Archive for the ‘Maria Dunn’ Tag
At the end of each year, writers and broadcasters get to indulge themselves and—one hopes—their readers and listeners with their judgements on the year past.
I’ve spent substantial time reviewing the roots/Americana/whatever you want to call them, if they are on the No Depression list I might have considered them, and even if they aren’t I still may have albums I heard during the past year, and have come up with my definitive (at least for today) list of Favourite Roots Albums of 2016. Of course, your kilometreage will vary: I once received a cranky email from the father of a fairly prominent bluegrasser whose album I didn’t include on such a list several years ago. For those such inclined, I repeat—these are my favorite roots albums of the year. Not the best, ’cause that is silly. And all I can base it on is those albums I’ve heard, and maybe I somehow missed your son’s album…talk to his publicist.
I’ve already posted my Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2016, and while bluegrass is an essential part of roots music, I’ve chosen not to intermingle the ‘grass into this list. Reason? This way I get to praise more albums. If you care about such stuff, my favourite bluegrass album of the year, Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands’ The Hazel and Alice Sessions would also top this list if I were to include bluegrass amongst the roots. Likely the top six bluegrass albums would have made my top 20 roots albums, and I likely would have found space for Sam Bush, too…
The number rankings, once past four or five, don’t mean much more than a way for me to stay organized: feel free to move your favourite up a spot or three. Full reviews are linked as artist/title.
My Favourite Roots Albums of 2016 are…
1.Mark Erelli- For a Song Likely the album I listened to second most all year. Erelli has been at the top of his game over the past number of years, both with his bluegrass band Barnstar!, as an interpreter of others’ music (his Bill Morrissey album of a couple years back, Milltowns,) as a pissed off (alternately, disappointed) topical folkie of the Woody Guthrie vein (“By Degrees,”) and on his latest full length release, For A Song. For a Song is a quiet album, yearnsome and blue in turn, reflective, observant, and above all honest; the album wove its way into my soul, making me appreciate what I understand and consider that which I don’t. I just wish he would show up in Alberta some time.
2.Maria Dunn- Gathering One of Alberta’s foremost folk musicians 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. 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.
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.
3.Jenny Whiteley- The Original Jenny Whiteley On this recording, Whiteley satisfies a desire to more fully explore the music that provided the foundation for her development—old-time folk sounds that have existed and thrived for generations. A recognition of her rich and diverse Americana/Canadiana upbringing within the venerable Whiteley clan, this fifth recording is a rootsy masterpiece. In a lesser artist’s hands such a multi-dimensional homage might sound disjointed; The Original Jenny Whiteley is united in its eccentric melding of the rich traditional and roots tapestry—folk, jugband, bluegrass, early jazz and ragtime, Francophone, Dylan, and the blues.
4.The Honeycutters- On The Ropes Fronted by Amanda Anne Platt, the Honeycutters offer up country sounds that have a bit of rock ‘n’ roll push, a combination that enhances rather than detracts from their honky-tonk foundation. Their instrumental interplay is excellent, and Platt has an incredible voice, as powerful as needed and as tender as desired. There exists an intimacy within these songs, all but one written by Platt, and that intensity allows the songs (and their performance) to make personal connections with listeners.
The Dixie Chicks seem a reasonable comparison. Playfully rambunctious and justly pointed, a song like “Let’s Get Drunk” resonates: “…and if the ship is really sinking what’s the use in waiting til it’s sunk? Baby, we’re already drinking, so we might as well get drunk.” Where was she 35 years ago?!
5.Western Centuries- Weight of the World I am sure it is no coincidence that the debut album from Western Centuries vaguely resembles the self-titled release from a late 60s band of considerable Americana-roots influence. Fronted by a trio of songwriters, each singing their own songs with distinctiveness, Western Centuries is a modern country band that encourages cerebral shifts as readily as it does two-stepping shuffles. Drawing inspiration from generations of country honky tonk singers and their bands, Western Centuries is something many of us are continually pursuing—a genuine country band that doesn’t take the easy way reinterpreting familiar songs, but rather pushes their talents toward creating modern classics. Weight of the World is pert darn special.
6.Robbie Fulks- Upland Stories Stone classic this one is. Nominated for a Grammy for “Alabama at Night”—wait a second, Robbie Fulks is nominated for a Grammy! Let that percolate for a minute. Maybe 2016 wasn’t an entirely awful year! There are a dozen memorable songs on Upland Stories, none indistinguishable from those surrounding it. Maybe not Fulks’ most exciting or dynamic album (tough to beat those early albums,) but maybe his best.
7.William Bell- This Is Where I Live I have to admit, when I saw a tweet from Rosanne Cash about a new William Bell album, my first thought was “Is that like the Pop Staples album of last year?” Because I truly thought William Bell was dead. Idiot, me. I first heard William Bell after Billy Idol covered “To Be A Lover,” playing the crap out of that pink Soul of a Bell album in the mid-to late-80s. I’ve now played This Is Where I Live as many times. A beautiful sounding, complete album. Another Grammy nominee. Tied with #8 for Comeback of the Year.
8.The Monkees- Good Times! Hands down, my most played album of the year. No Depression has it on their year-end list, so that makes it roots enough for me. “She Makes Me Laugh,” “You Bring the Summer,” and “Love to Love” are just great songs. Pure pop for old people.
9.Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms- Innocent Road Featuring the Caleb Klauder Country Band, Innocent Road is comprised of a half-dozen Kluader songs, a few obscure covers, and a healthy dollop of familiar country classics from the likes of Buck Owens and George Jones. The kicker is a track from Paul Burch’s stunning Fool For Love album, “C’est le Moment (If You’re Gonna Love Me,)” artfully sung by Willms.
As much as I enjoy Prine and DeMent and Robison and Willis, I think I might just prefer what this duo accomplishes. There is no artifice within these recordings, no hint of sly aside.
10.Northern Cree- It’s A Cree Thing North America’s original roots music perhaps? Northern Cree are a drum group from Alberta, and It’s A Cree Thing has also been nominated for a Grammy, the seventh time this group from Saddle Lake has been recognized in this manner. It’s A Cree Thing is a powerful collection of round dance songs full of energy, personality, and history. “Oh, That Smile” should be a hit single! Gorgeous.
11.Darrell Scott- Couchville Sessions With consistency his strong suit, and similar in most ways to his breakthrough album Family Tree, Couchville Sessions is a welcoming listening experience highlighted by Scott’s warmly distinctive voice and diverse presentation choices. Recorded around the same time Scott was starting to ‘break’ 15 years ago—working with Tim O’Brien and Guy Clark then—this is a set of well-aged performances captured in Scott’s living room, the gestation of which are disguised within the sultry “Come Into This Room.” It provides continuing evidence that Scott is one of Americana’s most vibrant visionaries.
12.Matt Patershuk- I Was So Fond of You Back in January or so of this year, I was listening to the radio and a four-song set was played-some combination of Corb Lund, Guy Clark, John Fulbright, and Patershuk, and I recall realizing that I couldn’t tell which of those guys was from La Glace, Alberta and making his living in construction. Put his songs on WDVX, and Patershuk would sound as comfortable alongside Darrell Scott, Fred Eaglesmith, and Chris Stapleton. Heck, add Sturgill Simpson, Hayes Carll, and the rest to the list. Patershuk is the real deal, folks. If you are missing the country, the kind of country music recorded in the days when there was more grease and a little less gloss, check out I Was So Fond of You.
13.Eric Brace & Peter Cooper- C & O Canal I suspect that I would enjoy passing time about a round table with a cool beverage in my hand in the company of either Eric Brace or Peter Cooper. Two of my favourite musicians, songwriters, and wordsmiths, Cooper and Brace have released a strong slate of albums over the past decade. C & O Canal, their latest, pays homage to the folk and bluegrass music the two encountered in Washington, DC in the 70s and 80s.
14.Rory Block- Keepin’ Outta Trouble A tribute to Bukka White, this set is so strong that it deserves a place in my Top 20 rather than as part of my tributes/collections list that is still being assembled. Block goes beyond White’s music, creating original music inspired by his life and his approach to the blues. With attention to detail, but an even greater sense of purpose, Block enlivens these performances with a balance of passion and precision that breathes life into oft-encountered numbers. Her voice is magic, and her approach to blues guitar is clean, restrained, and just damn fine beautiful.
15.Dori Freeman- Dori Freeman Freeman isn’t interested in presenting herself as some social archeology project, the mountain singer untouched by modern sway. She is a contemporary vocalist, one touched by the influences of her rural mountain upbringing as well as less-rustic contributions. She is a folk singer, a country singer, and a pop singer, all rolled into one appealing vocal package. Having written these ten songs, Freeman most obviously has her own viewpoint and voice, one that has been honed by producer Teddy Thompson; the focus of the arrangements, musicians, and production choices remain on Freeman and her songs.
16.Red Tail Ring- Far Away Blues How did this relatively unheralded set have such a significant impact on me that it took about two months to (barely) uncover the words to attempt a review? It is danged freakin’ good. This Michigan duo of Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp is incredible. They have the rare ability to inhabit songs, removing the barrier of time, place, and reality between their performance of ancient tunes “Yarrow” and “Come All Ye Fair & Tender Ladies,” their own timely compositions, the recorded medium, and the audience. You are transported into the recording, watching the pair lean into their songs as they maintain eye contact to communicate chords and progressions.
17.Chicago Farmer- Midwest Side Stories Cody Diekhoff—okay, Chicago Farmer—doesn’t set out to do anything fancy on Midwest Side Stories. He has insight into the experiences and internal dialogues of contemporary working class folks, and has the artistic ability to convert these into songs of substance and interest. “Skateboard Song” touches on a whole lot of stuff—youthful disenchantment, small-mindedness, finger-pointing, and police harassment, just to start—over a hard-beaten melody that would do both Weezer and Dan Bern proud. Chicago Farmer’s mid-western insights do not limit these songs: they appeal whether you are rural or urban, upstate or down, blue- or white- collar, Canadian or American. “Rocco N’ Susie” are our neighbours, the ones we don’t really know, but are more like us than we care to admit—a couple pay cheques away from foreclosure, a few months from desolation, several bad decisions from remand. The gradual journey from independence to dependence is identified in “Farms & Factories,” suspicion thrives in “Revolving Door,” and the night shift margins are explored on “9 pm to 5.”
18.Margo Price- Midwest Farmer’s Daughter I had several albums circling around these final spots, and I went with the ones I did because of their genuineness, their apparent authenticity. There is little to suggest Price considered market configurations or sales ramifications when compiling the songs for this release. Like Hazel Dickens did and Brandy Clark does, Price sings and writes of true life situations, and like Dickens (but not so much Clark) she doesn’t add a lot of spit and polish to the music. When I hear “Four Years of Chances,” “Hurtin’ On the Bottle,” “Desperate and Depressed,” and “This Town Gets Around,” I imagine I’m experiencing something similar to what folks felt listening to Loretta Lynn for the first time more than fifty years ago; still, I don’t think Loretta ever sang of blow jobs.
19.Corey Isenor- A Painted Portrait (Of the Classic Ruse) This is country music. Just not country music. There are times, as in “From Towers to Windmills,” that I am reminded of New Order (“Love Vigilantes.”) At other points Isenor’s approach reminds me of Matthew Lovegrove’s Woodland Telegraph: sparse, minimalist and achingly poignant (“Queen of Calgary” and “Diamonds on the Moon.”) “The Navy Blues” is catchy and complex, with Andrew Sneddon’s pedal steel providing additional melancholy. Rebecca Zolkower and Desiree Gordon’s vocals lend depth to several songs, as do Liam Frier’s guitar contributions. Alt-country continues with Corey Isenor.
20. Grant-Lee Phillips- The Narrows Sometimes you locate an album never realizing you were looking for it. The Narrows is one of those albums. I have a couple Grant-Lee Phillips albums, ones I listened to a few times upon purchase and then filed away in the drawers. I was looking around the internet one night a few months back and clicked on a video link for “Tennessee Rain.” Before the song was finished playing, I had gone into iTunes and hit Buy. Raucous in places (“Rolling Pin”) and atmospheric elsewhere, the deluxe edition of the album provides additional takes that extend the pleasure of the listen. While the Drive By Truckers delivered a more timely and angry disc, GLP produced the more enduring one.
I’m out of words, but also enjoyed these discs:
21. Brandy Clark- Big Day in a Small Town
22. Mary Chapin Carpenter- The Things That We Are Made Of
23. Parker Millsap- The Very Last Day
24. Lori McKenna- The Bird & the Rifle
25. Paul Gauthen- My Gospel
As an aside or addition, my favourite Roots Compilations/Tributes/Reissues of the year are, in no particular order:
VA- 40 Years of Stony Plain
J D Crowe & the New South- S/T vinyl
Gillian Welch- Boots No. 1- The Official Revival Bootleg
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band- Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years
VA- Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music
VA- God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
VA- Just Love: A Tribute to Audrey Auld Mezera
VA- The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
VA- Fast Folk: A Tribute to Jack Hardy
Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia- Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings vinyl box
(Not included in the above list are excellent tribute [or tribute-ish] albums from Del McCoury Band, Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands, The Earls of Leicester, Rory Block, Jenny Whiteley [tribute to her family’s musical roots,] and Eric Brace/Peter Cooper, all of which made my top Bluegrass or Roots album lists.)
Finally, some 2015 albums didn’t get as much attention from me last year as they did in 2016, for a variety of reasons. But, man- did I play the heck out of them this year: Linda McRae- Shadow Trails; Chris Stapleton- Traveller; Josh Ritter- Sermon on the Rocks; Sam Baker- Say Grace; and Steve Forbert- Compromised.
BUY SOME MUSIC, DAMMIT! Roots musicians deserve our support.
Best for the New Year, Donald
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.
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.”
It is getting to that time of the year when I must finalize my Polaris Music Prize Top 5 albums of the year. For those who are unfamiliar with the Polaris Music Prize, its mission statement reads thusly:
“A not-for-profit organization that honours, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music. Polaris recognizes and markets albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history. it is adjudicated by selected music journalists, broadcasters and bloggers.”
I am one of those fortunate to be entrusted with considering Canadian albums released between the beginning of June and the end of May. See previous winners here. It is a good to great experience, and I’ve been involved (I think) going on six years now. I was invited onto the jury as a roots music writer, and that is a position I continue to take seriously; at this point, it doesn’t quite matter to me if the Metric album is better than the Suuns or Metz albums (and who knew Belinda was still recording- “Subway Dances,” anyone?). I believe my mandate is to advocate for the roots albums, and try to bring them to the fore of consideration.
Regrettably, I haven’t been terribly successful. From where I sit, the popularity of indie-rock, arty-minimalists, dance and dirge, and just plain flighty shite (and don’t even get me started on eastern bias) is just too widespread for the (very) few of us who seem to listen to anything vaguely folky, country, rootsy, or (heavens) ‘grassy to ‘break through.’ And that is okay- when you have more than 200 writers considering and arguing over music, something has to be lost in the din. Usually, that is roots music. Again, from where I am sitting: I’m guessing the advocates of modern thrash metal and jazz are at least thinking similar thoughts this month.
I wasn’t terribly active on the Polaris jurors’ discussion forum this past year, largely due to pressures associated with life and work. I advocated for a few albums, but don’t really expect my words to influence anyone else on the jury. There was no shortage of quality roots albums released over the past year, and I am fighting with myself over which album to slide into the #1 slot.
My initial Polaris ballot is what I am considering today. I need to vote #1 to #5 (and the results are tabulated with positional weighting) early next month for my favourite albums of the past year. After everyone’s initial ballots are tabulated, a Long List of 40 make the cut for additional consideration, and that is when I’ll worry about the Metz, Metric, and Suuns albums. For now, I need to consider the roots, and nothing but the roots.
I regret that I didn’t purchase J.R. Shore’s third album State Theatre until a couple weeks ago. I’ve spent considerable time with it since, and it is definitely going on my top 5 ballot. But, does it end up at #1? Do I ‘throw’ my support behind an album that I know has absolutely no chance of making the Long List, or do I consider an album that may actually have a fighting chance? That album would be Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s epic Psychedelic Pill, an absolutely monumental release- one that has mesmerized me since first listen. Their Americana album, a recording that I found pedestrian and inconsequential, is also up for consideration and seems to have received wider acclaim than Psychedelic Pill.
I would hate for vote splitting to cost Neil a placing with Psychedelic Pill, especially if my weighted vote could have made a difference, but am having some trouble placing it ahead of State Theatre, the album I came here today to write about.
I had heard a few songs from J. R. Shore’s State Theatre on the radio, but those slivers didn’t prepare me for the intense experience of listening to the album as a whole. Shore is from Alberta, and there are three undeniable truths when it comes to this province: 1. highway lane change signals (and roadside urination) are completely discretionary; 2. if you’re under 60 years old and have never supported a Conservative, you’ve never voted for the ruling party; and 3. we know how to churn out singer-songwriters. We take credit for Ian Tyson, and have listened to, praised, and had life-altering moments wtih everyone from Leeroy Stagger, Maria Dunn, and Steve Coffey, through to Ruth Purves Smith, Ralph Boyd Johnson, and John Wort Hannam, not to mention his Corbness. And a couple of those artists will be in my Top 5, not that they stand a chance of breaking through to the Long List.
State Theatre is a two-disc package, the second of which is an e.p. of covers, including requisite readings of Neil Young (“For the Turnstiles”) and The Band (“W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”), along with honourary Canadian Tom Russell (Shore messes with the rhythm of “Blue Wing” to make it his own, and I’m not yet sold on his interpretation but I’m getting used to it), Gram, The Dead, Prine, and such. Of the eight covers, the only one that I can’t recommend is an unnecessary stab at “Redneck Mother,” a song that went stale somewhere around 1977.
The original songs on disc one make State Theatre Polaris-worthy. Like ‘great’ artists, Shore isn’t satisfied being any one thing: a poet, a critic, a historian, a songwriter, a guitar player on a stool. He is backed by a full band, often playing history drenched rock n roll as if they were booked from 1968, and perhaps they were- I don’t know them. (The keyboard player is named Garth, but he isn’t Hudson). Some songs are piano-based, others guitar; some gentle and meandering, others raucous and concise.
The subject matter is as diverse, from a Negro Leagues ball player (“Charlie Grant”) and “Poundmaker” to more recent stories of an everyday woman who found herself a focus of attention (“Addie Polk”) to an indulged artist (“Dash Snow”), industrial deaths made all the more relevant given world events (“146”) and a trans-Atlantic journey of wandering (“MS St. Louis”).
Shore’s songs unfold like so many blankets of sound and lyric- you can roll in them, they comfort you, and when they get too heavy, you can toss them off and bask in their residual warmth. As with John Wort Hannam, Si Kahn, and John McCutcheon, there is greatness here, and if he slides into Randy Newman’s shoes a bit too easily, who am I to begrudge a man his influences?
For those reasons, and more, J. R. Shore is making it tough on me. I haven’t spent as much time with this album as I have other albums this year, but I think State Theatre transcends the country, and his genre, whatever it is.
Other albums that I want to be in my Top 5 are Maria Dunn’s magnificent if narrowly-focused Piece by Piece, John Wort Hannam’s Brambles and Thorns, John Reischman’s Walk Along John, and Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever. If you are keeping score, along with Psychedelic Pill, that makes six albums, and I haven’t even mentioned Cara Luft’s wonderful little album Darlingford, Daniel Romano’s polarizing Come Cry With Me and Linda McRae’s beautiful Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts. Or Ralph Boyd Johnson’s heartfelt 1723 9 Street SW. Of all of those albums only three- Young, Romano, and Lund- have a hope of making the Long List. However, I believe they are all worthy. If you haven’t heard them, do some exploring.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Tonight I am quite excited. This evening was my school’s Christmas concert, one of my favourite evenings of the school year. Being in a new community, everything was new this time out and it was wonderful to meet so many people. And the kids did an amazing job. I love being part of such a celebration of the arts and youthful talent.
I am also excited because I get to write about Maria Dunn. My Roots Music Song of the Day is a double-sided (if it was ever released as a 45, which it wasn’t) wonder from Maria’s amazing For a Song album.
I’ve written about Maria many times in the past, including here and here, not to mention here. For a Song was one of my favourite roots albums of the aughts, coming in at number three. When writing about Maria Dunn, I always feel that I am going overboard, but I’m not- she is that good. As I wrote in 2009: “I can’t say much more about Maria Dunn than I already have. She is a tremendous writer, one who bridges old world charm with modern trials and situations. I have seen her live more times than I can count, and she always sparkles. …For a Song remains my favourite album although it may not be her best. The songs just wash over me, and her voice- with just a hint of the Old Country punctuating each phrase- is beautiful. Defying classification as adeptly as Van Morrison and Sinead O’Conner, Dunn produced a compelling album of ballads that entwined her influences within a lush, invigorating tapestry. Find her music.”
I love everything she does, and two songs from For a Song have become among my favourite Christmas songs, even though only one of them is actually aChristmas song.
The first is the song that closes the disc, “God Bless Us Everyone.” The Christmas Carol Project is a long-running Edmonton-based production and “God Bless Us Everyone” is Maria’s standout contribution. Maria’s accordion, Andy Illig’s guitar, and especially Shannon Johnson’s violin create a slightly mystical soundtrack for her lyrics. Let us not become cynical and jaded:
“When the world is feeling cold and the sky more grey than blue,
and the snow it seems to fall heavy heartedly on you.
Time to count your blessings though seemingly but few-
time to take a look at what’s within and without you.
For health is more than walking,
and wealth much more than gold.
But kindness overwhelming as a gentle hand to hold.”
Take that, you foul-hearted, arrogant souls!
For me, the song nicely packages all that Christmas should be and seldom is- a time for remembrance and appreciation for blessings held and given. I’ve never seen The Christmas Carol Project and wouldn’t you know it- the year I move from Red Deer, they show up in town for a performance December 20, which is Thursday. There is a video clip on the Christmas Carol Project website, with Bill Bourne as Scrooge and Maria as Tiny Tim. “God Bless Us Everyone” can be heard at Maria’s CBC Radio page; just scroll down the playlist.
The second song from For A Song I wish to mention is the gorgeous “Whiskey Evening.” Now, that is Christmas…albeit in a bit of a different way- compansionship, even when separated, a lovely drink, and a sense of contentment and security; that we should all feel this way at Christmas. “Whiskey Evening” is also on the CBC Radio Playlist, which is a place to explore when you’ve got ten or thirty hours to spare. All kinds of things to discover.
My non-roots Christmas song of the day is “Christmas Time is Here,” the instrumental version by the Vince Guaraldi Trio from A harlie Brown Christmas. This has grown on my over the years, as has jazz in general.
Many thanks for visiting me at Fervor Coulee. Donald
Maria Dunn’s exceptional Piece by Piece is released this coming Tuesday, September 17. I thought the album had been released weeks ago as Maria sent me my copy in mid-July, but after searching Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue for a gift copy without success Saturday, I learned Outside Music has it on its way to store shelves only this week.
My review of Piece by Piece was published here last month https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/maria-dunn-piece-by-piece-review/ , and I can’t imagine a finer folk album being released this autumn. Maria has a series of concerts upcoming, beginning this Thursday and Friday in Sherwood Park and Calgary; see http://www.mariadunn.com/home/ for details.
I missed/forgot her appearance on CKUA this past Friday, but the new edition of Penguin Eggs (Autumn 2012 with Dan Mangan on the cover) has a well-written article by Tim Readman that allows the always thoughtful and well-spoken Maria to expand upon the Piece by Piece experience while providing additional insight by Readman. Pick it up at find newsstands and music stores including Edmonton’s very nice Permanent Records, where I purchased mine yesterday.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
I was pleased to have Maria send me her new album this summer; it was actually the first album to arrive at the new house. I’ve been listening to it all summer. Gorgeous stuff, as always.
Maria Dunn Piece By Piece www.MariaDunn.com
Alongside John Wort Hannam, Maria Dunn is Alberta’s most highly regarded folk music artist of the singer-songwriter variety. Since 1998, she has released albums of tremendous depth. Her music, her words come from the hearts and souls of the lives she imagines. Using the English folk tradition as her foundation, Maria Dunn has most recently created a thoughtful and illuminating examination of the struggles of female garment workers; while focused upon the experiences of those at the Edmonton GWG factory through the 1900s, the songs are universal.
As she did with We Are Good People, in which she looked at the early labour movement and history of Alberta and western Canada, for Piece By Piece Dunn has 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, both before and after Levi Strauss bought the works.
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 within We Were Good People, Dunn has illuminated the continuing history of Alberta, informing us of a story we didn’t know to appreciate.
On her fifth album of original material, Dunn ties the hardships faced by the factory workers- often the family’s only 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.
As specific as the connections are to the Edmonton GWG factory, the album has universal appeal. “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 a century before.
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. “Blue Lung” looks at the health concerns of the women working within an environment filled with the blue dust from the jeans material, and makes a comparison to the fate of mine workers. “Speed Up” is a snappy song that shares the spirit of “Sixteen Tons,” another connection to other labourers.
Dunn’s 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, she of clan McDade. Johnson’s fiddling adds atmosphere and verve to the songs, never more apparent than on “Shareholder’s Reel.” Sharmila Mathur providers sitar and this colours the songs in a lovely manner, providing connection to those who came from Asia to work in Alberta.
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. 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.
I spotted copies of Piece By Piece at Edmonton’s Blackbyrd Myoozik this weekend, but I don’t see it at iTunes yet. Just as well- the packaging is quite nice and adds to the listening experience. Buy the hard copy.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald