Feature

“Folk Songs of Canada Now” tweaks Fowke

Folk Songs of Canada Now is a free compilation album available exclusively for download online.

The project’s creator, Henry Adam Svec, has created a compilation of 22 songs performed by some of the best young voices in the modern Canadian music scene. These aren’t new songs — all of them were previously collected by the acclaimed Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke. Fowke, who died in 1996, travelled across Canada recording and then sharing traditional Canadian folk songs. Svec refers to her work as a “roadmap”.

It’s possible to read that much into the project, download, listen to it, and enjoy it. It’s also possible to go a little deeper into the fact vs. fiction rabbit hole with Svec, who, through loquacious liner notes leads us to look deeper into the story of the compilation.

Svec is a performance artist, something that can’t be forgotten in understanding the origins and intentions of this project. In his written “liner” notes, Svec makes reference to the work of late folklorist Staunton R. Livingston (whose “work” has been influential on Svec’s early projects). Livingston is Marxist, controversial and entirely fictional.

The feeling of field recordings is maintained — in some songs, because of the rough sound quality, and in others because of the variation between recording techniques.  A baby can be heard babbling in the background of an electrofied, incomplete version of “Poor Little Girls of Ontario,” while prolific producer Andy Magoffin’s modernized version (Fowke’s version didn’t include references to iPhones, methinks) of “Maiden” has studio-quality sound.

Though the song titles may be familiar, they’re not identical replicas of Fowke’s collections. They’ve changed in the meantime, in the voices of those who are performing, and in the technology used both in the recording and in the playing. Some stick fairly close to the older recording, some maintain only the same title — entirely new words and music.

In some cases, the themes are updated — Tara Beagan and Svec’s “Little Indian Maid” finally gives the whiteman his comeuppance, while a lumber camp song is redirected to modern urban artsy types in Laura Barrett’s song, but the advice to “Save Your Money While You’re Young” – and the drink that thwarts the effort, remain.

The songwriting is credited to each singer who performs the song for this project.

This is the real kernel of interest in this project: how the concept of “folk” music has changed since Fowke’s time. Instead of the old-timey ideal that Fowke and others were hurrying to collect and commemorate — long held songs being shared person-to-person in rural communities — folk music in Canada has morphed. Since Gordon Lightfoot moved away from performing traditionals, and began writing and exclusively performing his own material, the “folk singer” in common parlance has essentially been a singer-songwriter.

The music on Folk Songs of Canada Now is interesting and listenable. The more ragged-sounding recordings aren’t going to make it to regular listening playlists, but I recommend downloading the list to a portable player, and taking it for a long walk.

Steph Yates’ beautiful soprano over soft banjo is a real standout track. It’s also the closest replication of Fowke’s recording.

The collection features fantastic hand-drawn cover art by Kate Beaton (including the image above).

Folk Songs of Canada, as well as Henry Adam Svec’s field notes and drawings, will be exhibited at Montreal’s Eastern Bloc for New Media & Interdisciplinary Art from November 14-21.

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4 comments

  1. avatar
    Patrick Hutchinson 2 November, 2011 at 12:20

    Interesting! I look forward to checking this out, via download and/or by checking out the exhibit in Montreal soon. Being a folk player/singer who performs more traditional material than self-composed, my paperback of Edith Fowke’s collection still comes down from the shelf pretty often.
    “Since Gordon Lightfoot moved away from performing traditionals, and began writing and exclusively performing his own material, the “folk singer” in common parlance has essentially been a singer-songwriter.” Yup, ain’t that a can-o-worms/Pandora’s Box/mixed blessing!

  2. avatar
    Jim Yates 3 November, 2011 at 12:22

    Thanks for that Meaghan. I’m glad you liked Steph’s contribution. I’ve been a fan of hers since I first heard her play drums at about three years old.
    I see that Stephen Yates has been tagged. Steph is short for Stephanie, not Stephen.

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