Ann Mortifee – seven decades of story and song

Ann Mortifee

Joseph Roberts: I’m excited about your next offerings on November 30 and December 1 at Christ Church Cathedral: The Magic of Seven. Tell us about it.

Ann Mortifee: It turns out it’s my 70th birthday; it’s a shocker to realize you’ve almost reached 70. As you know, I was married to Paul Horn and he used to say to me before he passed, “You’ll see. Your seventies are going to be the most powerful decade of your life.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s great. I’ll go for that.”

So I’ve taken this year to take on projects that were really meaningful to me. So The Magic of Seven is for me to celebrate, rather than resist, being 70 or hide it, but to really celebrate what that means. I’ve gone back over the last adventure of my life and there’s certain songs that really captured important phases. I’ve got some new songs in the concert but mainly I just wanted to track my life journey in some way, starting in Africa.

I was brought up on a sugar cane farm in Zululand and spent the early years of my life on the good soil of Africa. It’s had a tremendous, tremendous resonance in my life. I’ve written two musicals and lots of songs about it and really felt I owed a debt on behalf of my family and my race. In fact, the last time I was in Common Ground [March 2006] was when I did When the Rains Come.

JR: How did your family get from South Africa to Vancouver? Where in Canada did you first land?

AM: We landed in Montreal, but we came across by train. Dad had been the representative for Zululand, which was a little group of farmers in General Smuts’ cabinet during the time they were voting about the Union and Nationalist parties. When the Nationalist Party, who believe in separate and apart, and absolutely take the vote away and change everything, won, dad said, “This is the end of South Africa for me. I’ve got four girls. I’ve gotta get out.”

But my dad couldn’t get any money out. So he had a good friend who took over the farm and he basically took a few trips to look at Canada, England and New Zealand – his three choices. He felt Canada was the best choice, that it was healthy and so forth. I’m glad he did. It was never spoken of, but I think he took money out of the country whenever he could, sort of sewn into his pockets, so we’d at least have something to live on when we arrived.

JR: What sparked your interest in music?

AM: It was amazing, really, when I look back. Strange things happened along the way. One was when I was at Point Grey. My history teacher said I wouldn’t have to do this final paper if I would act in a theatre piece he wanted to do for Remembrance Day. The other thing was they had talent shows so three friends and I decided we would do the Charleston, and it won all the prizes. That was the first time I was on television, doing the Charleston if you can believe it. The next year, we went and did the hula and I loved the hula. I just loved it.

Four of us got together and started a little harmony group with popular songs of the day like Twenty-six miles across the sea. And we sang it at school dances. People heard about us and we sang at other school dances, but it never entered my mind I could do it as a living. Never. Then I was working at a summer camp on work crew and one of the gals was doing evening entertainment with kids and another gal whom I shared a room with. One of them got sick and Evia said to me, “Would you come and help me?” And I said, “Oh God.” But I did. And I was hooked. I loved it.

When she came back to Vancouver, she gave me her old guitar. It was like a world opened up. I started writing songs and then was asked to work here, there and the other. I never thought I wanted to be a singer. I just liked singing and people started asking me to come and do it.

The girls I went to school with said they’d each give me a dollar if I would go to the hootenanny. That was $42 so I said okay. I can remember stepping on the stage and having this feeling like I really belonged there. It was just a feeling of comfort and happiness. I loved singing. And Josh White Sr., a blues singer from the south, was there [at the Bunkhouse] to start the the following Monday. And he saw me and said, “I want her to open my show.” I opened a show the next week, much to my parents chagrin.

I remember going down one afternoon to pick up my guitar and Les [Stork, owner of the Bunkhouse] said, “Oh, are you going to the audition?” And I said, “What’s an audition?” And he said, “You just get up and sing and if they like you, you get a job. They’re looking for a girl singer for a show.” So I said okay. He said, “I’m going to drive you. You have to come with me. I want you to do this.”

He drove me down and I got the job, which was for George Ryga’s play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. That totally changed my life.

JR: Please give us the context.

AM: It was the story of a Native American girl being torn apart because she exists somewhere between two cultures, the white culture and the Native American culture. It was so profound. Chief Dan George was in it. It was the first Canadian play that had really addressed what had happened, and what was happening, and it took the country by storm. It was a fabulous thing. I was 17.

And this chap, Willie Dunn – I think he was ill – kept not showing up for rehearsals. George Ryga would say, “Dear, here are the lyrics, just make something up.” Well, I’d never written a song in my life so I said, “How do I do that?” “Just make up a melody to it.” That was how I became a composer. I never would’ve thought, “Oh, I think I’ll write songs.” It wouldn’t have entered my mind.

That became the baseline for everything I wanted to do. Rita Joe went to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to open it. And I was seen by the producer of a show that was coming in and he actually created another part for me to come in and play as a singer. That show, Love and Maple Syrup, was a huge success and it went on to New York. I was seen by agents there and was being auditioned for various shows and was asked to do the lead in a show called Promises, Promises that Burt Bacharach had written the music for.

I’d just come from doing Rita Joe, which was so meaningful to me, and I saw how music could alter culture. I remember very clearly working with the musical director. I hadn’t yet signed my contract and I was singing, “What do you get when you fall in love… you get enough germs to catch pneumonia, after you do he’ll never phone ya…” And I remember thinking, “What if I died singing this song?” Because I had to do eight shows a week. That was the contract.

And I thought, “I’ve just done something that was so filled with meaning and value for me.” I went to see my agent the next day and asked if there was any way I could do just six months. He said, “No, it’s a contract. They’re not going to hire somebody else and have to train them. So I said, “I just can’t do it.” I decided I wasn’t meant to be there and went back to Vancouver.

Three days later, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet called and asked me to write the music for The Ecstasy of Rita Joe as a ballet. I remember Arnold Spohr calling me, “Could you come and do this?” And I was like, “I can’t write a ballet score, I don’t know anything about it” and he asked, “Can you feel the heart of Rita Joe? Do you know how she feels?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. I love her.” And he said, “Why don’t you bring your heart to Winnipeg and we’ll see what happens.”

I ended up writing the ballet and that was an international hit and off we went to Australia and New Zealand. I feel my whole life has been a gift. My career just grew and I would go through changes and it would move me to the next phase and then I started to want to write musicals.

Now, I knew nothing about musicals. I remember going to the library and saying, “Do you have any books on writing musicals?” They said, “No, but we have a script of a musical.” I can’t remember which one it was. I thought, “Okay, you put the title there, then you explain what’s going on on the stage and you write what the character says.” Fine. And off I went. That’s when I did Reflections on Crooked Walking.

We really have to feed our souls. I’ve talked to many artists who somewhere along the line made a choice to do something to get ahead. They get known for that and they’re stuck. It was a conscious choice but it wasn’t like I said, “I want to do something meaningful.” It wasn’t like I thought about it. It was just who I was. It just didn’t sit right with me. I guess it was because I came from Africa and even as a girl I was aware. I mean, you couldn’t help it. We lived in the white house on the hill and I used to wonder why did they wear my hand-me-downs. Why didn’t I have hand-me-downs? How come we had toast and marmalade on the table while the Zulu people lined up to get a can of mealy corn every Thursday and some meat. I guess it was that questioning part of myself. It’s just social justice. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what it was. It was just feelings of discomfort that I had.

The other one that really impacted me was a feeling that I was living in a dream. I remember my earliest memory was of lying in my bed on the farm in Zululand and hearing the rooster crow and the morning sounds coming into my dream and I was thinking in what I now know was my dream, “Oh no, you’re going to fall asleep and you’re going to start dreaming and when you do you’re going to forget who you are because this has happened before.” And I’d become very agitated and I’d suddenly ‘open my eyes’ and I’d be in my bedroom on the farm and I’d go, “Oh no, oh no. I’m stuck being her again. These aren’t my hands. Who am I when I’m not dreaming that I’m Ann.” This was a recurring dream, this feeling of being someone else who was dreaming this reality.

I think that never left me either, that feeling of parallel worlds. That gave me my interest in meaning. Who are we? Where did we come from? What are we doing here? How can I know what is purposeful? If I’m here for some reason and I’m going to go back ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ was, that of course I couldn’t remember, I wanted to find out why I was here. That was always playing out as well and has been my whole life.

JR: You’re putting on an event called The Mysteries. What is that all about?

AM: I love musicals. I love that characters can sing at each other and just let all their feelings out through music. I just think it’s the best thing. And I love music as story. Nobody knew what happened in the Eleusinian Mysteries. It was on threat of death that any participant talk about what was going on there. In fact, some people think that’s why Socrates had to drink hemlock, because he divulged what was going on in the temple. I started reading everything I could about it and became totally fascinated. It led me to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the great mother and her daughter who was abducted into the underworld by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. And it was known by her father Zeus. He and Hades were brothers and they bargained over her. And I thought, “Well, that’s still going on, isn’t it?”

Demeter the mother, in losing her daughter, is thrown into this deep deep grief and loses all her power. It’s like women whose children are abducted and can never get over it. She dropped into her grief and finally ends up going into her temple reaching a place of such rage that she says to Zeus and Hades, “Until you bring my daughter back to me, you’re not getting one drop of my life force.” She pulls her power in and the whole world starts to fall apart.

No grass grows so there’s nothing to feed the sheep and the goats. Everything starts dying. One by one the gods are [saying], “You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do something.” Finally, they let Persephone go, but Hades tricks her into eating four pomegranate seeds so she has to return to the underworld for four months of the year. It’s one of the rules of the underworld. I looked around me and said, “Wow, this is a prophetic story.” We’re having it right now. We’re in the middle of it. We’re stuck at the point in the myth when Demeter is saying, “I’ve had enough.” And we’re starting to see these terrible storms and food shortages and floods and fires.

The world is going into a trauma. And that was foreshadowed, prophesied, created through thought – who knows? – but every year for 2000 years this myth was told. And I thought, “Wow, that’s really important.”

A myth is a story that’s meant to transform as we transform, but once you start writing them down they stop having the capacity to change. So I said, “I’ve got to change this myth. We might be able to bring the feminine heart back into the political arena, back into the world. And maybe we can avert this environmental catastrophe.”And women need to be heard. We need equality because we each bring, as you know, something so unique and special.

JR: We need to turn off the mass deception and really hear what our inner being is telling us to do, our soul. The work that you’re doing, music gives us permission to do that. It reminds us how important it is and how good it feels to be in touch with that.

AM: The minute you get into the slipstream of your own sense of values and are unafraid to stand up for them, so much of the feeling of helplessness goes away. Love is the best way. Whenever there’s love in the room everything lightens up. I don’t know how to say it loud and clear enough, because I don’t get why we choose other things.


CONCERT

Ann Mortifee: The Magic of Seven
Seven Decades of Spirit in Story and Song
With Ed Henderson, Bill Sample, Finn Manniche

November 30 & December 1
7:30pm (doors 7pm)
Christ Church Cathedral
690 Burrard Street, Vancouver

Advance tickets $40 + ticket charges available online only: www.magic-of-seven.eventbrite.ca
Door tickets $45, cash only.

Ready to Rumble? Keep calm and decolonize

photo of Bruce Mason

MUSIC RISING
by Bruce Mason

Indigenous/Aboriginal /First Nations/Inuit art is one of the most exciting creative forces in Canada and on our endangered Earth. At once a Renaissance Revival and a ‘resistance,’ it’s rising, Phoenix-like, from the still-smouldering ashes of what can only be described as genocide.

Pick a genre – music, visual arts, live theatre, literature, fashion – and you’ll find unique offerings, including the raising of Jim Hart’s Reconciliation Pole at UBC, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s art, Brian Jungen’s life-size dinosaur skeletons, crafted from white plastic lawn chairs, the plays of Tomson Highway, the multidisciplinary Red Sky, A Tribe Called Red, guitar virtuoso Don Ross and some proud, defiant and powerfully feminist voices, including Tanya Tagaq and resurgent Buffy Sainte-Marie (Power in the Blood).

“I continue to keep my nose on the joy trail and if something is missing, I try to create it,” Sainte-Marie told Common Ground magazine in an April 2015 cover story. “It’s pretty much the moneychangers taking over the temple, nothing new, but now everybody can see it. And this is a genuine grassroots response to the realities we all face today – most extremely in the front lines of Indian country – the destruction of the environment and ongoing horror of missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

Link Wray
Link Wray in Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World

The summer-long CBC Radio series, Reclaimed, provided a platform to put listeners in touch with the explosive pulse of contemporary Indigenous music, including traditional songs, acoustic sounds, incendiary political hip-hop, R&B and the dance floor-filling beats of electric powwow. Now, in the dog days of a fizzling sesquicentennial – 150 years since Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick confederated – we have blown through a cool half-billion in federal tax dollars to celebrate. First Nations, however, rained on our year-long parade and rightfully so. One highlight: Kent Monkman’s super-imposed nude, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, lounging in the foreground of the 1864 Charlottetown constitutional meetings. “She’s trying to get a seat at the table or she could be a hired entertainer,” the artist explained.

An extraordinary new Canadian documentary, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, uncovers untold stories and missing history. The Sundance-award-winning film takes its title from a 1958 Link Wray recording. The only instrumental ever banned by radio, Rumble unleashed power chords in three growling, fuzzy blasts that inspired a generation to pick up an electric guitar; it still resonates, undiminished by time.

In the film, some three dozen marquee celebrities cite major influences in jazz, blues, rock, folk and heavy metal, including “Father of the Delta Blues” Charley Patton (Choctaw/African-American), “Queen of Swing” Mildred Bailey (Couer d’Alene), Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee/African-American), Wray (Shawnee), Sainte-Marie (Cree) and many more.

Front and centre is The Band’s Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), who says, “From childhood, I was told, ‘Be proud of being Indian; but be careful who you tell.’” Today, he vows, “You wouldn’t let me talk about it before. Well, now I’m going to talk real loud.”

One signpost in reclaiming cultural territory is the Grammy-nominated Native North America (Vol. 1), featured in Common Ground (January, 2015). More than a decade in the making, the package of 34 tracks with 120 pages of liner notes was curated by Kevin Howes, who continues to compile unheard, undocumented and unavailable Indigenous music.

Howes now says, “During our current era of reconciliation, music is an extra-special connector, teacher, and healer. It saves, unifies and informs us, like nothing else. The time is most certainly now to celebrate life and to show people that we will not stand for ignorance, intolerance, oppression and hatred.”

Arctic-focused Aakuluk Music, newly formed to promote contemporary Inuktitut music, globally, is just one example. One artist on the fledgling label, Riit, reports, “Every time I perform for non-Inuit crowds, it feels like I take a step forward into decolonization. Going from a generation shamed for speaking to a generation making music in Inuktitut, I’m pretty damn proud and thankful!”

We have more than enough scientific evidence about anthropogenic climate change and now need more stories from front lines, especially the Arctic. Ditto the appalling, ongoing unjust conditions, truthful history and real-life First Nations’ perspectives.

This is painful stuff, folks. But as Buffy Sainte-Marie advises, “Keep calm and decolonize.” All that is required is what the Common Ground community does best: to listen respectfully and supportively. We are truly blessed and the payoff, including visionary art and leadership, is inestimable and far too-long overdue.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

What a Life! Bob Turner

by Joseph Roberts

Bob Turner
Bob Turner (1944-2017)

The phone rang early in the morning. On the floor, between it and me, lay a brightly coloured business card with “ALL ONE!” written in large capital letters. Wondering where it had come from, I reached for the call. A voice from the past, Alex – a friend of Bob Turner for 45 years – reported the bad news: “Bob is dead!” Shocked, my mind raced, as the finality of the word “dead” sunk in, followed by tears. And questions of how could it be?

Bob was many things to many people. His Facebook page is huge testament, populated by real people, the type that appreciated the depth and wit of a real human, an authentic artist, clearly perceiving those around him. The first time we crossed paths was 1966 at a Centennial High School dance. There he was, in the Black Snake Blues Band, grooving on the bass. Fast forward to the founding of Common Ground, in 1982.  This Renaissance man in a van was hired to distribute our magazine. He laughingly and lewdly referred to himself as a “distabator.” His insights on society, art, music, people, politics, habits, continued unabated for decades. He was my go-to person for advice on distribution, music, parenting, and life in general.

Bob had a degree in early childhood education which he said, helped him understand us so-called adults. With disarming comments, always ready for the next round of jokes, he found his way into the hearts of most wounded adult children who crossed his path.

He did a stint as Artist in Residence at SFU. His home was a working artist studio two blocks off The Drive. And he befriended a stray cat that would only relate to him.

If you knew Bob, you understand why so many loved him and grieve his loss. I can go on and on, but I won’t. Let me pass the pen to another person who worked distributing magazines as Bob’s swamper and was with him the day he died.

Co-worker Paddy Kellington wrote : “My dear friend and the nearest thing I ever had to a real father (although HE would have laughed at the description) Bob Turner, died, September 5th. He wasn’t feeling well, so I made him stop and go home, although I thought Emergency would have been a better choice. I stayed with him to make sure he was comfortable. Shortly after 6, Bob simply fell asleep, and became non-responsive. I called Emergency, and as instructed, did CPR until the ambulance arrived. They couldn’t revive him. I am deeply shocked, deeply saddened. I had always thought being parentless, I’d be spared from this particular species of grief. Looks like I am not. He was a brilliant man, a great human…even if his sense of humour would have made a middle schooler wince. He was a great artist, and a great support and mentor for other artists, or frankly anyone who was genuine and struggling to articulate their voice.

He was remarkably patient, even with my rather reactive emotionalism (Bob was a pragmatic existentialist) and known for his ability to deal with near anyone or anything with humour and wit.

I probably laughed with him more than with any person I have ever known. I cannot believe we will never share a warped joke, or ridiculously satirical take on life, the universe, and everything else. Including, of course, ourselves.

No words are enough for a life as full as his, as quietly influential as his. Someone else who is more eloquent will, I hope, speak to the life of this very human and remarkable man. I am proud to have had his friendship. I loved the man. I will miss him.

Samples of his work are located at turnercom.com
https://m.youtube.com/user/TheMidniteComposer

Jesse Waldman an inspired voice from Vancouver’s dark side

Jesse Waldman

by Bruce Mason

Jesse Waldman’s long-awaited record debut was decades in the making, including four years of painstaking recording and production. The brilliant concept album, Mansion Full of Ghosts, stands out for not only capturing life in contemporary Vancouver, but for also giving voice and hope to all those who struggle in the dystopian, hollowed-out nightmare into which Canada’s most expensive city has devolved.

“I started with 20 songs and wrote at least 15 more, which accounts for some of the time,” reports Waldman. “More than half of the people that my girlfriend and I know here live under constant threat of renoviction and skyrocketing housing costs, holding on for dear life, with fingernails. I’m just back from playing gigs in Toronto, my old stomping grounds, and it was outstanding. In Kensington Market, on Queen, College and Bloor Streets, there is a vibrant, supportive arts scene, a stark contrast to the corporate, cookie-cutter culture that Vancouver is becoming.”

The 16 tracks on Mansion Full of Ghosts are individual rooms, artfully designed and built, with wave-like walls of sound, without any superfluous musical notes or words. From a journeyman’s lovingly created, solid, eclectic musical foundation, haunted dream-like characters emerge, linked with a jeweller’s eye for gems and settings. A “country mouse” doesn’t care for big-city small talk in the “smiley plastic face rat race of shiny people and phony deadbeats.” Others include “A Ballerina From the East Coast.”

Perhaps the most fully realized is “Lorraine.” A dime-less high-school dropout from Mississauga decides, “I’m goin’ it alone… changed her clothes in a phone booth and rolled a smoke for the road. Her grubby hands were shaking/As the honest world was waking she flagged down trucks in high heels.” She ends up on a poster at a drop-in centre, disappeared without a trace with no helpful leads. A cold case indeed.

Waldman’s own story is essential to fully appreciating Mansion Full of Ghosts. A cherished cassette of his grandmother singing a Yiddish folk song and a guitar abandoned in the basement of his family home helped fuel his teenaged flight from the suburban sprawl of Thornhill, Ontario. He paid his dues, underage, in Toronto bar gigs, through a succession of groups, including the grunge band Zygote, Web, The Beefy Treats and Phatty Phatty, perfecting his impressive chops and accompaniment skills in finger-style folk, country, blues and pop genres.

“Every band needs a writer and I became that guy, almost by default,” Waldman recalls. Fine-tuned musical and other skills enabled his emergence as a very fine songwriter. His website (jessewaldmanmusic.com/media) features four videos. “The Rest of My Days,” produced to launch the album, includes raw archival family footage, charmingly illustrating a credo and promise revealed in the album. The other three earlier examples demonstrate his laid-back, comfortable virtuosity on electric, acoustic and resophonic guitar.

A cross-country adventure to the West Coast was pivotal and transformative. After touching down, he has stayed for 25 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in Canada. Home is Hastings St. and Commercial Drive where he is – and this is a compliment – a “fixture on the Drive,” as well as a highly accomplished national touring act.

Sensing the growing need for rehearsal space, then recording space, he co-founded Redlight Sound Studios, where months of rehearsals and pre-production for his debut took place. He also studied the recording arts and sound design and he is now in demand, with a busy client roster, including the CBC, Telus, The Knowledge Network and Bravo.

Waldman assembled an all-star cast of other “fixtures,” most notably Marc L’Esperance, whose diverse skills, longtime friendship and musical partnership resulted in a well-deserved credit as co-producer. Jesse excels at portraying post-modern Vancouver where shopping carts roll down alleyways as skyrocketing numbers of homeless sleep in too-many boarded doorways, with pleas for help on scraps of cardboard, in front of ATM’s and… “all them lyin’ servants in their parliamentary seats.”

Mansion Full of Ghosts is audio alchemy. Gold is transmuted into various forms – Klondike gold, fools’ gold – with its colour depicted in occasional skies and rays. In “Eastvan Blues,” he writes and sings, “I got one foot in a sunbeam/I got one foot in the grave.” The album is highly recommended, especially for those down-and-out in Vancouver.

I asked him to share his expertise from 25 years on both sides of the studio glass. “Tips for Up-And-Coming Artists Headed Into a Studio” is a one-page, seven-point checklist to avoid common problems and pitfalls in making the best, most-natural recording of roots music. Email brucemason@shaw.ca and I will reply with a copy.

Bob Bossin vs “Kinder Morgan”

Bob Bossin

by Bruce Mason

What history will refer to as “Kinder Morgan,” it will also record and judge as one of the most significant stories during Canada’s 150 years. The highly volatile issue will help define us and our role in the contemporary world, specifically highlighting if we are part of the problem or the solution.

But to fully understand it, one must experience Bob Bossin’s explosively effective 10-minute viral video, curiously entitled, Only one bear in a hundred bites, but they don’t come in order. (www.youtube.com)

The 100,000 or so folks and groups who have experienced it and shared it on Facebook – 12,000 on YouTube – keenly advised others to do the same, including the Green Party, Council of Canadians, former BC cabinet minister Rafe Mair, the Dogwood Initiative and myriad like-minded others.

Bob’s compilation of seemingly endless, terrifying tank farm explosions and accompanying text gives voice to the widespread fear and horror on the west coast about the explosion possibilities. Green leader Elizabeth May has characterized it as “totally stupid.” It being the construction of a 1,150-kilometre pipeline from Edmonton to BC’s Lower Mainland (western Canada’s most densely populated area) to carry toxic diluted bitumen (300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day) through more than 100 First Nations mostly pristine territories. It will increase the traffic of massive tankers, seven-fold, smack dab in the Port of Vancouver (second busiest in the nation) and into the international treasure of the Salish Sea, for the sake of generating 50 permanent jobs, despite plummeting oil prices, and the fact that a spill can’t be cleaned. All of which seriously jeopardizes the global initiative to reduce the carbon emissions that are killing life on the planet (See commonground.ca/christy-justin-kinder-morgan-take-hike/)

May played a role in Only one bear in a hundred bites, but they don’t come in order. Bossin was asked to write a song for an Earth Day celebration in April. Instead, the “Old Folksinger,”created the video. It received a standing ovation from an audience, including May, who wanted to see it again and again. And so it was posted.

Bossin strives to show Canadians who support the foolhardy and reckless pipe dream why people in BC vow to fight to the death to stop it. But there’s not much reaction from Alberta to Ottawa where selfie-PM Justin Trudeau defies science by petulantly insisting that “Kinder Morgan” is “safe”, rejecting common sense and economics by claiming it’s in “Canada’s best interests.”

The late great dean of folksingers, Pete Seeger, once observed, “Not many people can write songs that are funny, informative and inspiring at the same time. Bossin does.” Pity Pete never lived to see the video. He was a big fan of Bossin’s Show Us the Length and he performed the hilarious, pro-feminist composition. He was also well aware of Bob’s anthemic Sulphur Passage, which helped save the Clayoquot wilderness and brought down the BC NDP government of Mike Harcourt. Bossin, co-founder of the legendary Stringband, pioneered crowd-funding and independent artist-controlled recordings with Canadian themes.

It’s entirely appropriate and just that he be part of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s 40th anniversary (July 13-16). He’s played there dozens of times in his 50 years of writing and performing. Folks who attend “The greatest show on Earth” (Rolling Stone) will enjoy some 60+ musical acts from 20 countries on seven beachfront stages. And we all have that video to share.

EVENT

See Bob Bossin at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, July 13-16.

Playing for Change

One world, one voice, one day

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

 

Playing for Change Day

 

• Without fail, the Playing For Change website makes me feel good. Most often it gives me goose bumps, but it’s always (in all ways) a joyful, uplifting experience. There’s no better time to feel this yourself than on September 24 when a global community gathers and unites – through the power of music to affect positive change – on stages, street corners, in schools, yoga studios, cafes and living rooms. More than 300 events in 50 countries are listed at www.playingforchange.com

I’m not alone in praising Playing for Change (PFC). After taping a segment of his Words of Wonder, combined with Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up, Keith Richards said, “That’s the way music was meant to be.” Jackson Browne produced a PFC arrangement of Guantanamera, featuring more than 75 Cuban musicians in Havana, Barcelona and Tokyo, describing it as “one of the most rewarding and inspiring musical experiences of my life.” And Sara Bareilles reports that singing with the PFC Band “elevates the world with music and inspires me to be a better human.”

Warning! The videos at www.playingforchange.com can be addictive. It’s some of the best feel-good music ever with unprecedented collaborations between previously anonymous street musicians, the classically trained and big names such as Bono, Keb’ Mo’, Jimmy Buffett, David Crosby, members of Los Lobos and the Grateful Dead and even John Lennon on tape, with Yoko Ono’s blessing, launching a Power to the People campaign. Music IS the power.

Mark Johnson is the creator of the global PFC phenomena and the driving force behind what is now a worldwide, multimedia, online music project and foundation. He says, “It is easy to connect to the world through music. Religion, politics, a lot of those things, they seem to divide everybody.” When Bill Moyers asked if he was being naïve, Johnson responded, “To me, naive is thinking that there’s any other choice. The only choice we have is to come together. And to inspire each other because that’s the way we’ll create a better world now and for kids tomorrow.”

His own inspiration for a big idea – to connect the world through unfiltered music – was birthed on a New York subway platform when the Grammy-winning producer/engineer/filmmaker watched two monks singing in a language he didn’t understand. “There were about 200 people who didn’t get on the train… people with tears in their eyes and jaws dropping, people who would normally run by each other.”

Some time later, on his way to work at a Santa Monica studio, an “epiphany” inspired Johnson to record street blues musician Roger Ridley singing Stand by Me. He played the result through headphones for Grandpa Elliott, who has “been putting love out there for 60 years” from the streets of New Orleans. Subsequently, utilizing innovative mobile technology and travelling the world, Johnson videotaped more than 100 musicians – mostly outdoors in parks, plazas, promenades, in doorways, on cobblestone streets and hillside pueblos. Each captured performance of the same song created a new mix in which the artists performed together – although hundreds or thousands of miles apart – in a seamless, mesmerizing collaboration and viral global jam.

Johnson has since produced two award-winning documentaries, A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians (2004) and Peace Through Music (2008), and much more music. He notes that PFC videos now have more than 300 million views from 195 countries.

Among myriad locations, Johnson shares that the South African township of Gugeletu was “the saddest place, with so much despair, until women and children joined in singing Celebration.” It was, he says, “one of the most powerful things I had ever seen, from sad to happy, when all that had changed was music.” That barren backyard became the site for a first PFC school. A Playing for Change band was formed to tour the world and help raise funds for what is now 12 school programs – in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, Mali, Nepal, Rwanda, South Africa, Thailand, and growing exponentially.

Each project also helps meet essential needs, including food, clean water, medicine, clothes, books, school supplies, solar energy, computers, and other technology. Johnson says, “It’s never ending, more songs to record, more musicians to connect, always more schools to build.”

As you explore the videos on the PFC site, you may notice two with a regional connection. Music Is My Ammunition opens on a Vancouver beach with three musicians – two from the Congo, one from Italy – before moving on to Jamaica, Hollywood, Cuba, Tokyo and Italy. Don’t Worry was recorded live at the Commodore Ballroom.

Playing for Change Day is held on the Saturday closest to International Peace Day. Everything you need to know to stage an event is also on the PFC website. Email brucemason@shaw.ca with any plans and projects. And tune into Common Ground. Happy Playing for Change Day!

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola Island-based banjo player, gardener, writer and author of Our Clinic.


Playing for Change Day in Vancouver

September 24:
Project Blue Hands Society & Friends (www.projectbluehands.org) invites you to celebrate Playing For Change Day in Vancouver. Music, art & outreach for the people, Victory Square Park, 200 W. Hastings St., 11AM-4PM. To get involved, email info@projectbluehands.org or call (778) 233-5874.

Those Nashville Blues – Victor Anthony salutes Canada

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

portrait of Victor Anthony• The world is awash in opinions on immigration – to say nothing of millions of tragically desperate refugees – and heated debate about citizenship, much of it spilling over from the “Excited States.” One contribution most worthy of attention and repeat listening hails from the deep, musically iconic cradle and melting pot far south of the 48th parallel: Victor Anthony’s new release, Those Nashville Blues.

On August 12, 2014, the judge who swore Victor in as a Canadian citizen, along with his wife Joelle, a prolific, published writer – and 91 other candidates – stressed their responsibility to share their native culture with new neighbours and fellow citizens originally from “somewhere else.” Taking the judge at his word, Victor has compiled a collection of songs he learned first-hand from masters who “lived down the road.” And make no mistake; when you search for evidence of “American exceptionalism,” the blues are a gift for the ages.

Those Nashville Blues is a warm welcome, unadorned, authentic, timeless and although all pre-WWII, new and fresh to Canadian music fans. There’s nothing flash or gaudy – no need for phoney enhancement or technological trickery. As Victor says, “Ragged but right… and I hope it falls easy on your ears.”

If you’re wondering “Victor who?” he recorded three albums under his birth surname Mecyssne in the 90’s and was very favourably reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Sing Out! magazines.

His band, Victor Mecyssne and the Ragtops, included what he describes as “high-falutin, big-cheese musicians, at the top of the food chain,” such as Grammy winners bassist Jeff “Stick” Davis (Amazing Rhythm Aces, best known for the mega-hit, Third Rate Romance) and saxophonist Jeff Coffin (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Dave Matthews Band). For years, Victor also played myriad acting and production roles with the celebrated Cumberland County Players.

However, in his characteristic inimitable fashion, Victor fled the scene – taking his wife’s surname “Anthony” – and headed North. He threw away his cigarettes and threw himself into the community of Gabriola Island.

“Joelle and I were suffering from a deficiency that’s been dubbed ‘Vitamin T’ for ‘Tribe’; we longed for community and found it here, including the unique Gabriola Commons and musicians to play with, including some on the album like Lloyd Artzen who has been playing New Orleans jazz for 70 years,” he recalls.

Those Nashville Blues
“I was fearful of guns people were packin’ and buying at places like Wal-Mart and had one stuck in my face. A large part of our decision was health care. An only child, I had to sell my house to pay for treatment for my mother, even though she retired on a government plan after heading up the office of a US Senator. There were too many problems that wouldn’t be solved in my lifetime. And when George W. Bush was re-elected, fair and square, why, that broke the camel’s back.

“We saw pictures in guide books for the Gulf Islands and the Big Island [Vancouver] and honeymooned here, searching locations, amazed at some things that Canadians take for granted: women comfortably walking the streets of Victoria late at night, something you don’t see in many cities that size, RCMP who weren’t armed to the teeth, polite, honest, friendly people who are part of the landscape that makes me proud and happy every day.”

Victor’s music is steeped in real life experience that money can’t buy and nobody can fake. His deceased father was “head fret of a whole shooting match,” president of a company, that, among other things, pressed records and distributed them, supplied jukeboxes far and wide with the latest ‘45s and was first in line with car stereos and independent labels like Bragg records. The young man’s summer job comprised working, living and breathing music and the biz. Piano and sax lessons filled in time until the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan when, like almost everyone else, he took up guitar.

Right from the get-go, Those Nashville Blues is real and really eclectic, which resonates through all 12 tracks. As a college student, Victor found the address and favoured whisky of Furry Lewis and spent an afternoon sippin’ and listenin’ to blues played from a daybed – Furry’s wooden leg propped in the corner – in the same room Mick and Keith visited to ask Furry to open for the Rolling Stones on tour. Victor revisits the source in his version of Dry Land Blues, the opening cut of a stellar collection.

“It took two years of hard work – to the day – to get into Canada,” he reports. “And because we couldn’t bear to reside in a place where we couldn’t vote, another three years to become citizens. We’re grateful.”

Another piece has been added to Canada’s multicultural mosaic, emanating from an appreciative, motivated, highly skilled and talented recent immigrant. Juno award-winning artists, Valdy, Gary Fjellgaard and David Gogo have all recently recorded some of Anthony’s original compositions. Little wonder so many of us in this country are shouting “More!” For additional information, visit victoranthony.ca and while there don’t miss his photography or the link to Joelle’s work.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca


Catching up

Congratulations to Kevin “Sipreano” Howes and Light in the Attic Records, nominated for a Grammy (Best Historical Album) for Native North America (Vol. 1). Featured in Common Ground (January 2015).

Leon Bibb tribute: The following information was unavailable at press time last month: A celebration of Leon Bibb’s life will be staged at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage, 2pm, January 10, 2016. Doors open at 1:30pm.

Leon Bibb – from Kentucky to Kitsilano

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Leon Bibb in 1976
Leon Bibb in 1976

• The long-standing love affair between Leon Bibb and Vancouver ended when the legendary performer passed away in late October in a Kitsilano care home at the age of 93.

He first arrived in his adopted city in 1968 as the opening act for the then wildly popular comedian Bill Cosby. From the window of a luxury Bayshore hotel room, Bibb became enchanted with Vancouver’s working harbour and snow-capped mountains, vowing, “I have to live here.”

It was an unlikely move for a prominent figure in the continent-wide folk music revival. Bibb was also a Broadway and TV star – having appeared in Sidney Poitier movies and recorded albums for major labels – and a stirring performer at landmark demonstrations, including the March on Washington in 1963 and the protests in Selma, Alabama, two years later.

Harry Belafonte, a friend from Harlem back in the ‘50s, has noted, “Of all of us, he was probably the most talented. We were all envious of his beautiful baritone voice. He was really committed to the cause of civil rights and was hugely inspiring.”

Bibb abandoned New York for what was still a rough, blue-collar city. His first Vancouver performance featured blues and work songs, anti-war ballads and Malcolm X poems. Tickets were just 50 cents, but the UBC ballroom was half empty. He became a suspect in a robbery – solely because there were so few blacks locally – then fought for and received an apology.

Belefonte, Bibb, Baez in Montgomery
Belafonte, Bibb and Baez in Montgomery, Alabama|
photo by Matt Herron

Years later in 2011, back at UBC to accept an honorary doctorate, he described his birthplace, Louisville, Kentucky. “Segregated and racist, ringed by the white world and ‘coloured’ signs on toilets and fountains. I never had a conversation with a white person until I went to New York at 19.”

At four years of age, he sang solos in church and was featured in the glee club at Louisville Municipal College for Negroes. He left home to study and perform music and in 1946, while working at a New York automat, Leon landed a role in the original Annie Get Your Gun, singing Moonshine Lullaby with Ethel Merman 1,247 times!

But too few acting roles for black actors motivated Bibb to sing folk in the ‘50s. He performed in the coffeehouse craze, at the first Newport Festival in ‘59 and signed to Vanguard for several albums, including “Leon Bibb Sings Folk Songs.” His good looks, charm and stirring versatility – soulful ballads, chain-gang chants, spirituals and gospel songs as well as Broadway show tunes – made him a frequent TV guest. He made eight appearances on Ed Sullivan and had regular spots on the Tonight Show, Merv Griffin and Hootenanny, broadening his audience. In 1967, he received a Tony nomination for the Black song-and-poetry revue A Hand Is on the Gate. The next year he attracted attention and notoriety as the love interest in an interracial staging of Carnival.

Dropped from TV for supporting blacklisted artists Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, in 1968 he created and hosted the talk show Someone New, where he introduced unknowns such as teenaged cellist Yo-Yo Ma and budding songwriter Barry Manilow. He also acquired performing rights to Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. An unprecedented seven-month run at Vancouver’s Arts Club established live theatre on the west coast.

Bibb also performed with the VSO and became a Canadian icon. His history of blues, ranging from a Harlem nightclub to a New Orleans whorehouse, was adapted as The Candyman and sequel on the CBC, nationally. And his gospel cantata about the underground railway, One More Stop on the Freedom Train, wowed Ontario and Vancouver at Expo 86. Bibb said, “The city offered a lifestyle that could never have happened in New York or L.A. and I liked it.” Grateful citizens bestowed honours on the highly visible, beloved figure, such as the Order of British Columbia and BC’s Entertainment Hall of Fame.

With son Eric – a Grammy-nominated acoustic blues singer-songwriter – he recorded A Family Affair (2002) and Praising Peace: A Tribute to Paul Robeson (2006).

Leon once told me he was most proud of his anti-racism and anti-bullying work, including a 1990’s cross-country tour of theatre and song entitled “A Step Ahead.” Deeply affected as an African American in Western Canada, at a time when knowledge about black history was so limited, he created and financed the program at hundreds of schools.

In what was to be his final public performance – February 2014, in Victoria’s Government House – he was ushered in by a piper and introduced by the Lieutenant Governor to sing in celebration of Black History Month.

Leon Bibb is survived by his partner Christine Anton, his two daughters Dorie and Amy, son Eric, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola Island-based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

EVENT: A Celebration of Leon Bibb’s life will be staged at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage at 2PM January 10, 2016. Doors open at 1:30PM.

Taking back the country – with song

Bill Henderson plays on…

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Photo by May Henderson.
Photo by May Henderson.

• Bill Henderson has placed his fingers on Canada’s pulse, felt the heartbeat and found its voice. With his song, Take Back This Land, which he co-wrote with his wife May, he has struck a deep, but somewhat dormant, nerve and a chord that runs coast to coast.

As we ramp up to one of the longest, costliest, most complicated and significant elections in our country’s history, the song has gone viral. It is also being cited as the “2015 election anthem,” “earworm” and “rallying cry to vote.” Listen at https://youtu.be/S5sgOWXsiLU

Speaking with Common Ground about the song’s inspiration and evolution, he explained, “I feel like Canada wrote it and it belongs to the country… I kept hearing people say, ‘We’ve got to take back this country.’ It’s in the air, everywhere. Canadians want their democracy back, freedom of speech, learning to work together, our positive role in the world – the heart and soul of this country that’s been dismantled in a decade of radical conservatism.

“The melody began to emerge and fall into place over a few months. May also understood what the song was trying to be and kept it from becoming too aggressive. I didn’t want to write yet another angry song and point fingers, but instead wanted to wake people up, to remember what this country was and can be again, something to sing with pride, be comfortable with, no matter who they may be voting for. And that’s the key message: vote! It’s our opportunity to ‘take back this county’ We can do it.”

He also shared with Common Ground some thoughts expressed by a couple of well-known fellow Salt Spring Island residents. Veteran singer-songwriter Valdy said, “Bad governments are elected by people who don’t vote.” And his MP, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, noted, “Democracy is too important to be left to the politicians.”

Henderson is front-man and principal songwriter for the band Chilliwack, who were according to Rolling Stone, “at their best, the finest Canadian rock band…” The group created some of the most enduring songs of the 70s and early 80s and released 11 albums – four went platinum – and 19 Canadian singles. See www.gonegonegone.com He has also earned music awards, too numerous to list here.

“Over the years I’ve learned how to find and write hooks and a catchy hit song and I wanted to use my chops to help further a worthwhile cause, raising awareness that we have to re-learn how to work together, especially in the House of Commons,” Henderson notes.

The day after Stephen Harper dropped the election writ, Henderson responded by “leaking” a live, acoustic version of the song on YouTube. “I hope it goes far and wide and buskers and rock stars play the song and toddlers and grandparents sing it and dance it,” he wrote, encouraging everyone to “Sing it out!!!”

He then got Chilliwack together with legendary producer Bob Rock in Bryan Adam’s studio and enlisted his daughters and granddaughter – Saffron, Camille and Ruby – to sing backup, producing the version viewed by thousands. The band performed it live for 100,000+ fired-up people at a Vancouver Fireworks show and now includes it in tours across the country. “I don’t say much to introduce it and then watch as the audience looks around reluctantly before deciding the song is something they can really get into and get behind, before joining in. It’s working.”

When he was appointed as Member of the Order of Canada – our highest civilian honour – earlier this year, Henderson said it was “overwhelming.” And the response from people who helped him earn the prestigious award made him “laugh and cry.” It also made him pause and reflect on our country’s long-standing, but endangered, values and what it really means to be Canadian. The O.C. was awarded, not only for his outstanding musical achievement, but also for his dedication to community and service to the nation, recognition of his contribution to songwriting as well as his work advocating copyright. Henderson has served as president of the Songwriters Association of Canada (SOCAN) and director of the Canadian Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS).

“I’ve spent many hours travelling back and forth to Ottawa, meeting with cabinet ministers, MPs and civil servants and representatives of the music industry. I came to the conclusion that authorship – like so many other things – is a human right,” Henderson says.

By definition, Take Back This Land is grassroots, being broadcast by social media. Henderson has also produced a fully mastered audio version available for streaming and download at www.chilliwack.bandcamp.com He is teaching the song to the likes of the Raging Grannies and buskers and working with a dance/synth/hip-hop producer on a remix and a country artist on yet another version. Musicians from across Canada are recording their versions of the song to share, to be edited into a cross-country compilation.

All in all, Take Back This Land and myriad other songs in many music genres are providing healthy colour and creativity to the election. Complete lyrics and chords are posted at www.commonground.ca


 

Harper faces the music

Steven Harper has been very good to Canadian music and songwriting. It wasn’t deliberate although the PM is well aware and uses the power of music to manipulate very effectively. During the culture war he sparked during the 2008 election, he rationalized the $45-million in funding cuts to the arts by saying, “Ordinary people don’t care about funding the arts.” He is wrong and the proof is in the pudding; an inestimable number of citizens are currently sharing a whole lot of homemade, anti-Harper compositions on social media. And they keep pouring in.

One song that has made a big splash in corporate media, with waves that continue to ripple across Canada, is Harperman, written by Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner, who is also a well-known Ottawa folksinger. A public servant for 19 years, Turner was placed on leave – 30 days away from retirement – pending an ethics investigation for the song. As a result, Harperman trended on Twitter and is attracting tens of thousands of plays on YouTube, with more versions being posted and a sing-along planned for a massive anti-Harper rally on Parliament Hill on September 17. The chorus ends with “Harperman, it’s time for you to go.” See http://harperman.ca

The Winnipeg chapter of the Council of Canadians listed the top five anti-Harper compositions, stating, “Famous for butchering Beatles tunes and destroying Canada, Stephen Harper has also inspired many others to make music. From prorogations to omnibus bills, this Prime Minister’s list of wrongdoings has been a vast pit of inspiration for creative Canadians. As Harper’s popularity drops, his critics are ramping up the revolt leading to the next federal election.” And that’s just the tip of one rare iceberg that’s growing as fast as most are melting. (See canadianswinnipeg.org Click on Blog and type in Stephen Harper Protest Songs in the search bar.)

On the B-side is the PM’s own music complete with video. (Go to www.aux.tv Click on the search icon on the top right. Type in Rock Covers Stephen Harper Has Ruined.)

The PM garnered significant positive coverage by covering With a Little Help From My Friends alongside famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and serenading his caucus and corporate media reporters, including his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. Carleton University lecturer John Higney explored our PM’s use of music in his paper, Mixing Pop and Politics: Stephen Harper’s Musical Amateurism as Personal Branding. Central to the appeal is what Higney calls a “feigned amateurism,” obscuring the years of practice and patience for a public performance. “What you want to do is show you can demonstrate your knowledge – but don’t overdo it. It speaks to the idea of humility.” Higney explains how Harper short-circuits cynicism with emotion; there’s nothing like a well-timed sing-along to manipulate voters when their guards are down. “There’s something spectacular about it because politicians are often seen as somewhat stolid,” Higney adds. “Music is a powerful emotional shorthand that gives him [Harper] the opportunity to present a kind of interior life, something of a spectacle, like a cat standing on its hind legs.”

That aptly describes the ever-controlling Harper. Everything is strategy. But unwittingly, like Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Jones” or John Lennon’s “Nowhere Man,” Steve doesn’t really get it while ‘ordinary people’ delight in the inspired, healthy, anti-Harper musical legacy.

brucemason@shaw.ca