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.


Sounds of hope and active community

Leah and Chloe Smith from Rising Appalachia

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Leah and Chloe Smith from Rising Appalachia
Leah and Chloe Smith from Rising Appalachia. Look for them at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and at Atmosphere Gathering in Cumberland, BC.

• One of the most interesting, promising quotes I’ve been unable to shake this year is from Leah and Chloe Smith, two 20-something sisters who front Rising Appalachia. “We are building community and tackling social injustice through melody – making the stage reach out with octopus arms to gather a great family.”

Blending and brandishing the power of pure harmony in an eclectic mix of hip hop, soul, world-infused folk and more, they’re sharing the message of the urgent need for massive change. Their mission, as they note, is “to help the environment, change the ‘mal-distribution’ of wealth and to simply make the world better.”

Rising Appalachia has toured Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, the Indian subcontinent and the US while fiercely maintaining their autonomy and independence; they create, self-manage, record, produce and direct their own work.

Rising Appalachia touches down at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 17-19) and at Atmosphere Gathering in Cumberland in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island (August 14-16). See www.atmospheregathering.com

It isn’t likely Rising Appalachia will want to leave Cumberland, the epitome of their kind of place, given the folks who have chosen gather there. It’s a funky, growing village of assorted good ol’ boys, creative entrepreneurs, herbalists, mountain bikers and young families. Like many of the village’s residents, Rising Appalachia was raised on local folk, rock and timeless lullabies, nurtured and inspired by travel and ideas – now blossoming and bearing fruit – in the international community.

Also in the lineup – handpicked to create an “exciting, multi-sensory extravaganza” –are Nahko and Medicine for the People, David Starfire, the Fort Knox Five, Kaminanda, Plantrae and Humans, alongside an impressive roster of last year’s favourites.

“The lineup reflects our commitment to nurturing local talent alongside the presentation of world-class acts,” says Vig Schulman of Cumberland Village Works, which is putting on the event with Little Island Productions. “We’ll be creating an incredibly unique and vibrant energy.” Other diverse, family-friendly attractions include local organic food, yoga, workshops, camping and a nearby glacier-fed lake.

Sound good? Well, yet another festival that caught our attention is the aptly named Blessed Coast Ceremonial Celebration in Squamish, BC (August 21 -24). This event features three days of live music, again mixed with local organic food, yoga, workshops and camping. Organizers say the event is “born from a seed of intention to nurture the emergent culture of our evolving community ecosystem [and to] showcase local art, teachings, talent, food and goods to deepen our relationship to the land, working with indigenous elders and wisdom-keepers to co-create a ceremonial space for human evolution.”

Also offered is a full schedule of yoga and workshops with a local focus, an optional locally-sourced, organic meal plan, an Open-Source Marketplace and a team of facilitators to lead children through an optional co-creative journey over the length of the festival. Visit www.blessedcoast.ca

Our Earth and her inhabitants are at a tipping point and a turning point. We invite you to witness, celebrate and participate in the events showcased in this article. We’ll have more next month.

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

The ultimate musical summer

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

It’s here. Let’s get started; www.bcmusicianmag.com is your link to the 2015 Ultimate Summer Festival Guide. This amazing, free resource connects you to 348 music and arts festivals and events all over BC, with lots in Alberta and Washington and some in Manitoba, Yukon and NWT. You’ll find street fests, art walks, concerts in parks, multi-venue five-day camp-outs, stages in barns, backyards and outdoor amphitheatres. Offerings include un-crowded to jam-packed and slick to impromptu.

It’s searchable by date, festival name or region. You will find, for example – right here, right now – the next festival nearest you. And for musicians, as well as music fans, there are venues you can select and conduct your very own tour. The site also points you to a location where you can pick up a take-anywhere, flippable, functional hard-copy of the seventh edition, with a map in the middle.

The 2015 Ultimate Summer Festival Guide is a labour of love and work in progress from the folks at BC Musician magazine, self described as “a bunch of music lovers who also love the smell of ink on paper…” and who “play and work in the digital world and really appreciate the opportunity to sit back, unplug, kick back and get away from the screen from time to time.” Thinking there might be others out there like them, they ask the silly question, “Are you one?”

Leanne Nash is the publisher, Sarah Fahey the “editor/everything else.” Finishing her third year at the helm of the ambitious undertaking, Fahey says, “We are building the big picture; there is ebb and flow, a life and a death to the number of festivals each year. A number either die out or more likely morph into another creative project and each year brand new pups arrive. This guide encompasses new to seasoned 30 and 40-year-strong festivals.” Fahey notes some new trends and additions, including the growing number of multi-themed festivals, film and long-board festivals, record fairs and food fests, particularly for garlic and especially at harvest time.

Look for bees on the cover. And who doesn’t love to see bees, humming their endangered way through all the bad news these days, never mind all the nectar on the inside pages? Take a tip from the honeybee, which can fly at a speed of 15 mph, and stay close to home.

Cover artwork by Milan Basic was inspired by a mural the artist created at ArtsWells 2014, which doubled as a sound buffer and amplified the acoustics on the outdoor stage at the end of the elementary school field. The Artswells Festival of All Things Art: Expect the Unexpected! in Wells, BC and nearby Barkerville (July 31-August 3) features 300 artists and performers on a dozen stages, music alongside visual art, theatre film, literary and interdisciplinary events-, lots of workshops and kid’s activities. (See the lineup at www.artswells.com)

The 1930s mining town and 1860s Gold Rush community are the actual festival sites and events are hosted in historic buildings as well as on the streets. Wells (Pop. 200-250) grows 10-fold for the four days.

“It started 10 years ago with a few people on lawn chairs,” recalls founder Julie Fowler, executive director of Island Mountain Arts, the year-round organization responsible for the event, reputed to be BC’s largest and best new indie arts festival.

“We strive for diversity and feature emerging talent; it took a few years for the ticket audience to outnumber the artists. Nearby natural attractions and the residents themselves are part of the experience,” she adds, noting that many people, including artists, return to ArtsWells every year.

Over two decades, the Vancouver Island MusicFest (July 10-12) has grown into a major component of the culture and economy of the Comox Valley. Close proximity to an airport helps make appearances of the likes of Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, Buddy Guy, Steeleye Span and Graham Nash, possible. But it is more than 1,000 keen volunteers that keep folks coming back; there are crews responsible for ambiance and performer massages as well as increasingly important Green initiatives, healthy food and Kid’s Zones.

The major role of festivals in building communities was recognized last month in BC’s largest city when UBC conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws – honoris causa – on Gary Cristall, co-founder of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 17-19) and artistic director for its first 17 years.

Stepping into the big Birkenstocks of the good doctor, since 2008, Linda Tanaka has put her stamp on one of the best festivals in the world by programming some of the world’s best music, performed in constant orbit on myriad stages. In an interview with the VFMF artistic director, she put her finger on the pulse of festivals in our region, with just one word: “discovery.”

“After travelling to places such as Spain and Australia and talking to organizers, audiences and musicians for a year, I’m excited as we put final touches to workshops, to emphasize diversity and encourage spontaneity,” she reported.

One of the best features of the 2015 festival season is the rise of websites to provide pre-event background, right down to video. It’s highly entertaining and informative to wander www.thefestival.bc.ca and discover what’s in store at Jericho this year. While online, consider taking out a subscription to BC Musician magazine. “Your support would be huge for us. Really, really huge,” magazine contributors say. Same for festivals.

Discover more music – keep it alive and live.

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


Wendy Atkinson digs deep

TRACKS by Bob Turner

It’s been said that what one considers to be “good” music is music that speaks to one’s set of biases drawn from one’s personal history and relationship with music and aesthetics, all of which shapes a response to – and an evaluation of – a specific work. The world of ‘new’ or ‘experimental’ music can be challenging – not only for composers and musicians, but also for the listener who must work towards actually hearing and not just listening to the music. There is much that tweaks and speaks to my particular set of biases when contemplating this third release by the multifaceted bassist/composer, Wendy Atkinson.


The Last Fret, currently making the rounds on the “airwaves,” is a 15-track (in digital+CD format) album conceived, produced and executed by Atkinson with minimal reliance on digital signal processing. Her instrument of choice, whether electric or acoustic, provides solid ground for her multi-track bass-sound-sourced compositions. It is rather rare to so successfully place at “centre stage” an instrument usually relegated to a supporting role.

A skilled infusion of field recordings, found sound and spoken-word, together with electronic bow and toy piano experimentation, gives layered texture to her work. This instinctive artist appears to have delved deeply into the self to mine components for her unique collages of ambient soundscapes.

It is interesting to note that Atkinson’s relationship with music is rooted in folk music dating back to early childhood days starring her ukulele-playing mother singing the popular folk songs of the 1960s with her daughters. Memories of that era are recounted on Ukulele Shock, as is the shock-moment when Atkinson learned it was not her mother who wrote Blowin’ in the Wind.

In the multi-track piece Clips, Atkinson devised bass loops as bed-tracks for her bass solo and also attached paper clips directly to the bass strings so as to transform her instrument into a prepared bass. Musically speaking, I found Something Overheard to be a wistful and engaging linear composition that embraces sounds emanating from a child’s electronic toy keyboard, a found-treasure from a local thrift shop that also makes an appearance in 16 Hours of Daylight.

Three compositions on the album feature guitarist David Lester, her frequent collaborator who also filmed the video of Atkinson’s Hebron Birds. The subdued voice of the composer, contrasted with the vocal expressions of animated and spirited young girls, is embedded in such a way as to elegantly enhance the tone of the bass-based composition.

The work is a thoughtful musing on the contradictions of life in occupied West Bank, a juxtaposition of a spontaneous experience of being surrounded by innocent, inquisitive children in a Hebron street that is just like the streets “where right-wing extremists throw rocks at Palestinian children on their way to school.”

I look forward to the next project envisioned by the accomplished Ms. Atkinson.

Highly recommended.