Remembering Bill Bourne: March 28, 1954 – April 16, 2022
In a year already marked by unimaginable losses, the Canadian roots community was dealt another one on Saturday with the devastating news of the passing of Bill Bourne, 68, after a battle with bladder cancer.
Described as “a titan of western Canadian folk music” by music writer Michael Barclay, Bill launched his solo career in 1975 and spent his entire life in music balancing that solo work with a wildly diverse array of collaborative projects.
“I first saw Bill in 1979 with Jim Morrison in a duo called Sweetgrass,” recalled Tom Coxworth, the host of Folk Routes on CKUA Radio in Alberta.
“It was a fundraiser for the first Edmonton Folk Festival. … Over the years, I have ushered him onto so many stages and seen him in every guise at numerous club and festival events. Bill was a constant seeker of the next song and always up to share the music in his own style.”
In the early ‘80s, Bill recorded and toured with the Scottish band the Tannahill Weavers before forming the duo Bourne and MacLeod with the Weavers’ former piper Alan MacLeod.
First time I met Bill Bourne was onstage at The Regina Folk Fest. We were in a workshop together – he was playing a Gibson acoustic with magnetic pickup through a home-stereo graphic eq unit (on it’s side which doubled as his seat) fed into a Fender Twin!…un-fuckin-forgettable.
— Stephen Fearing ??? (@StephenFearing) April 17, 2022
Together, they earned a 1991 Juno award for their album Dance and Celebrate and a second nomination for its follow-up, Moonlight Dancers.
Next, Bill teamed up with Shannon Johnson, now a member of the Juno-winning McDades, and released two albums as Bourne and Johnson.
They received a Juno nod for their sophomore album, Victory Train.
Bill followed that up with the album No Special Rider, a trio project with Andreas Schuld and Hans Stamer.
That earned Bill his fourth Juno nomination and his first in the blues category as opposed to the roots and traditional one.
He earned a fifth Juno nod for his 1999 solo release, Sally’s Dream.
In 2001, Bill won his second Juno award, this time as a member of Tri-Continental, the divine trio comprised of Bill, Lester Quitzau and Madagascar Slim, which was influenced by Slim’s Malagasy guitar sound and its members’ spiritual and philosophical natures.
Then, in 2004, Bill went in a different direction again, producing and singing duet on a gorgeous album by the then 21-year-old Faroese singer-songwriter Eivør Palsdottir, which went on to win two Danish Music Awards.
He continued to release solo albums and collaborate with Tri-continental throughout the 2000s and 2010s.
Bill’s final recording was his 2020 album A Love Fandango, with its earthy single, “Hunker Down.”
Though it was written before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, its joyful, easygoing celebration of staying home was doubtless the soundtrack to many early lockdowns.
Bill’s accomplishments as a singer-songwriter were exceeded only by his contributions as a friend, collaborator and inspiration to other artists, according to those who knew him.
“He was a huge influence on me and pretty well any other Edmonton or western Canadian musician who followed in his footsteps and proved you could change styles and follow your own musical path as long as you stayed true,” said musician Doug Cox, who is also the artistic director of the Vancouver Island Music Festival.
Bill Bourne has passed. A mystical, magical musical revolutionary who always seemed to me to have the best balance of self grounding & untethered mayhem. The last time I saw him he was busking barefoot in Toronto and wouldn’t accept any money from me. Wish I’d listened longer.
— Jory Nash (@jorynashmusic) April 17, 2022
“I always looked forward to what was next with him and will sure miss running into him at festivals and on the road.
Doug called Bill “100 per cent pure music, a rare musician who was a picker, a poet, a philosopher and a singer.”
He was also a beloved mentor according to Tom Coxworth.
“Bill was also the guy who would encourage those around him, and he was never to upstage but always to show by example how to hold a room,” Tom said.
“He helped so many singer-songwriters to develop their songs and stage presence.”
Juno-winning Canadian folk luminary James Keelaghan said he was one of those people.
Bill was already an established artist when James was launching his career, and he learned a lot from watching Bill’s shows before they’d even met, he said.
In particular, he learned to focus during a performance, to play with all the passion he could muster, and “to find that really deep inner core where your voice and your guitar playing are coming from and connect with that core.”
As James’ own profile grew and he had the opportunity to spend time with Bill at events, he found himself inspired by another aspect of Bill, he said: his openness to experience and his fascination with the world around him.
“I remember being down in Australia,” James recalled.
“I was on a songwriters workshop with him … and before he started playing … he says, ‘Somebody told me that this festival has a 500-year plan for their land.’ And some people, you know, sort of screamed, ‘That’s right!’ And he goes, ‘I find, like, that’s the most amazing thing.’ And then he actually just sat on stage and thought for a while about that. But then for the whole rest of the festival, I’d see him in really deep conversation with people, you know, other musicians or the people from the festival. And he just spent the whole festival consumed with this idea they had come up with a 500-year plan for their festival, and he thought that was just the most amazing, fascinating thing.”
When I met Bill Bourne I was trying to learn how to fingerpick. Bill directed me to Mississippi John Hurt, who I became obsessed with. And he sat with me for hours one weekend, teaching me how to play Wildwood Flower. He was such a good human. ? https://t.co/U2xoVlbNbP
— Samantha Parton (@SamParton) April 17, 2022
Bill also inspired James with his phenomenal skills as a musician, James said, particularly the “relentless rhythm” with which he played his instrument.
“There was only one other player I ever saw who had that same kind of feel in their playing, and that was Ritchie Havens,” said an emotional James.
“I’ll remember him with a great deal of … love because he was very kind to me, always had a good word to say.”
“The question I continue to ask is, ‘Who’s going to fill their shoes,’” added Tom Coxworth.
“This will be a tough one as a mainstay of our community. This travelling troubadour has moved on but left us with his great sense of spreading peace and love with song. … Goodbye for now, and long may your music run long. Rest in peace, Bill.”