Sympathetic Resonances: The Al Purdy Songbook and Doug Paisley’s Starter Home
From Dante Alighieri to William Carlos Williams, any time that the casual vernacular of a country’s people has invaded its national poetic tradition under the banner of a singular revolutionary and relevant artist, a liberation of language takes place, the floodgates open, and leagues of poets rise up singing. For Canada, that poet, in English, was Al Purdy.
A companionable populist, who shambled into the circumscribed academic cloister of Canadian letters in the early sixties with a stubby beer bottle and two decades of bad published poetry behind him, Purdy managed to re-attenuate the timbre of the nation’s versifiers to the words from the streets, producing a couple dozen volumes of acclaimed work, scooping two Governor General’s awards, and leaving behind a statue honouring him in Queen’s Park, along with an international myriad of fans and supporters.
The end of last year saw the culmination of the enthusiasm of a team of converging curatorial forces from the fields of journalism, literature and music who have been conspiring for years to release The Al Purdy Songbook, out now on Borealis Records, an information package of prime significance to Canadian literature, music, and history.
Along with a DVD, featuring abundant archival footage and Brian Johnson’s recent doc “Al Purdy Was Here,” the music on the enclosed CD bears wonderful witness to Purdy’s enduring influence. The album contains tributes and transformations, and two readings of his work from absent friends Gord Downie and Leonard Cohen. The original song contributions are alloyed formulations by like-minded prospectors from the mine shafts of prosody originally excavated by Purdy and his crew, including Atwood, Ondaatje and Layton. Besides new and fascinating work from Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer and Greg Keelor, there is a tune from Doug Paisley called Transient, which imagines Purdy’s extensive travels within Canada as an exploration that he continues in spirit, inhabiting his proxy within new artists after 20 years absent from his corporeal life.
Roots Music Canada was fortunate enough to catch up with Doug as he was launching into a series of promotional tours for his new disc, Starter Home, which is also very much set to the raconteurial tone of Al Purdy’s songbook:
P: Congratulations on being part of this Al Purdy project. It’s really something.
D: Yeah, I could tell from the first phone call that it was going to be an interesting, rewarding thing to be a part of.
P: Did the first phone call come from Brian Johnson?
D: It DID, yeah. It’s a while ago now. They did a lot of work at every stage to get this album out, and I’m so glad they did. You’d think it would be a no-brainer with that line-up of talent, but such is the industry, broadly speaking, these days that it was a hard thing to pull together. But I’m glad they stuck with it because it is a beautiful collection.
P: It’s a very impressive project too, because there’s so much information contained in the package
D: And, you know, my own tune was a fair amount of work, but probably small compared to some others, so when you factor all that in, these sorts of collaborations or compilations, yeah, it’s a tremendous amount of effort and all around a very interesting subject and, you know, kind of a cause in a way, keeping not just Al Purdy’s own work but sort of the spirit of how, I think, he engaged with Canadian arts and particularly poetry.
P: What was the personal connection that drew you into the project?
D: Oh, I saw him read at the Red Dog Tavern in Peterborough. ‘Don’t know if you’ve ever been there?
P: Yup, I have.
D: It was the last place I expected ever to attend a poetry reading.
P: He was very convivial and very eager just to meet people and talk deep things.
D: Yeah. In fact, somehow my first impression was that was more of him off-stage than on-stage (chuckles). I mean, his delivery was memorable on-stage. He then sort of plowed through it, but then when he was on the floor he was just so friendly and fun.
P: And there’re so many other poets associated with him that are, you know, actually a part of this project because you can’t avoid running into them in the film and in the references that are made to them. It’s like there was a whole Canadian poetry scene at that time that was sort of analogous to our musical scene nowadays.
D: Yeah, and I guess in a way he was, certainly not the only one or necessarily central, but he was definitely some sort of a hub, right? And I’m sure that when someone like that is gone, then people are probably waiting for opportunities to re-emerge and re-connect, particularly around him
P: He was always telling stories, while he was reading, about some of these other poets, because they said some unique thing, or, like, Margaret Atwood was sitting on his lap and confided this or that, and he’d just bring it out and talk about it.
D: Yeah, the song that I contributed came from his autobiography and his prose writing. It took me a long time to get to it, but his autobiography, Splinter in the Heart, and then in some of his collected writings, there’s one called No Other Country, and yeah, the storytelling is just as remarkable and sort of characteristic of what you get from his poetry; he was a fascinating character.
P: And the gorgeous booklet and film that come with the CD perpetuates his allusive way of combining his life with the poetry, as if he made his whole life into one creative act. I notice that there is no such booklet, or even notes, to provide any sort of context inside your new album, Starter Home.
D: Only credits; no lyrics.
P: That’s a bit unusual these days.
D: Some people have sent me back transcriptions, and there’re some interesting interpretations out there (chuckles). Sometimes you have to just welcome them, actually.
P: So you are out touring supporting the record?
D: I just came back. I was in the States for two weeks.
P: How are things in the States?
D: You know, it’s actually really good to go down there. If you are worried about how the States has changed, because there certainly are things to worry about, so not to diminish those, but I think when you are just getting the news through media outlets, you are losing a personal connection. It was very nice to just see all the nice, interesting people down there and realize that so many of the good things are unchanged. And again, that’s not to say there aren’t things going on that we should all be aware of and concerned about, but in terms of the way in which I encounter it, which is music, in the venues and record shops where I spend most of my free time, it’s alive and well and recognizable in spite of some of the other developments
P: But the touchdown points in your song-writing largely come from Canadian attitudes, right? I’m thinking in terms of your community and your personal life. Or are you inventing things? I’m looking for a fiction/non-fiction balance here. Is that a fair question?
D: Yeah, of course it’s a fair question. I think I probably thought I was going to be a music collector, whatever that would be, as a career, before I ever considered being a musician. So I’ve been buying records in Toronto since I was, you know, in junior high.
P: We suffer from the same affliction.
D: Yeah, we could probably do a whole show about record stores that have closed, but in that respect, I think I come from an inspiration which is way outside of my own reality and so, in that way, fiction. But then I think a lot of my early influences, or at least how I responded to music when I was young, was very emotional. When I was very young, like Grade 5 and 6, I was a huge fan of John Lennon, for instance, who I think was a very emotional, personal writer. So I think in that respect, that influenced how I understood how you can or should make a song. I don’t know if it’s fiction or non-fiction, but I certainly draw on my own feelings, and the situations that create them, so hopefully, at best, it’s a balance of the two. But I’m certainly not some sort of personal historian of my own love lives or my own experiences.
P: No, no. And we all appreciate that! (chuckles)
D: That would be excruciating! (chuckles)
P: We got quite a few of those songwriters already. You have a beautiful guitar style. Did you pull that out of your own consciousness, or did you emulate someone when you were coming up?
D: Thank you. Well, I did a lot of “off the CD,” pre-internet learning from Tony Rice. He had a huge effect. That’s not to say I’ve become a Tony Rice scholar. I mean, I sort of took what my mechanical faculties could adapt from him … and also Norman Blake. I did actually play a lot of bluegrass in Toronto at the Cameron House and the Tranzac and places like that when I was starting out, and it gave me more than enough guitar to be a “folk player” (chuckles). I mean, not to over-state it, but just to say there’s a lot of demand for precision and speed and clarity and stuff, and I’m not a great student of anything, so I think I just went with it, and it more than suits me for accompanying myself, you know?
P: Did you do any bluegrass recordings early on?
D: Oh yeah, on quite a small scale. We used to have a band. A friend of mine, Chuck Erlichman, and I had a show called Stanley Brothers: A Loving Tribute, which was just that. We did a whole bunch of Stanley Brothers songs, just the two of us and duo harmonies. I actually did a recording, sort of in the middle of the albums that I’ve made. I made it over at The Woodshed, the Blue Rodeo Studio over in the east end here, and that was with mandolin, fiddle and double bass and so on, so it’s always close to me, and I still listen to a lot of it. After being down in the States, as we were saying, just this week, I came back with a lot of bluegrass records. It’s still very close to my heart.
P: You’re doing a country song at the Horseshoe for the Daily Bread Food Bank on Sunday. Will it be a new country tune or something from the old days?
D: Well actually I’ve become a huge fan of Ron Hynes. Having seen him perform, he’s just such an incredible songwriter, and my impression was that he was a lovely and obviously very complex guy. His nephew has written about his struggles, and there’s that side of his lore. But so much of what he did when he was with EMI is very country. I’m so immersed in country I can’t even tell sometimes if it’s a country song. But I asked them, “Is this country enough?” and it passed their scrutiny.
P: Do we even talk about singles off Starter Home?
D: Not for someone of my modest magnitude. One of the small things I like about the feedback is that people who have come back to me and enjoyed the album have told me their favourite song, and it’s been a really wide and disparate collection. I write song by song, and any cohesiveness to my albums comes after the fact. People say how they see the songs, and I say, “Wow. I wish I’d thought of that. There’s one song on the record, though, the last one, that I can’t really play alone on guitar. I’ve never made a fast or an upbeat tune, but “Shadows” is relatively that way. Last week, they asked if they could use it on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.
P: Oh cool!
D: I said, “Most definitely. Please Do.” (laughs). Yes it was very cool.
P: Better than a Juno.