David Wiffen – Live at the Bunkhouse
According to their website, Mapache Records is a “Barcelona-based record label that reissues long-time lost albums that blow your mind.” I can’t vouch for the mind-blowing quality of their entire catalogue but one recent reissue of real interest to Canadian folk music fans is surely a 1965 album by Canadian singer-songwriter David Wiffen called David Wiffen at the Bunkhouse Coffeehouse.
As the story goes, Wiffen moved to Canada from England when he was 16, kicked around the Toronto music scene in the late ’50s to early ’60s and then moved out west, ending up in Vancouver in 1965. At some point, he was invited to participate in what was going to be a folk sampler, but all of the other artists pulled out due to a major snowstorm, leaving Wiffen to record what would become his first solo album.
Although the album is called David Wiffen at the Bunkhouse Coffeehouse, it was in fact recorded at a three-hour session in a small studio on West Broadway in Vancouver. Only 100 copies were pressed on the Universal International label, making the recording difficult to find before the reissue.
The album consists almost entirely of covers with the notable exception of “Slice of Life,” a song about hard times and perhaps the hard life of a musician. It’s suggestive of themes David would explore in subsequent work. The covers include the Ian and Sylvia standard “Four Strong Winds,” Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” and some beautifully rendered traditional numbers like “Times are Getting Hard.” For pure singing chops “Four in the Morning” by George C. Remaily is a gem.
It is the singing that stands out, and the treatment of some well-chosen material. Though partly a time capsule, and not so much suggestive of the amazing song-writer David would become, the album certainly shows how beautifully he could deliver a song.
The David Wiffen story has been frequently told, so there’s no need to go into too much detail. In the early 1970s he put out a couple of albums that included some stellar material from his own pen like “One Step,” “More Often Than Not,” “Driving Wheel,” and “Skybound Station.” The quality of his song-writing was hard to miss leading to a number of covers by people like Ian and Sylvia, Ann Murray, Tom Rush, and Harry Belafonte. Things appeared to be going well. And then, though it would be too much to say it all ended, he did scale back significantly, beginning in the ‘80s for personal reasons – although there have been indications more recently that we may yet hear more from him.
The news at hand, though, is the reissue of David Wiffen – At the Bunkhouse Coffeehouse, this very fine first solo album, which deserves to be metaphorically dusted off and heard again – and not just as a cultural artifact, but as great music that stands up well.