Home Feature Penguin Eggs founder Roddy Campbell talks about what’s next for him.

Penguin Eggs founder Roddy Campbell talks about what’s next for him.

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Roddy Campbell embodies the qualities most often associated with folks from the Scottish Highlands: brave, stubborn, and courageous.

Fearless and fierce, sociable and friendly, he hails from Dingwall, home of his beloved Ross County Football Club and made Canada his permanent home close to 50 years ago.

He’s played and worked in folk and roots music in various capacities for decades and is best known as the founder and creative force behind Canada’s much-missed folk, roots and world music magazine, Penguin Eggs.

It was about three years ago that he stopped publishing after over two decades of running the magazine, so now seemed like an opportune time to check in and find out his current thoughts, listen to his reflections on the past and discover what the future holds.

Since I am in Vancouver, and Roddy is now residing in sunny Peachland BC, we meet virtually.

A musical family, a musical youth

As soon as we’re linked up on Zoom the banter begins concerning the latest football controversy from the English Premier League.

Knowing that we could talk about that for an eternity, I quickly move the focus to ask him how he got into folk roots music in the first place.

“Well, it goes back to my childhood actually,” he replied.

“My dad played accordion, and he played mouth organ and all my uncles played something – whether it was the paper and comb or the spoons! So, every time we had gatherings at my Granny’s house, they would all play, and my aunts would dance. So, I was exposed to all this from being four or five years old.

“Even as a teenager, when I was listening to the Beatles and the Stones, I would still always put on the Corries. I would always listen to that kind of stuff. I can remember buying my father an EP by Ian Campbell when Dave Swarbrick was playing with him. I can still see the cover today! So I was always interested in folk music through my dad and through my family.”

It didn’t take long before Roddy was bitten by the music bug and started playing an instrument so he could join in with music making.

“The first summer I ever came to Canada, I saw these people playing guitars and singing songs,” he recalled.

“I thought, ‘Wow. I love this!’ So, I went back to Scotland – this would be around 1971 – and I bought a Spanish guitar, because I thought the nylon strings would be easier to play and learned to play it in a year. Then I came back to Canada, and I was playing tunes with all these people, and I really enjoyed it.”

As often is the case, the next step for young Roddy after learning to play was to form a band.

“I went back to Scotland for a while, and one day at work this boy pulled out a mandolin and started playing it in the tea-room, and I thought, ‘Oh my God that sounds fantastic,’” he said.

Roddy starts a band

“So that Christmas, I got a mandolin. It took me ages to learn to play it, but eventually, I could pick a tune. So, when I immigrated to Canada in 1975, I met up with a few Scottish people in Edmonton, and we decided to form a band. We called ourselves The Wee Malkies after a Stephen Mulrine poem called ‘The Coming of the Wee Malkies.’

There were three of us: vocals, mandolin and guitar. We used to go to the student union building, which had one of the best record shops in Canada. It was funded by the student union, and students could get a discount. We found records by Dick Gaughan, Five Hand Reel, Planxty, The Bothy Band — all the classics. Then we started listening to all that to learn material to play.

In order to get a gig we started what eventually became the Southside Folk Club in the Grad Students Lounge at the U of A.

The Wee Malkies deferred the running of the club to fellow Scots, Jim and Jeanette MacLachlan. It then moved to the Orange Hall in Old Strathcona, where it remained until its demise.

Roddy co-founds a folk club

“We would play, and then the main acts would perform. I can remember Cara Luft’s parents playing one of the first concerts. The Wee Malkies broke up and I just became a volunteer. Jim and Jeanette turned it into one of the best clubs in the country. They booked Ossian, Jake Thackray, Roy Bailey, Leon Rosselson, Dougie MacLean, Eric Bogle. Pretty much everybody of any talent in Canada played that club. Stan Rogers, Grit Laskin, Bob Carpenter – all the good ones!”

Not content with that, as soon as another opportunity came along, it was immediately seized. This time it was the chance to be a DJ on campus radio.

“I got involved in some politics,” Roddie said.

“They were testing the cruise missile in Alberta, and we protested. One of the fellows I met through that had a show on CJSR radio and he said to me, ‘You should do a folk show’. So I did, and the show was called ‘In the Tradition’ after an album by The Boys of the Lough.

“I did that for about three years, and by then I had gone to university. So, then I gave the show to Andy Donnelly and Tom Coxworth, and they took it over and did it for about five years, and then they both went on to CKUA radio.”

I’m sure by now you are starting to understand that Roddy is a force of nature, and he never stands still for very long. What came next was the opportunity to break into student journalism.

“While I was at U of A as a student, I did quite a bit of writing for The Gateway – the student union bi-weekly newspaper – and eventually became its editor-in-chief,” he said.

“The folk content went up dramatically then, including great interviews with Billy Connolly and Oysterband. Also, CJSR radio had a magazine called Air Tide, so they asked me to do reviews of the folk records that were getting sent in.

Roddy gets his start as a professional journalist

“So, I started doing that and also doing interviews. I remember interviewing Richard Thompson. This was at the Sidetrack Café in Edmonton, and I was so nervous that my hand was shaking. So, I had to keep hold of it with the other one, so the microphone wouldn’t shake. I will never forget that! It was one of the first major interviews I ever did.”

Fresh from those campus activities, it wasn’t long before Roddy made his way into mainstream media and started writing for Edmonton’s newspapers.

“That student experience helped me get a freelance gig at the Edmonton Journal,” he recalled.

“I pitched a few stories to them. Then when the Scottish band Ossian came in, I talked myself into doing a review for them, and they really liked it. Then they had a position come up for the roots and country music writer. I always remember they asked me, ‘What do you know about country music?’ and I was like, ‘Well, what do you want to know?’ I was totally bluffing because I knew absolutely nothing. I hated country music actually at the start. Anyway, I got the gig and then they put me on to watch Randy Travis at the Northlands AgriCom in Edmonton, and it was absolutely fabulous. What a voice! I just loved it. I was at the Journal for about three years freelancing.”

Roddy and partner, Annemarie Hamilton at home in Peachland.

Once he had his foot in the door as a journalist, he began to sense that there was still another opportunity to promote the music he loves to a Canadian audience. It’s a testament to his determination that he not only identified a critical missing piece in the puzzle, but that he found a way to create it.

“I had a subscription to Southern Rag from the UK, which became Folk Roots and then FRoots magazine,” he said.

“I saw Steve Edge‘s name in it as a writer, and that inspired me. I had done an interview when I was with the Edmonton Journal with Johnny Cash, so I pitched that story to them, and they took it.

“So I started writing for FRoots, and then I noticed one day that there was a band from Ontario in that magazine, and I thought, ‘Well I’ve never heard of them, and these guys are Canadian!’ And I was pretty tuned in because I was writing about Canadian folk music right then. So I just thought, it’s about time we had our own magazine!

“Rick Fenton who was producing Saturday Night Blues for Holger Petersen said to me, ‘Well why don’t you start it online and build up a readership, and then go from there’.

Roddy launches Penguin Eggs

“I thought, ‘Wow. What a great idea. So that’s what I did! So, Penguin Eggs was online for about three years. I used to be an electrician when I left school, so I went back to that and went up to Fort McMurray and worked for six months. Then I had the money to put the first paper edition out.”

Now that some water has gone under the bridge since he ceased publishing Penguin Eggs, it seems like a good time to reflect on that adventure and to find out what were some of the high points.

“One highlight was when Shane MacGowan was coming to play the Calgary Folk Festival, and I got in touch with Colin Irwin and asked him if he would interview him,” Roddy recalled.

“Luckily, Colin agreed, and from then on he contributed to pretty much every issue. He interviewed all kinds of great people – like Dolly Parton and Sinead O’Connor.

“Another was an editorial I wrote in Penguin Eggs about the Juno Awards trying to drop the folk category. I suggested the folk community start its own folk awards and to hell with the Junos!

Roddy and Enoch Kent at the 2008 Canadian Folk Music Awards. Photo by Heather Kitching.

“That was the spark, and it was picked up by Bill Garrett and Grit and Judith Laskin. That led to the formation of the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

“Probably the biggest thing was the interview with Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. I couldn’t believe it man — a Rolling Stone in Penguin Eggs! Holger Peterson did the interview for his blues show on the radio, and he gave it to me, so we could run the transcript from the show. That was brilliant!

“The first Ry Cooder interview I did at the Edmonton Folk Festival was another highlight. He did a press conference, and it was absolutely great. He was just about to go and record with Ali Farka Touré, and I had got some inside information that he was going to do it. We chatted about that and afterwards he came up and found me and thanked me. He was so nice, and it made a great story.

“John Prine was a great interview too — when he did that comeback album. That was our fifth anniversary cover story, and he was absolutely great.

The hardest part of publishing?

“Also, Lyle Lovett he was another great highlight. He was so generous with his time — just a really nice guy.”

I asked Roddy about the most challenging aspects of publishing Penguin Eggs from those 23 years.

“I found the hardest thing was selling advertising,” he said.

We had a number of people who were absolutely committed to the magazine, like Borealis Records. The Edmonton Folk Festival took a full-page ad out in every edition. They didn’t have to do that, but they were supporting the magazine. True North Records — people like that — they were absolutely steadfast.

“Then summer would come around, and all these folk festivals were happening, attracting hundreds of thousands of people and God, it was like pulling teeth trying to get them to advertise – even though we were 100 per cent focused on their target audience!

Roddy’s latest project

“I didn’t know how to break that down, and that was a stumbling block. I also think what would’ve been better for the magazine is if we could have had a podcast and were able to play the music that we were writing about, so people had a better understanding of what we were talking about. I think that would’ve been a good thing.”

Finally, I asked Roddy to tell me about what he’s up to now. Perhaps he’s having a well-earned rest? Hardly likely!

“I am doing a biography on Mitch Podolak,” he told me.

“He was a fascinating character. In fact, I would say, he was the most important folk figure in Canada, and that goes beyond even Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot, and all the rest of them.

The late Mitch Podolak.

“He was a revolutionary Marxist. At 16 years old he was booking bands for the Bohemian Embassy Coffee House in Toronto. He got really into socialist politics and moved around the country trying to organize unions and stuff like that, and then he ended up in Winnipeg.

“He was working there for the CBC, and it was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city, and he proposed that they should run a folk festival — and the province and the city actually gave him money.

“He had no idea when he started how to run a folk festival! But he got it up and running, and it was a success.

“From there, he started the Vancouver Folk Festival, or at least helped to start it. He started the West End Cultural Centre in Winnipeg. He helped to get the funding for the Calgary and Edmonton Folk Festivals. He went to the Minister of Culture and got $100,000 and that started Edmonton. He helped start the Stan Rogers Festival. He helped Bear Creek Festival get started, and there are a number of other festivals that he has helped get off the ground.

More magazine work?

“And then he started Home Routes, which is a successful house concert circuit that’s still going. So, he has given a ton of work to artists. Just an incredible guy!

“I’ve also been asked to do another book on the Edmonton Folk Festival, but I’m thinking I might do something broader, like on the western folk festivals. It’s quite a story. I mean even just last year in Vancouver, when they almost stopped the festival, and then the board and Fiona Black and the volunteers pulled it out of the fire and succeeded in keeping it going.

“Recently the UK world music magazine Songlines has been trying to recruit me as an editor for an annual Canadian edition and also to provide them with Canadian content. I do fancy bringing worthy Canadian artists to the attention of an international audience. So, I’ve pitched a couple of feature ideas and am waiting to hear back.”

If you think that should be enough for a guy who has already done so much, then you have much to learn about Mr. Campbell. There’s always more!

“I also wish somebody would start a folk club around here,” he said. I’ve been thinking about it myself – about starting one here in Peachland because there’s a couple of halls that would be a good place to put it. So, I am still considering that. It’s like a dream — here in the Okanagan — starting the Southside Folk Club all over again!”

If anybody can make it happen, it’s Roddy!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Tim, What a great article on Roddy! Thanks for doing that. He deserves to be recognized for all he has done for folk & roots music in Canada.
    Cheers,
    Ian

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