Archive for the ‘Alberta’ Tag
Maria Dunn Gathering Distant Whisper Music
One of Alberta’s foremost folk musicians—I believe only John Wort Hannam is her equal—returns with her sixth collection of lyrically-rich gems. An artist who places her convictions and heart on display in complementary proportions, Dunn has found balance between sharing the inspirational and compelling within songs that are insightful, artfully constructed, and just plain enjoyable.
There will always be more than a bit of the Celtic lands in Dunn’s music, and throughout Gathering African, Asian, and Canadian First Nations influences can also be heard. An overarching theme of community connection is woven into each number, ably achieved through Dunn’s soulful lyrics and the contributions of collaborators including long-time partners Shannon Johnson, Jeremiah McDade, and Solon McDade. As always, one comes away from this Dunn recording knowing more about the world than one was previously aware.
Like the finest troubadours, Dunn communicates: she is the vessel through which others exist. She reveals the innermost, personal, and captivatingly universal perspectives and insights of devoted parents, the down-trodden challenged by circumstance, those connected to the land by more than choice, and the youthful who rise above.
Beautiful stuff Gathering is, certainly one of the finest recordings to be released this year. Those who compare Maria Dunn to Woody Guthrie, Hazel Dickens, Jean Ritchie, and Buffy Sainte-Marie aren’t taking the easy way out: with the release of Gathering she demonstrates that she is an international folk artist of significance.
Video of “When I Was Young” from Gathering. Several other videos from other projects, too.
Ruth Purves Smith & the 581
Faster Than the Speed of Dark
A bit more than five years ago, an experienced Alberta-based singer, songwriter, and band leader made herself known to me. Ruth Purves Smith has been part of the Alberta performing community for several years, but only made her recorded debut, under her own name, in 2010 with the exceptional Out In the Storm, an album of country music more “Americana” than much of what was coming out of Nashville.
With her backing band The 581, Purves crafted a complex album that revealed greater richness and depth each listening. It was an incredible little release, and the accompanying live performance—I had the pleasure of catching her in Red Deer with a large group of collaborators—was a highlight of that summer’s listening.
Fast forward to 2016, and Ruth Purves Smith & the 581 return with Faster Than the Speed of Dark, an equally complex and satisfying creation featuring another eleven songs that breathe with the life of Alberta’s prairie shadowed by clouds of trepidation. [The album had its local release late in 2015, and made its way to me last month…and then I misplaced it and only found it again today. Apologies all around.]
“Get Outa This Town” is the album’s energetic lead track, a raucous number that pulses with free-spirited energy, just the type of song that might have stood a chance in the days when radio was a bit more interested in good music. “Gone to Stay” has a similar feel, roots music invigorated by touches of Celtic soul and rockin’ bravado.
More reflective is “Big Skies,” a poetic piece capturing the thrilling isolation of the rural experience. The outlaw spirit of the province is further reflected in “Alberta Horse Thief Swing,” a tune Corb Lund would be proud to call his own. Earning for place and security, the title track brings to mind Iris DeMent.
Faster Than the Speed of Dark is more than another country album. There are moments of rock & roll aggression, as on “Shadow of a Doubt,” a piece that allows co-producer Jim Kukko (or David Holloway) to kick out the jams more than a little. “Scuppers’ Wife” has an old-world/Appalachian feel—think Jean Ritchie fronting The Waterboys—and like many of the old tunes I have no real idea what it is about. “Falling,” written by Esther Purves Smith, has a mid-90s Mary Chapin Carpenter vibe, as does the set’s closer “So Little,” a song that puts us all in our collective place.
The 581 remains consistent from last time out with Kukko again the feature guitarist, and Kathy Cook sweetening the vocal mix while dropping in mandolin. Brian Sovereighn returns on bass, David Holloway is the second lead guitarist, while Adam Esposito is the drummer.
If one is fortunate enough to be so inclined, there exists such richness within the Alberta roots music community. Next week I journey to the big city to listen to Mike Plume, as the local hero re-establishes himself after a decade or so in Nashville.
We have Steve Coffey, Maria Dunn, Laura Vinson, Craig Moreau, John Wort Hannam, Matt Patershuk, and scores upon dozens of others sharing their music with those willing to listen. If you haven’t already, add Ruth Purves Smith & the 581 to the list of regional folks who can stand with the best of those featured on the pages of No Depression, the Bluegrass Situation, and Country Standard Time.
Brady Enslen Beautiful Things www. BradyEnslen.com
North America is blessed (maybe overly blessed) with singer-songwriters. While there are no doubt many who should give up the dream and get on with life, in my experience most of those who get to the level of recording an album have more than a little something to offer.
Listen to WDVX’s Blue Plate Special some morning (or, noon if you are in the eastern time zone) to hear what I mean. Almost daily, they feature an artist I’ve never heard before, and most always I hear something that makes me say, “Yup, he’s (or she’s) good,” or “Now, that’s a fine line.”
Not every singer-songwriter I hear is going to become the next Clark (Guy, Jay, or Brandy), Erelli, Peters, Kane or Welch, but more often than not they can offer insight into the life we find ourselves living.
In Alberta, there are dozens upon dozens of singer-songwriters (fools on stools, I think some have been affectionately dubbed) sharing their stories, witticisms, and musicality with anyone who’ll listen: Buckley, Wort Hannam, Dunn, Moreau, Stack, Coffey, Hus, Lund, Williams, Hawley, Pineo, Patershuk, Johnson, Albert, Nolan, Shore, McDonald, Vickers, McCann, Stagger, Gates, Wylie, Tyson, Phillips, Masters, Bourne, Purves-Smith, Davis, St. John…the cross-generational list goes on and on.
Add Brady Enslen to the list.
“I best be on my way…to better things…before the light goes away…and I lose my way” is the chorus that closes Beautiful Things, and it is a fitting coda.
From Drumheller, Enslen doesn’t get overly fancy on his debut release Beautiful Things. Produced by Winnipeg’s Scott Nolan (himself no slouch in the singer-songwriter department) this album features a core band interpreting Enslen’s songs in a manner that maintains focus on the singer and his songs.
Enslen and Nolan keep things relatively simple. The songs come in at under five minutes, and the musicians—including Matt Filopoulos (lead guitar,) Eric Lemoine (pedal steel,) Ashley Au (bass,) and Dan Bertnick (drums)—are unobtrusive, colouring the songs with just enough sound to accentuate Enslen’s insights.
Enslen’s songs are filled with longing and place, usually simultaneously. “Drive,” the album’s lead track, captures this theme with ideally: “We’ll drive until we can’t drive anymore,” the song closes after dreamlike escape over prairie, through mountains and trees, to the ocean’s edge. “I went looking for a place to hide,” Enslen sings in “Lonesome Winds,” and one senses that he may still be seeking shelter. Certainly, nothing is resolved by the time a mother abandons her children to survive on their own for the summer (“No Whiskey For Mama.”)
Like many, Enslen walks that fine line between having lived his songs and possessing the power to create believable, relatable scenarios. “It’s like you get to the end of a page, and you don’t know how you got there,” he sings. We can relate. We’ve attempted to imagine the land without barbed wire fences, been lost at night, hearing the coyotes’ serenade, and appreciated our ‘beautiful thing,’ aware that we are unworthy.
Brady Enslen has created a brilliant disc, one that is entirely enjoyable on its own merits, but one that also hints at greatness to follow. Folk, country, Americana, singer-songwriter…however label it, Beautiful Things is a success.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
This past winter I took a writing course, and for one of my final projects I wrote an analysis of Maria Dunn’s Piece By Piece. I was to write about a piece of art that had impacted me, and certainly Piece By Piece fit the bill. I submitted an initial draft to Dunn for consideration, and she was able to correct several errors and oversights; any remaining are purely my fault. I updated the second to last paragraph to represent the recent political upheaval our province has experienced; when I wrote the original paragraph, I had no idea such a sweeping change was possible, let alone right around the corner. It is a bit too long (maybe a lot too long), but… Donald
When I use the term “folk music” in social situations, I frequently get blank stares. Despite its apparent popularity—the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is one of the largest summer celebrations “festival city” annually offers—many people think of folk music and heritage festivals interchangeably. There may well be good reason: traditional folk music is often defined as the music of a land—songs of the people. Therefore, whether played on Peruvian pan pipes, expressed through the chants and songs of eastern Europeans, or in the mournful ballads of the Scots-Irish-English lands, these are all folk music.
Sometime in the middle of the last century—scholars disagree exactly when—the modern folk revival (or folk scare, depending on perspective) occurred, giving rise to performers including Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, and Odetta, as well as Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, and their contemporaries. Prior to this, Woody Guthrie had used folk music structures to create dust bowl ballads of migration, pacifism, democracy, and social (in)justice. All of this was influenced by John and Alan Lomax who, in the early parts of the 20th century, travelled America and the world making “field recordings” of the music made by the people of an area—the folks.
At its core, folk music must be connected to the experience of the people, “of the folk,” according to Mark D. Moss of Sing Out! magazine. Folk music must be tangibly—not tangentially—connected to the context in which the music “existed, thrived, and changed,” quoting Moss within Walters and Manfield’s very heavy Music Hound Folk: The Essential Guide. It is a music not only sung and played by people on their porches, in their churches, at work in the fields and while labouring on chain gangs, but also it is a way of communicating and recording their experiences and those of their forbearers.
Folk music informs the populace and is informed by it. It isn’t just protest songs, although there is that. These are songs of the labour movement, of the peace movement, songs of love, death and tragedy, the twining of raven black hair with roses and the mingling of the briar, Joe Hill, Little Maggie, and Tom Dula, and let us not forget to include fine jigs and reels. They are songs of five hundred years ago, and songs of last week.
When I think of contemporary folk music, these are the traditions I embrace. Lyrically-driven folk music provides me with the opportunity to experience and consider events I would otherwise not. When listening to Bill Morrissey, I am exposed to the impacts of factory closings on mill towns and their inhabitants. Eliza Gilkyson allows me to travel to the heart of a lost son as he contemplates killing his classmates. Ralph Stanley expresses the majesty of a spiritual great high mountain, while his son transports me to the West Virginia hills of Bluefield and the murder of a county sheriff by his deputy. John McCutcheon takes me from the trenches of the western front to New York sweatshop fires and the closing of the bookstores. At its best, contemporary folk music holds a mirror to society and allows us to more carefully consider events outside of ourselves.
Fast forward a century or so from song collector John Lomax, and one might encounter Maria Dunn.
Maria Dunn is one of Alberta’s most highly regarded folk music artists of the singer-songwriter fold. Since 1998, she has released accessible albums of tremendous quality. She has been nominated for Juno, Canadian Folk Music, and Polaris Awards. Her music and her words come from the hearts and souls of the lives she imagines. Using the British Isles folk tradition as foundation, Maria Dunn has most recently created a thoughtful, illuminating examination of the struggles of female garment workers; while focused upon the experiences of those at the Edmonton Great Western Garment (GWG) factory through the 1900s, the songs are universal.
As she did with a previous album We Were Good People, in which she looked at the early labour movement and history of Alberta and western Canada, for Piece By Piece Dunn immersed herself within her subject matter to find inspiration. Through interviews with the women who worked in the factory (which closed in 2004 after 93 years) as well as examination of archival footage and documentation, Dunn has captured the lives, the hardship, and the pride of women who completed ‘piece work’ for the jeans and work wear company.
Dunn’s ability to connect the reminiscences and phrases of the interviewed women who worked in the factory into a cohesive narrative is nothing short of impressive. As within We Were Good People, Dunn has illuminated the continuing history of Alberta, informing us of a story we didn’t know to appreciate. This is one of the important roles of folk music—allowing generations to connect across time, social strata, language, and gender.
Dunn has spent time as Artist in Residence with the Edmonton and District Labour Council and has participated in a variety of labour-centric programs via the Alberta Foundation of Labour, Public Interest Alberta, and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. Maria Dunn is, then, bona fide.
On her fifth album of original material, Dunn ties the hardships faced by the female factory workers—often the family’s breadwinner in difficult times, as often an example of the sacrifice made by the newly arrived as they built a life in Canada—to the dignity they achieved for themselves in performing labour that many other Alberta workers would never have considered for themselves. The plant provided a relatively good income and stable employment, whether doing ‘piece work’ in the earliest days or on wage with benefits as the years progressed.
In her recording, Dunn documents the experiences of these women—the positive and the negative—in a non-didactic manner, giving voice to a labour force whose stories were largely unknown until she and her collaborators developed the multi-media presentation entitled GWG: Piece by Piece. Using still pictures, video, audio interviews, song, story, and live performance, GWG: Piece by Piece was performed on stage throughout Alberta between 2008 and 2013. The focus—and the availability of interview subjects may have dictated this—is from the experiences in the factory from the Second World War through to the plant’s closing in 2004. From GWG: Piece by Piece came Catherine Cole’s book of the same name, and much of the archival material and video interviews and transcripts can be found online as part of the Royal Alberta Museum and The Virtual Museum of Canada’s collections.
As specific as the connections are to the Edmonton GWG factory, the album Piece By Piece—standing independent of the multi-media production—has universal appeal. In the album’s eight songs, Dunn captures the voices and spirits of these women, giving relevance to their stories through her lyrics and instrumentation. Dunn’s singing voice is beautiful, and quite indescribable—I’ve been attempting to do so for a decade and always fail. Joining Dunn is long-time collaborator and producer Shannon Johnson whose fiddling adds atmosphere and verve to the songs. The music reflects the changes that occurred over the decades; while the earliest work force had European roots, as the 1960s gave way to the 70s and later, the employees reflected the burgeoning southeast Asian population of our province—in Dunn’s songs, sitar now complements violin and accordion. “I Cannot Tell You (The Whole Story)” may be the story of one Vietnamese woman coming to Canada to find a greater life than her homeland will allow, but the phrases and experiences captured mirror those who left eastern Europe for Canada decades before.
Parallels to the art of a previous generation of songwriters, especially Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard are apparent. Over the course of a handful of recordings made during the 60s, Dicken and Gerrard gave power to the female perspective, especially the working female. In songs like “Working Girl Blues,” “My Better Years,” and “Custom Made Woman Blues,” Hazel & Alice provide a model—through their songs and their interpretations of others’—that seem to have influenced Dunn. Within Piece By Piece, Dunn continues this tradition.
Several themes emerge, none more apparent than the struggles of the labour force. Piece By Piece isn’t all about solidarity and workers’ rights, although there is a fair bit of that. Piece By Piece captures the full range of the workers’ lives. The workforce of the factory after World War II was always largely immigrant in nature, and Dunn captures this diversity in the music. Instrumentally, “Assunta’s Song” is fiddle and guitar-based reminiscent of rural Italian folk songs, while tabla and sitar provide additional texture and sounds of southeast Asia to songs including “Farewell” and “I Cannot Tell You (The Whole Story.)”
The GWG factory in Edmonton was a union shop. Still, the largely female workforce frequently felt marginalized by management. In the song “Shareholder’s Reel,” Dunn explores this experience using Local 120 President Anne Ozipko’s voice. As a standard contract negotiation practice, eastern-Canada based management would threaten to close the plant should demands not be met. Dunn writes and sings of Ozipko’s clever subterfuge—as a shareholder in the company, she travels to San Francisco shareholder’s meeting to hear of the great profits being made, and the importance of the Edmonton plant and workforce:
Bigwig coming from Toronto, sees a farm girl from Ukraine
Thinks he can intimidate me, well he’ll have to think again…
Miles away from women working, lining pockets with machines,
Pleated pants, pinstriped suits, deciding what the numbers mean.
Hearty handshakes in the boardroom, dividends—just divine,
Another year of tidy profits with a healthy bottom line.
Dunn writes that with a clear understanding of the company’s circumstance, Ozipko’s next bargaining session is well-informed when management comes to the table:
Bigwig crying from Toronto, ‘we are stretched beyond our means
We must tighten all your belts or come apart at the seams.
Take the cut, sign the contract, otherwise you’re out of work,
Up ’til now you’ve had a say, up ’til now you’ve had it good.
We must shrink our costs while making more pants,
To raise your wages means dropping our plants.’
Ozipko, the small town Ukrainian girl, has her argument at the ready:
Bigwig bluster doesn’t fool me, heard it from the horse’s mouth,
We’re the best the company’s got, there’s no plan to sell us south.
I threw his contract on the table, ‘take your junk, go on home
‘Til you make a decent offer, worthy of the skill we’ve shown.
Years and years to win the wage we have,
There’s no way we’ll let you drag us back.’
The GWG workers got their favourable deal. To close this song, Dunn writes: “I’ve faced the bullies in the board room…I’d like to see them tread one hour in a factory woman’s shoes.”
This spirit, born of necessity, is brought to life throughout this compact collection of songs.
“Speed Up” is a snappy song that shares the spirit of Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” a connection to other labourers. Its rhythm mimics the sounds of the cutting, sewing, and pressing machines of the work floor. As a worker gained skill, her assigned quota would increase: “Now that I’ve gotten good and fast, they’ve upped the ante for my task.” This practice pitted the women against each other as “with a bit of guile” they would race to select smaller sized garments before their workmates; fewer inches meant fewer stitches with a better chance to meet their ‘piece work’ targets.
While the women were not above manipulation, they also banded together. In “Assunta’s Song” Dunn shares the story of wartime service where the women were expected to sacrifice even more as they produced garments using thicker material for the war effort. Increasingly frustrated with long hours, unreasonable demands, and dropping pay—piece work required one to produce product, something the new material made impossible—Dunn sings of a work stoppage:
I’m not asking much, I’m not asking the moon,
All I’m asking is a living wage, for the work I do.
I know that there’s a war on, I would never just complain,
But this new army cloth has only added to our strain.
The fabric so unwieldy has forced our pace to slow
We cannot even earn enough to cover room and board.
The company is deaf to us, somehow our loss unseen,
In desperation, we resolve we will not sew another seam.
So we return from lunch, hearts pounding, each at our machines,
Now we’ve shut the power down, they’re finally listening.
While the workers usually received fair remuneration, later including health care and other benefits, their long-term safety was not an obvious priority. The album’s most affecting song captures Dunn’s interpretation of the words and thoughts of Lillian Wasylynchuk, a worker who died of lung disease. Perhaps a sign of the time, “Blue Lung” looks at the health concerns of the women working within an environment filled with the blue dust from the jeans material. Not understanding the possible long-term consequences, Wasylynchuk didn’t consider questioning her work environment:
Where I come from, we work hard, we don’t make a fuss
So I can’t be afraid of a bit of blue dust…
But ours were the days when you did what you’re told,
You could only be so bold…
Making a comparison to the fate of coalminers who have long suffered from a condition called black lung, Dunn writes in Wasylynchuk’s voice:
Now if I had toiled in a coal mine
Where the earth itself compresses your time
Then maybe I’d think of lung disease
But a clothing factory?
Our fingers, our air, tainted blue
And someone joked our blood must be too
But when the dust settled, I’m sad to say
It took my breath away.
For many of the female workers, the job at GWG was more than a supplement to the family income. These women were sometimes the sole wage earner. With language a barrier, the immigrant women were able to work when their husbands were unable to find a suitable position. Again, from “Speed Up”: “Each pocket, seam, and bottom hem, I’ve sewn for my children.” In “Blue Lung,” a worker sings, “When my family needs me to pay the bills…” and in “Immigrant Dreams,” “and while you’ve been keeping your family afloat…” Writing these phrases garnered from the women themselves and incorporating them into memorable songs, Dunn acknowledges the sacrifices made within the downtown Edmonton plant.
As the factory closes, Dunn once again weaves her lyrical magic to embrace the workers’ pride for their labour-intensive jobs and the camaraderie that developed. In “Farewell” she sings:
Farewell my sister on the line, we worked for many years,
And who’d have thought a factory job would bring us all to tears.
But day by day and side by side, our common ground ensured
That piece by piece, we stitched together more than just the work…
Facing uncertain futures, the women were resilient with an understanding of their reality:
Our work’s gone to a country where they’ll pay the women less,
We’ll move on, take our strengths and try to make the best…
As the album closes Dunn, always the creative wordsmith, cannot resist an opportunity for a final bit of word play: “for in our hearts, we know a woman’s worth is never done.”
The songs of Piece By Piece work both as a cohesive portrait of shared experience and as stand-alone slices of contemporary folk art. The dreams of immigrants, the impact of World War II, passionate labour negotiations, lullabies sung after days of toil, and the associated challenges fill each of Dunn’s songs. As richly, they are populated by the realities of strong women.
I would know nothing about this slice of Edmonton history had I not encountered Dunn’s participation in the GWG: Piece by Piece project. Dunn’s insightful method with lyrics, her judicious use of international musical textures, engaging melodies, and attractive instrumentation revealed to me a part of my world I never knew existed. As she has numerous times, Dunn has allowed me the opportunity to consider the importance and the vitality of life experiences far different from my own. In doing so, she has again brought folk music to life.
As Alberta entered a period of economic uncertainty this winter, the government again pitted white-collar against blue-collar, taxpayer against public servant, rural against urban, and set conservative beliefs in opposition to liberal values, we needed to be mindful of the hard-won achievements of those who laboured before us. We remembered the impact of social injustice on people who can least afford five percent rollbacks and who feel the full impact of not receiving cost-of-living increases. It is through a lens of sensitivity toward the unfamiliar plight of others that I attempt to view political and social issues, and as a chesterfield liberal, I am not always successful. Albums like Piece By Piece give me faith that even if I cannot (or will not) fight for justice, through my actions and donations I can support those who do. Fortunately, Albertans voted with their conscience and hearts this spring, not only with their wallets and in consideration of their self-interests.
In sharing the stories and insights of these women–who traveled from rural areas to find work in the city, immigrants and refugees from Italy, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, and elsewhere—Maria Dunn has created a memorable, dynamic collection of songs. She has achieved, through her meticulous use of source material and her talents as a songwriter, musician, and performer, an ideal balance of life and song. With Piece By Piece, she crafted an album truly “of the folk.”
Craig Moreau The Daredevil Kid www.CraigMoreau.com
Calgarian Craig Moreau recently unleashed an incredible album of modern country music that actually earns that designation. (And no, I’m not going to go off on another old-codger rant about what passes as ‘country’ today.)
Progressive enough certainly to find favour within the wide-open Americana field, The Daredevil Kid is truly an album that recalls everyone’s songwriting heroes…if those happen to be folks like Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, Henson Cargill, and Kevin Welch, who actually appears on the album’s closing track “Against the Skyline.”
Vocally, Moreau reminded me first of Ray Materick, but there are certainly a few Randy Travis, Blaze Foley, and Vern Gosdin influences hinted on songs such as “The Uptown Pony” and “Blame It On The Fields.” And while those references may be dated, one suggests they are more accurately labeled ‘classic.’ Moreau has some smoothness about him, but no slickness. Life lessons abound in the frisky “Call It Ignorance,” with “Sweet Luanne” providing a darker, nuanced bit of instruction: Moreau’s vocal depth allows him to bridge the stylistic distance his songs encompass.
If additional evidence of Moreau’s ability to convey the intensity of a song was necessary, I offer up the album’s sole cover, Bill Morrissey’s “Casey, Illinois.” Yup, that’ll do.
Austin producer and musician Mark Hallman has a significant presence on this recording resulting in an Alberta roots album that speaks to home while having the gravitas of Texas connections. Kimmie Rhodes lends her voice to the refrain of “Stranded,” a highlight. Gurf Morlix sings on the title cut, a song well set in the Jerry Jeff Walker mold. Kim Deschamps handles the pedal steel and Elana James (Hot Club of Cowtown, Bob Dylan) violin, each providing expressive textures rooted in tradition.
Before Moreau sent me a text offering to send me the album for review, I had never knowingly heard of him. Man, have I missed out. I was inclined to purchase his previous album Every Know And Then as few weeks back, and was further impressed. Not only does he have Jane Hawley singing on that 2000 release (never a bad idea, that!), but it also contains great songs. The unsettling “The Final Price of Grain” is every bit as powerful as “Thirty Years of Farming,” while “Eighteen Dollar Room” and “Couldn’t Have Done It Better” aren’t going to be pushed off the iPod anytime soon.
Whether categorized as country, folk, Americana, or simply slipping into the indefinable OMFUG, The Daredevil Kid is a strong, dynamic, and eminently listenable platter of fresh sounds.
The album’s lead cut “It Ain’t Nuthin'” is available for free download at www.CraigMoreau.com; give it a try, and then explore the entire album.
Thank you for spending some time at Fervor Coulee. I realize things have been sparse of late…call it responsibility. But, I do appreciate everyone who drops in to see what condition…never mind- I’ve been on a First Edition kick of late: no explaining that, but it did bring to mind my mom watching the Rollin’ on the River TV show when I was a kid.
Check out @FervorCoulee to keep up on all the postings. Donald
Ralph Boyd Johnson 1723 9 St SW http://www.RalphBoydJohnson.com
For those unaware of its significance, 1723 9 St SW may be the worst album title since 461 Ocean Boulevard. Ralph Boyd Johnson most obviously believed that this Calgary address had to be the title of his sophomore album.
You see, and as most anyone with a passing familiarity with the lore of the Alberta roots music scene will tell you, 1723 9 St SW was the home for a period of time of Billy Cowsill. Until his death in 2006, Cowsill was the (mostly) undisputed prince of the Calgary alt.country community, and his influence on RBJ and others has been apparent and lasting.
A decade ago- back when all things seemed possible and No Depression unified disparate singers and songwriters under a semi-cohesive banner- Ralph Boyd Johnson emerged with Dyin’ to Go, still one of the strongest roots music albums the province has witnessed. For a while Johnson worked the circuit, playing the festivals and the occasional club date, chasing a dream that seemed elusive.
His dream wasn’t Son Volt (or even Hayseed)-level success. Johnson always appeared to simply want the next gig to be better than the last, the next song to resonate with another listener. While I’m not familiar with details of his life since Dyin’ to Go received widespread praise, I’ve kept my ears and eyes open.
In the middle of the last decade, Johnson was a driving force behind Rivers and Rails, A Tribute to Alberta, a strong and diverse collection of original material celebrating the province’s centennial. I would occasionally see his name mentioned in the various free Calgary street papers, and once was very pleasantly surprised to catch him opening a show at the Ironwood. Still, considering the quality of Dyin’ to Go, and the promise it revealed, it was disappointing that few outside southern Alberta heard his name, let alone his music. RBJ was surpassed, at least commercially and familiarity wise, by a slew sowing similar ground- Corb Lund, Tim Hus, JR Shore, Leeroy Stagger, and others.
This past winter saw the release of 1723 9 St SW, and what an appearance it was.
[Insert long-winded and only semi-coherent, but almost relevant diatribe.] Some time ago, I was beginning to feel increasingly disenchanted with the abundance of pointless covers being released. I probably have more albums of cover songs than most people do, and obviously enjoy an inspired interpretation of both a standard and unfamiliar tune. I’m not sure when it happened, but it may have been around the time Doc Watson passed away. I’m not sure why.
I do know this. A few years ago, Steve Earle released his album Townes. In one of the interviews I read at that time, Earle- and bless him for his honesty- stated words to the effect that, as he was writing the novel I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive he knew he needed an album on the marketplace and decided to record the Townes Van Zandt album. (From a New York Times Anthony DeCurtis article, 2009: “…The urge to complete that book, which he has intermittently been working on for eight years,led indirectly to the Townes project. ‘I’ve talked about doing it for a long time,’ [Earle] said about recording an album of Van Zandt’s material, ‘and since I didn’t have to write the songs, I thought I could make this record, turn it in and then finish the book.”) While that album is a pretty good- if unnecessary- one, it doesn’t touch the emotional impact of Earle’s own “Ft. Worth Blues,” written following Van Zandt’s death. The mercenary-like execution of the album tarnished it a bit for me, leading, in some large way, to my increasing dissatisfaction with ‘the tribute album.’ Too often, they appear to be the commercial stop-gap that Earle at least is bold enough to acknowledge.
Make no mistake, there have been some good tribute albums- the Guy Clark This One’s For Him, for example. Far more often, I’ve found ‘tributes’ to be less than satisfying. The recording that brought this to a head was Ricky Skaggs’ ‘tribute’ to Doc Watson. Now, Skaggs can cover any song he likes, and his version of “Tennessee Stud” is no better or worse than any other version I’ve encountered- they all pale next to Doc’s. So, when Skaggs released “Tennessee Stud” soon after Watson’s death, as well-meaning as it may have been, its inclusion on Music to My Ears left me cold and a little bothered. (Contrast that with a video of Elizabeth Cook covering “Columbus Stockade Blues” at Kansas City’s Knuckleheads, a bar I hope to visit this coming week to catch Amy LaVere, but I ramble, yet again.)
And, as others died and the requisite recordings emerged, I started thinking that a true and meaningful tribute needs to be something more than a ‘by the numbers’ cover of a favourite song.
A cover is a cover, and more often than not, I can find something appealing in covers of even my favourite songs; Hollie Cook’s interpretation of Rachel Sweet’s “It’s So Different Here” being a not so recent example. What I have tired of is the ‘tribute’ cover where someone or several someones pay ‘tribute’ to an artist by covering their music; I love Nick Lowe’s music, but Lowe Country mostly left me wanting. It wasn’t terribly interesting to hear others interpret Lowe’s music, simply because most of them couldn’t hold a candle to the original (not to mention, but I will, that I already own a couple different Lowe tribute albums.)
If an artist is going to ‘pay tribute’ to someone they admire, why don’t they take the time to actually write, to create, a true tribute to that artist? Ralph Boyd Johnson’s album (and you thought I had forgotten what I was supposed to be writing about today) is a perfect example of this. RBJ wanted to pay tribute to his friend and mentor Billy Cowsill. Rather than just covering a few of his songs- which he could easily have done- he took the time to craft something memorable, including the title track to his new album.
I’d love it if more artists went to the effort of pouring their admiration and appreciation for those who influenced them into an original creation, songs like Eric Burton’s “Guy Clark,” Jill Sobule’s “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry,” The Steel Town Project’s “Leather and Bass (The Night Suzi Quatro Rocked Out ‘Can the Can’)” and Steve Forbert’s heartfelt ode to Rick Danko, “Wild As the Wind.”
Even songs that serve as indirect homage to artists, “John R and Me” (Radney Foster) or “Willie’s Guitar” from John Anderson, and “White Cadillac” by The Band, raise the ‘tribute’ bar. This is the reason Tom Russell’s “The Death of Jimmy Martin” resonates more than the many covers of his music (and some of them were great, including A Tribute to Jimmy Martin, The King of Bluegrass with Audie Blaylock, JD Crowe, Paul Williams, and Kenny Ingram) that were released following his passing.
Again, I love cover songs. To belabour my point, I’m just tired of them being labeled as ‘tributes.’ A tribute should be more, and I think a good place to start would be to create a song that captures the emotional and artistic impact the work of another has had on an individual. Take it to the next level, and then call it a ‘tribute’ as Old Man Luedecke does with “Song for Ian Tyson” and Mike Plume recently did with his ode “So Long Stompin’ Tom.”
Which is a long way around to stating, Ralph Boyd Johnson gets it right with his homage to Billy Cowsill.
Within the album, no fewer than four songs contain reference to Billy Cowsill. (And if you don’t know who Billy Cowsill was, Google him and purchase a Blue Shadows album. While you’re at it, consider Dustin Bentall’s “Ballad of Billy Cowsill.”)
Cowsill, who co-produced Dyin to Go and with whom Johnson wrote “The Fool Is the Last One to Know” from The Blue Shadows’ On The Floor of Heaven, was flawed: his troubles got the best of him. The genuine affection and honest regard Johnson held for him is apparent in every note and clever phrase contained within the fictional narrative “The Legend of Wild Billy C” and the reflective, more realistic “1723 9th St SW.” “Bill’s Pills,” despite its plea of “O, darlin’ don’t cry,” is simply sad.
Elsewhere, the themes are universal. “Holes in His Shoes” captures the intensity of a challenging friendship. Johnson displays his ability to drop gems worthy of Guy Clark singing, “I’ve got a friend threadbare button loose, through the eye of a needle found a hole in the noose…makes Keith Richards look like he just joined the band…” “Free of the flesh, and scared of our deeds, at the foot of the throne, we shall all be received,” Johnson sings in a song written with Cowsill (“Foot of the Throne”), in which they also manage to recognize TVZ.
The snappy “Cleaning House” has all the elements one looks for in a classic country-blues: an action-oriented woman and a no account fella; the clarinet fill is unexpected. While the Cowsill-oriented tracks are each meaningful, heartfelt and more than memorable, Johnson is at his best on “Adios Santa Rosa,” another song co-written with Cowsill, as well as ubiquitous Tim Leacock (whose The Wandering V’s I need to explore.) I never thought I would type ‘calypso’ in a RBJ review, but the lively “Blue Bird” fits that bill. Continuing the ‘feather’ theme, Johnson revisits “Ol’ Black Crow,” reworking and likely improving upon the spoken word, rap-influenced tale from his debut.
In an unexplained twist, a live rendition of Cowsill presenting his classic “Vagabond”- the first song of his I recall hearing, back in ’84 as he opened for John Anderson at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton- is appended to the disc. Culled from The Co-Dependents’ initial album, the track seems a fitting way to conclude an album over which his (blue) shadow is so prevalent: with Cowsill himself.
Ralph Boyd Johnson is his own man. Yes, he was fortunate to be ‘schooled’ by Billy Cowsill, but the path he has followed has always been his own. 1723 9 St SW is an album of which I am certain Cowsill would approve, and of which Johnson can be proud.
If you read all of that…I apologize. I worked on this piece for a long time, and I don’t know if I near got it right. I do know it is long, and I’m plumb certain it isn’t perfect. But, it’s done and I mean it all. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Maria Dunn, Shannon Johnson, and Sharmila Mathur- GWG: Piece by Piece Snell Gallery, Red Deer
Last night, Maria Dunn, accompanied by a pair of musical companions, delighted a small gathering in the basement of the Red Deer Public Library.
Dunn, well-regarded as a singer-songwriter, is always a delight to hear live. Searching back in the memory, I believe the last time I experienced a live Dunn performance may have been eight years ago when she was first showcasing her Troublemakers: Working Albertans feature although I would be surprised if there hasn’t been a festival set in the intervening years; eight years seems like a long time for me to have gone between Dunn performances.
Searching for ‘something’ to do this weekend, I stumbled across a mention of this performance on the CKUA events page. Being somewhat connected to the Red Deer roots music scene I was both delighted and disappointed to hear of this little concert: delighted because my wife and I were almost certain to enjoy an evening of song from one of Alberta’s most consistent folk performers, but also disappointed that such an event almost passed by without notice.
Dunn is currently touring the province as part of the Alberta Federation of Labour’s Project 2012, a celebration of the AFL’s 100th anniversary. She is performing the Troublemakers show and- in select locations- GWG: Piece by Piece. It was this latter multi-dimensional, multi-media show that was featured on Saturday in Red Deer.
I was a bit nervous suggesting to my wife that we take in a performance built around the experiences of female labours within Edmonton’s GWG factory from 1911 to 2004. Considering our collective knowledge of the Great Western Garment Company consisted of wearing GWG denim jackets throughout our childhood and a faint recollection of a GWG advertising campaign featuring Wayne Gretzky- and even that could be a mental creation- I wasn’t sure exactly what we were in for as we strolled into the Snell Gallery.
If nothing else, Maria Dunn has built a reputation I trust. Her 2004 album We Were Good People brought to life a history of western Canada of which I was mostly ignorant, and the images captured within Troublemakers added so much to her already fully-nuanced stories of Canadians creating everyday history. Given my many experiences with Dunn and her music, I was happily willing to take a chance.
We weren’t disappointed once the show (which started late due to a double-booking of the facility, not the fault of the performers- amplified by a rather extended introduction) began. Dunn was joined by long-time collaborator Shannon Johnson (fiddle and vocals) and Sharmila Mathur (sitar, percussion, and vocals). Dunn and Johnson served as their own opening act, performing three (too few) songs from Dunn’s considerable repertoire.
Staying true to the labour theme of the evening, Dunn opened with a fiery rendition of her telling of “The Lingan Strike,” giving voice to the Scottish miners who, having travelled from their homeland to Cape Breton only to find that they were to serve as scabs, refused to go underground. One of Dunn’s early numbers, “Shoes of a Man,” allowed her to share family history, while the tale of desperate train-bound job seekers “How Do You Do, 1935?” concluded the all to brief opening set.
As solid a little appetizer this trio of performances was- and it was a very nice introduction to Dunn and her craft- the real magic began when she introduced GWG: Piece by Piece. Running at about an hour, this collection of film, interviews, images, and song- all composed by Dunn- in collaboration with filmmaker Don Bouzek and Catherine Cole, a writer whose recent book GWG: Piece by Piece serves as an illustrated history of GWG- was simply breathtaking.
Dunn’s ability to connect the reminiscent memories and phrases of the interviewed women who worked in the factory into a cohesive narrative is nothing short of impressive. As she did within We Were Good People, Dunn has illuminated the continuing history of Alberta, informing us of a story we didn’t know to appreciate; doing so in such an incredible manner that only the hardest didn’t have tears of appreciation cresting by its conclusion is only one measure of the success of Dunn’s vision.
Dunn tied the hardships faced by the factory workers- often the family’s only breadwinner in hard times, as often an example of the sacrifice made by the newly arrived as they built a life in Canada- to the dignity they achieved for themselves in performing labour that many other Alberta workers would never have considered for themselves.
In sharing the stories and insights of these women- some of whom traveled from rural areas to find work in the city, others immigrants from Italy, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, and elsewhere- Dunn has created a memorable and dynamic collection of songs that will undoubtedly extend her renown as Alberta’s finest folk singer and writer. These songs are to be released on an album that is anticipated next month, Piece by Piece: The Songs.
I especially appreciated the contributions of Sharmila Mathur. The sounds of her sitar further informed the performance, bridging the international roots of many of the interviewed workers with their experiences in the Edmonton factory. She also contributed a brief vocal interlude that was more than a little moving. Shannon Johnson’s fiddle playing was of course stellar, and it was nice to hear some ‘old world’ sounds sneak into a song that had a definite Italian flavour. Together, they added texture to the immigrant experience of the GWG factory.
Maria Dunn and friends next bring the GWG: Piece by Piece production to Hinton and Grande Prairie May 25 and 26. Troublemakers has additional performances in June and August. www.MariaDunn.com should have the details. Additional information at http://www.gzpedmonton.org/projects/view/gwg-piece-by-piece
As an aside, as we left the theatre with a warm glow, we decided to extend our evening of music and went crosstown to catch a few songs from Dave McCann at The Hideout. With his Firehearts, Dave was in loud form performing his identifiable blend of Americana infused rock ‘n roll. Noisy, but still quite enjoyable. We had to leave before the band returned from an extended break (are breaks getting longer, or is it just me? This one seemed to have been 45 minutes before we finally left) because we’re old.