Folk Songs of Canada Now

Explicatory Notes

by Henry Adam Svec


The following notes are not consistently “folkloristic,” because this has not been my intention. The Folk as I have encountered it needs both plain matter-of-factness and specialist languages; it requires a complex mixture of the two. Although only a novice, I have tried to walk this difficult line.


As well, you’ll notice that not every field recording included in Folk Songs of Canada Now has been discussed in these explicatory notes. These omissions are symbolic. The Folk is capable, simultaneously, of richly complex thoughts/analysis and their opposite, which is silence. Occasionally the Folk just sits and enjoys, after a long day of work, the movements in a piece of music. This custom is represented by the breaks below. 


Come, You Women

“Come, You Women” is an invitation. Harmonic and lyrical parallels to the ancient ballad “The Lady Gay” are evident, but Andrew Penner’s articulation of this folk song also addresses modern issues. “I pray you tell no tales on me,” he sings, reminding us that the contemporary Folk can be reluctant to divulge itself.


However, even though the act of telling tales retains for the Folk a kind of tele-present capability to damage the referent (why else would one pray that no tales be told?), the Folk is simultaneously aware of the necessity of this long tradition. Tales can do violence to that about which they are telling, but we must go on with them.


I caught this song from Andrew Penner in Parkdale, Ontario.


Nellie Coming Home from the Wake

This is a strong portrayal of “Nellie,” whose reputation throughout the history of the development of Canadian folklore has varied greatly. We glimpse here pure existence, a way of breaking beyond taboos and the status quo, which in a general sense might inspire all kinds of actions.


Mathias Kom was recorded by the ocean in St. John’s, Newfoundland.


Poor Little Girls of Ontario

There is something undeniably organic about the sound of a human child. Why else would Pete Seeger have begun the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (the same event that Bob Dylan is said to have contaminated with his distorted electronics) with the recorded sound of a baby crying?


The folksinger Chris Eaton put this naturally sympathetic pull into effect – supplemented by a dance of harmonica and diegetic drumbeats – in the raw performance that I captured from him in Toronto, Ontario.



This song is interesting for a few reasons. Most importantly, it is worth noticing its difference, in terms of instrumentation and production, from the other songs presented here. This rendition of “Maiden” was made in a professional studio.


Folklore has traditionally been collected in the field. On the other hand, the recording studio has been conceived as the opposite of the field. The former is where alienating, mass culture is produced (like on an assembly line), and the latter is where organic and natural, beautiful folk music, which brings people together and negates alienation, is found. And yet, there is not a limit to that which the Folk can make and do.


“Maiden” is a recording of Andy Magoffin made by Andy Magoffin himself in his famous House of Miracles Studio in London, Ontario. I mostly just observed and then asked him for a CD-R.  


Maggie Howie
What about the speed or transportation of the Folk? How does the Folk transmit itself both towards the future and across the arteries and byways of its territories?


The Folk holds sway – and it often takes the bus, one of which can be heard here expelling hydraulic tensions in London, Ontario, where I recorded Olenka and Sara with the help of a young engineer named Andrew James. (My own machine was in a temporarily dysfunctional state at the time of recording.)


Little Indian Maid

Like Mathias Kom’s take on “Nellie,” Tara Beagan’s version of “Little Indian Maid” is purely political. A murder ballad, a cowboy song about cowboy desires and their negation, this work is a virtual history of a mode of authenticity, which denotes a way of being that is true.


An acclaimed playwright, Beagan wished to cast another in the role of singer, which I was happy to try on (also, she couldn’t quite remember the tune, so I was forced to hypothesize one.) The GTA proved indeed to be full of folk resources.


I recorded myself in a basement in Trois Pistoles, Quebec.   


Sally Go Round the Sun

This performance of “Sally” sounds improvised and instantaneous, but in fact I explored many hidden plateaus in London, Ontario, with Bryan Pole, in search of the perfect recording situation. We did a take by the Thames River, for instance, as the dusk announced itself and as glowing bugs revealed their strange capabilities.


And yet, nature can be a problem; seagulls and merrymaking passersby do not always recognize the damage they can do to a documentation of air molecules moving for the purpose of plugging into humanity (i.e. folk music).


In the end, Bryan Pole’s apartment was noisy enough to give us a proper sense of the field.


Kelly the Pirate

As I worked away at the field recordings that constitute Folk Songs of Canada Now, I realized that the western region of Canada should be represented in some way (I live in London and had worked primarily in Ontario). Of course, it doesn’t make a difference where one collects Folk (cf. Livingston), but I thought it would be a nice gesture. Like the railroad, I wished to thrust myself across our landscape towards the last spike; I wished to bind our nation’s fragments together in Folk for the sake of the older generations. But time and money did not permit me to collect west of Thunder Bay, and so I turned to Kijiji.


Ajay Mehra of Vancouver proved to be a reservoir. He emailed me several songs, but I found his version of “Kelly the Pirate” to be most moving, in the end, for it is about the necessity of conflict within even the most perfect of utopias.


July 4

Animals are Folk too. Of course, as Big Bill Broonzy has famously said, “All songs are folk songs. I ain’t never heard a horse sing one.” And yet, Broonzy neglects the potent and limit-dissolving powers of folkloristic Pentecost (cf. Haraway).


I got this song by a river in Peterborough, Ontario, from Michael Duguay. Recording was done with a laptop, which seemed to be exactly the kind of net that this sweetly somber song required.


Down By Your Shady Harbour

It is worth pointing out the way in which this modern permutation of “Down By Your Shady Harbour” engages with what some anthropologists have called “sympathetic magic,” a way of thinking possessed by the Folk (see Fraser; Taussig). For the Folk, distinct objects and entities are able to maintain a kind of causal relationship simply by virtue of having once been in contact. Thus the Folk can see past things as they currently exist, which is an ability worth celebrating. 


For the purpose of documentation, I sang this song at the House of Miracles Studios in London, Ontario. But I first collected it from a busker in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, whose name I did not procure. It was raining when I recorded the man in the Maritimes, and luckily it also began to rain when I sang the song in London, which made for just about a perfect copy. 


The Hobo’s Grave

This song is only superficially about death; it is really about cartography and private property. “There’s an unmarked grave,” Ron Leary sings, a grave not tainted by the commodity form or by the logic of exchange. Would that we could all read the map on which this grave is found.


We might read the song Ron Leary voices as a religious text. (“Do not worry about exploitation on earth, for in heaven you will be free.”) And yet, this is a folk song about the here and now, for there are graves all around us, including the yet merely virtual ones in which we will one day decompose.


But what is the difference between a capitalist living in a mountaintop chateau and a capitalist lying in her grave? Leary’s juxtaposition of death and alienation urges us to ask this question. And yet, as the song itself seems to answer, there are perhaps more striking differences in the world, for as Marx himself puts it, the bourgeoisie is an undead vampire that preys on the blood of humanity.


I recorded Ron Leary in Toronto, where he works as a musician and in construction (and you can even hear a circular saw on this recording).


Is the Life of a Man Any More Than the Leaves?

A fundamental question: Is the life of a man any more than the leaves? Philosophers, computer scientists, physicists, and Canadian poets have together spent reams of paper trying to solve this problem – rows of books as long as the intestines of the Folk. But which field has given the most useful answer?


I found Wax Mannequin in Hamilton, Ontario. Andrew Sisk too, who I discovered in Montreal, has passed on to us a regional variation. 


Old Time Mountain Dew

To paraphrase the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the point of philosophy is to be able to get drunk from a glass of water. And yet, the Folk too drinks; and it too jumps and oscillates and picks up speed over its own rhizomatic nomadologies. It too does philosophy.


I found this version of “Old Time Mountain Dew” in Sarnia, Ontario. A man sang it to me by the water as he looked over to the United States. It was hard to tell if he wanted to go there or if he had just returned, because the Folk disregards boundaries.


I recorded myself singing the song near Summerside, Prince Edward Island.


How We Got Back to the Woods This Year

“How We Got Up To The Woods,” as Edith Fulton Fowke points out in her Folk Songs of Canada, “tells how the shantyboys made their way into the lumbercamps back in the 1880s before a railway was built in the region.” So this folksong, when Fowke encountered it, still struck straight to the truth of modern work under capitalism. The shantyboys were going up to the woods, some maybe for the first time, to toil for wages.


The variation of the song I captured from Ottawa’s folksinger Andrew Vincent is still about work, but work has changed since the 1960s. Andrew Vincent’s melancholic voice charts a different kind of woods-ward journey – one away from the service industry and away from post-Fordist precariousness. “Hey man, I’ve got an idea,” Andrew Vincent laments, performing the longing of all to become Folk. Yet, this is not a romantic lament, for “You can bring the drums” can refer to many kinds of commands and actions.


I recorded Andrew Vincent near Ottawa, Ontario.

All Cats Are Grey in the Dark

Here we get a spin on a centuries-old saying: “All cats are grey in the dark.” But is the Folk here talking about sex workers, as was Benjamin Franklin? Perhaps the Folk’s articulation of this aphorism is more related to the necessary inadequacy of metaphors as translators of our experiences and desires?


It is difficult to say. The old folk song “All Cats Are Grey in the Dark,” as it exists when I found it in Tillsonburg, Ontario, leaves such questions open and invites us only to enjoy in its language and melody.


Cruickshee Lawn

The Folk can tell its story, and I have been helping us, here, to understand it. But what is the tone of the Folk? How can we describe the sonic environment within which it thrives? As I mentioned in “Introductory Notes,” the songs of the Folk can only exist locally – in their singular particularity. And yet, must there not also be some commonalities? An essence? 


My field recording of “Cruickshee Lawn” captures the grain of the voice of the Folk, a significant component of which is the atmosphere within which it screams and sings. Overtly and self-reflexively in a room, El Ron Maltan here lets us in on a searing and sincere attempt to clutch at the roots of Folk through plaintive utterances.


I recorded El Ron Maltan in Sackville, New Brunswick, in the Sackville Music Hall. WL Altman accompanied him by standing on the opposite side of the massive theatre and playing distorted guitar directly at him (at us both). 


The Cold Black River Stream

During the great American and Canadian folk revivals of the 1950s and 1960s, much time was spent debating the accents of the folk singers. Should one sing in one’s own voice, or should one try to recreate the vocal timbres and styles of enunciation of the people from whom a given song has emerged? Pete Seeger sang in an unapologetically educated voice, for instance, whereas chameleon-like Bob Dylan put on voices as if he was putting on socks, a new pair for each song.


Yet, this debate is no longer relevant, and Steph Yates’s take on “The Cold Black River Stream” demonstrates why this is so. The Folk doesn’t think about the legitimacy of its voice. It only sings; it sings because it’s pleasurable to do so, and because the act binds us together. The Folk sings because that’s what we can do.


Works Cited


Fowke, Edith Fulton. Folk Songs of Canada. Waterloo: Waterloo Music
    Co, 1954.


Fraser, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. New York: Macmillan,


Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of
. London: Free Association Books, 1991.


Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Ben
    Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1976.


Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the
. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Art by Kate Beaton
Label Fantastic! Ontario Arts Council


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