bay Park site for an hour. Parade percussionists kept festival patrons entertained while cottonwood branches were trimmed and cleaned up by volunteer staff.

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Kootenay favourites Five Alarm Funk pump up the groove.

Kootenay-based Five Alarm Funk, a perennial favourite, ramped up the energy leading up to the Friday evening program. The big draw this year was Nahko and Medicine for the People, playing to the current appetite for songs with a social conscience. Most in the audience seemed to know the lyrics to all his songs and sang along mightily, encouraged by Nahko himself. His music is a world music hybrid of rhythmic grooves, reminiscent both sonically and lyrically of past festival favourite, Michael Franti. Nahko’s band kept up a high energy groove, though he proved capable of plaintive vocals and delicate piano stylings during a solo number.

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Nahko Bear was a popular artist this year.

According to the Wikipedia entry for Nahko Bear, “Born in Portland, Oregon, of mixed ethnic background which includes Puerto Rican and Filipino descent, he was adopted at a young age by a white, religious, family. It wasn’t until his early twenties that he would meet his birth mother. The band’s song Early February was written shortly before this meeting; it describes a woman far too young to carry, and putting her baby in a bed of a woman she’d never met. Bear says his creative inspiration is the desire to bridge cultural gaps, and that he has been musically inclined since the age of six when he started learning piano.” Both Early February and Build A Bridge were performed to great audience acclaim.

Saturday’s program saw a return to the form that established Kaslo Jazz Etc. as a major music festival over its 28-year history, with Harry Manx and Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Manx’s style has been described as “mystic-ssippi,” for its fusion of Eastern raga and Delta blues. Manx travels with a rack of guitars seldom seen onstage, going far beyond the usual six-stringers to produce his eclectic sound. At one point he played a six-string banjo, jokingly calling the instrument “a cross between a guitar and poverty.” Manx may live in the Gulf Islands but his second home may as well be the Kootenays, he’s played here so often. So audience members were thrilled when he customized the lyrics to the classic Baby Please Don’t Go: “Baby please don’t go / down to Nelson, no / don’t you know that I love you so.” References to Kaslo Bay were also worked into one of the songs. Manx was backed by a fiddle player whose name unfortunately escaped me—she was not named in the festival program—and with well-known Canadian bluesman Steve Marriner. Marriner, who has recorded often with Manx, added some tasty chops on blues harp and Telecaster. The fiddle player graced Manx’s songs with ethereal trills.

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Harry Manx mixes up Eastern raga and Delta blues to great effect.

Robert Randolph and the Family Band were introduced by MC John Cathro as changing his perception of the pedal steel guitar, which in the past has been considered mostly a country music instrument. Three of the band members are indeed family—Randolph’s cousins—and they’re a tight rhythmic unit, laying down a funk and R&B groove often reminiscent of the great Sly and the Family Stone. That by itself would have been enough to keep the crowd bouncing. But Randolph pushes the intensity of the music to its limits, and just when you think the song is ending, he pushes it several notches higher with his incredible dexterity on the pedal steel. Randolph said the band is from New York and New Jersey and was gobsmacked by this amazing Kootenay Lake country and the gorgeous setting of Kaslo Bay. So much so, in fact, that they were inspired to write a new song, Run Away, that was premiered at the festival. A song from their new album, Baptize Me, had people submerging themselves in the waters in front of the floating stage. I had first seen Randolph perform at Salmon Arm Roots and Blues about 10 years ago and was blown away then. The band has also been featured in Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, with the performance released on DVD.

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Robert Randolph and the Family Band raise the roof on the Kaslo Bay MainStage.

Festival management did a great job of keeping the dust down on the access road to Kaslo Bay, which is closed to all traffic except buses and service vehicles. Two shuttle buses sponsored by the Regional District of Central Kootenay provided frequent service. Given that parking in tiny Kaslo becomes almost impossible during festival weekends, it was an essential service to patrons having to haul chairs and kids’ water toys from many blocks away. Kids are kept well entertained. The Kaslo Jazz Kids Tent provides children’s entertainment, music and activities from 11 am–6 pm every day. Crafts, bubbles, jugglers, and puppet shows are just a few things children can enjoy. Argenta’s Yvonne Boyd elevates kids’ face painting to a high art, making for excellent photo opportunities.

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Avrell Fox with her beautiful felt artwork at Kaslo Jazz Etc.

The artists’ village was present again this year, showcasing the West Kootenay’s usual array of talent, including Winlaw artist Buck Walker and tattoo/felt artist Avrell Fox, among others. It was encouraging to see visitors buying artwork at the Bluebelle Bistro on main street. Business owners and artists alike tend to rely on the peak season to support themselves year round. The Kootenays has a long history of attracting world class artists seeking inspiration and a more relaxed pace in its stunning landscapes.

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Buck Walker showcases his work at the Jazzfest Artists’ Village.

I was unable to attend the Sunday festival due to exhaustion from an autoimmune condition. However, it seems clear the major attraction there was the legendary Ani Difranco, whose penchant for songs with a social justice theme predates the current trend among artists such as Nahko Bear and Michael Franti. Though arguably these songwriters are tapping into a tradition that goes back to folksingers Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Woody Guthrie during the early 1960s, and before that, to the union movement of the 1930s.

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Two of the hundreds of friendly volunteers.

And last but not least, thanks must be given to the hundreds of volunteers who have made Kaslo Jazzfest possible these past 28 years. Site attendants, first aid personnel, recycling station staff, and many, many more are vital to the ongoing success of the festival. Kaslo Jazz Etc. has a ‘zero waste’ policy and although it may not be possible to divert 100% of waste from local landfills, it was obvious from the well-filled recycling bins that they’re closing in on that goal. The regional district has been a leader in community composting—diverting organic waste from landfills—and the introduction of bokashi composting methods. Festivals can be huge waste generators, so patrons were encouraged not to bring plastic to the site.

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Fun for all ages at the Jazzfest site.

“If music be the food of love, then play on,” Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night. And in a world wracked by political corruption, climate chaos and social upheaval, musicians continue to provide balm for the wounded spirit. May they all play on.

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Songwriter Shari Ulrich on the road again

Although long gone are the days when Canadian songwriters had to make their reputation in America in order to sustain a career, we’re still too modest when it comes to honouring our own. Yet on the international stage, Canadians have built an impressive reputation: Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell… the list goes on. Added to that list are veteran songwriters like Shari Ulrich, who after 40 years as a solo artist is back on the road again with a new album to tour.

“Occasionally I think: Gee, I’m past where ‘normal’ folks would retire, and it’s unimaginable to me,” says Ulrich. “I just love making music so much and still have the stamina to do it! I try to stay healthy so I can do it as long as possible. I dread the day when something happens to my hands or voice to compromise my ability to keep touring. So I’m aiming for another 20 years.”

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Photo courtesy of Shari Ulrich c.2019

I interviewed Shari in anticipation of her return to the Slocan Valley for a concert at the Slocan City Trading Company May 31st on the heels of her new album Back to Shore, due out June 21st from Borealis Records. The new album marks her third collaboration with her daughter Julia Graff as engineer and producer, along with Julia’s partner and fellow graduate of McGill’s Master in Music in Sound Recording Program, James Perrella.

I first met Shari about ten years ago when I organized a reunion concert for her original band Pied Pumkin at the Silverton Memorial Hall. Like her former bandmates Rick Scott and Joe Mock, she retains a warm, down-to-earth nature that sidesteps the coolness of the ‘star’ persona. One of my seminal early musical experiences was seeing Pied Pumkin perform at the former Notre Dame University campus in Nelson, BC in 1975. I couldn’t believe that just three people—without a drummer—could create so much rhythm and energy. Like so many classic trios—Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Rush—this was clearly three monumental talents in total mind-meld harmony, making a sum greater than its individual parts. The crowd was on its feet almost from the first song and stayed there the rest of the night. Shari struck gold—both creatively and professionally—when she sang the gorgeous Fear of Flying with Mock, still one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. She later reprised it with the Hometown Band.

What brings you back to the Slocan Valley and what do you love about it?

It always starts with that one invitation which in the Slocan is unfailingly a message from Lowell at the Old Castle Theatre in Castlegar saying people are asking when I’m going to return. Of course, that always feels great! Lowell and the gang and I go back a long way by now! I love their dedication to that space and to community. And I love returning to the Slocan as it was such an important part of my introduction to being a touring musician when I was with the Pumkin. The spirit of the area and the people has aways resonated with me and always will.

It’s been a long road since you began your solo career in 1978. How many albums does your new one make? And what have been some career highlights you recall that have made it all worthwhile for you?

Oh gosh…that’s such a big question! Counting the album with the Pied Pumkin, The Hometown Band, Ulrich Henderson Forbes, Bentall Taylor Ulrich and the High Bar Gang, and solo, this makes 26.

Career highlights are in fact kind of the other end of the spectrum from what makes it all worthwhile to me. Opening for Supertramp at Maple Leaf Gardens was pretty damn exciting. The whole Valdy and the Hometown Band era was so special. The whole Pied Pumkin era was absolutely magical. But the special moments are the small ones—the one-on-one with people sharing their stories triggered by one of my songs. Sharing what music means to them. Moments with an audience where I feel like the wonder that is music and how it affects is shared together in that room. It’s the relationships with other humans—especially people I play with and work with that have developed over time that are the heart of it all.

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Pied Pumkin performing at the Vallican Whole, Slocan Valley 2012. Photo ©Sean Arthur Joyce

Would you say your sound and composition style has changed much since you started as a solo artist? How? What musical influences have crept in?

I started out writing to have my songs played on the radio. I was aiming for pop. And then other songs would spill out that I assumed would never be recorded and Claire Lawrence knew those were the important songs to share. So over time I wrote to get to the heart of the matter and to be moved. Everything I’ve ever heard creeps in there. The Penguin Café probably had an influence melodically after I started writing but otherwise I couldn’t pinpoint anything. I just love a finely crafted lyric and melody, which ironically usually first come out as sheer mysterious inspiration followed by the crafting.

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Shari’s new album is due out June 21st.

Writing lyrics can often be a challenge for musicians, as it seems to occupy a different part of the brain, hence the prevalence in music history of duo teams in songwriting—Rogers and Hammerstein, Lennon and McCartney, Bernie Taupin and Elton John, etc., often with one supplying the lyrics and the other the tunes. Has lyric writing always come easily for you, or has it been a challenge? Was it easier when you were writing with Pied Pumkin?

I didn’t start writing until a few years after the Pied Pumkin. The first song I wrote was Feel Good at the end of the Pumkin era, which became a single, so that’s how I knew I should keep writing. My big confession is that I don’t co-write. I probably should but I think I might be a bit afraid of it! I love writing on my own and seeing where things lead. And lyrics are generally not that hard for me. Getting down to writing is, however. But once I surrender to it and take lots of walks, the lyrics tend to come.

How have your lyrics reflected the changing concerns and priorities of getting older? I notice that artists still active after several decades—those not trapped by having a commercial image to satisfy—often write some of their best lyrics late in their careers.

Oh, I have always written about the stage of life I’m in, as that’s what I’m experiencing. So that’s probably why my audience has generally been my age. They’re aging with me and my songs are what we’re experiencing and thinking about. I think I probably do write better songs as I go—at least I hope so! That’s the goal.

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Shari clearly enjoying herself with Pied Pumkin at the Vallican Whole, Slocan Valley 2012. Photo ©Sean Arthur Joyce.

What lyrical or musical changes are reflected in your new album? What excites you about it?

It’s a pretty wide range of subjects: A cautionary tale about infidelity; the power of love; creativity; dementia; lines and aging; the absurdity of travelling to Mars; regret about wasted time; the inevitability of change; forgiveness; and an apologetic love song to the Earth. I love the production, the contributions of the musicians, and the songs!

Are you optimistic about the future of music? If so, why? If not, why not?

The challenges of music being consumed in a fashion that doesn’t remunerate the creators, artists and performers are very real. I kind of have blinders on and am still creating the actual artistic ‘thing’ in the form of a CD—I love the object. I love to play concerts and offer folks a way to take the music home with them—to read the lyrics and look at the artwork, etc. And from a sociological point of view, there is such a hunger and need for music. I often say I think music is one of the best things we do as humans and is our saving grace. So it’s not going anywhere. We need it. It’s a confusing time and music helps weather the chaos.

LINKS: https://borealisrecords.com/artists/shari-ulrich/?v=3e8d115eb4b3

Posted in interviews, Music, Slocan Valley, The Kootenays | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment