Canada: Travels in Music

Canada flag in light snow

Canada. From the west where crashing sea meets forested coast to the far north of the Yukon, from the heights of the Rockies through the plains, from Lake Ontario to Niagra Falls to the waters of the Saint Lawrence, from the vibrant and varied cities of Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montreal to the distant ranching towns of the west, the French speaking countryside of Quebec and the winding roads where Gaelic is spoken in Nova Scotia, it is varied land. So, too is the music made and listened to across Canada. Take a listen to musical journeys artists with Canadian connections are taking.

Ian Tyson is a man and a musician of the west. His work on his cattle ranch in Alberta is as woven into his life as is his music — and now in his eighties, he has been making music for going on six decades now. His most recent album at this writing, Carnero Vaquero, offers a mix of traditional and newly written songs, songs which share and celebrate the west, the Rockies and the enduring yet changing way of cowboy and rancher.

There is the modern day classic of the west Darcy Farrow, which Tyson first recorded in his Ian and Sylvia folk duo days, and Shawnie, a haunting tale of longing and reflection. Wolves No Longer sing, written by Tyson and longtime musical friend Tom Russell, calls forth the spirit of the west, as indeed do all the songs offered. Tyson recorded the album in the stone building at his ranch where he often writes when he is not on the road with his music.

John Reischman’s music on Walk Along John is both bluegrass and northwestern. Based these days in British Columbia, he tours across North America and the world with his band The Jaybirds. On this recording, though, it is his art and creativity as a composer and player — his instrument is the mandolin — that are to the fore. There are a dozen of his own works, among them the fast picked Bill Monroe tribute called Joe Ahr’s Dream, the bluesy western to northwestern feeling of Gold Mountain Blues, the old time flavor call to dance in Pine Siskin, and hints of cowboy music in Salt River. That sense of western journey comes through on the title track Walk Along John, too, and it is one of the two traditional tunes woven in with the original music. Reischman invites fellow musicians from The Jaybirds to sit in as well as musical friends including Chris Thile, Bruce Molsky, and Jim Nunnally along on this instrumental trip. It is his musicianship which guides his travels through Canada and elsewhere, though.

Norah Rendell has done her share of travels as well, from time in western Canada to study in Ireland to touring the world with the band The Outside Track to exploring the music of Newfoundland to her current base at the Center for Irish Music in Minneapolis. For her album Spinning Yarns singer and flute player Rendell has done just that: she’s chosen songs which tell stories of emigration, of travel, of life, of change, many of them drawn from or suggested by songs collected in the Maritimes, as well as ones whose stories arose from Canada’s west and from Ontario. Rendell has a lovely voice, strong yet gentle in her style — she might remind a bit of two other fine Canadian voices, Eileen McGann and Terri Clark — and she has chosen songs which allow her storytelling abilities to serve the tales well. These include a song of the lumber and logging camps called The Pinery Boy, the lover’s tale of The Sailor’s Bride, and another sort of seafaring song, Forty Fishermen.

canada musician norah rendell

You cannot really talk of, or listen to, the music of Canada without speaking of fiddle players Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy. You’ve met their music before in suggestions for a road trip sound track (to which their wry comment on reading the story was “don’t blame us for any speeding tickets!”) but their album One is well worth a revisit or a first encounter. He grew up in Ontario where the main entertainment on the family farm was making music; she grew up on Cape Breton where music and especially the fiddle called to her from a young age. Melding their two styles took a while, but worth the wait it was. That comment about speeding tickets is true; this is music that will lift you up, put a smile on your face, and have you tapping your feet if not dancing yourself. To experience all this take a listen especially to Wedding Day Jig, the Tribute to Buddy set, and Ellin Polka, and to slow things down a bit, Joyous Waltz and the lullabye Cagaran Gaolach.

canada musicians natalie macmaster donnell leahy fissle

As much as western skies and emigrants from Scotland and Ireland are part of the music of Canada, so to is the music of its French speaking heritage and community. For more than a dozen years, the four men who make up Le Vent du Nord have been winning plaudits in their native Quebec and across the world for their insight in sharing music from Francophone Canada’s history and composing new songs and tunes that speak to the present day community. Their latest album at this writing, Têtu, carries those ideas on, with a lively, mostly fast paced selection of fifteen pieces that cover love, politics, family, and history among other subjects. Nicolas Boulerice plays hurdy-gurdy and piano, Olivier Demers plays accordion and adds foot percussion, Rejean Brunet adds accordion and bass, and Simon Beaudry plays guitar and bouzouki; all four men sing. There’s biting political message in Confederation and in Loup-Garou, an air from Quebec tradition in D’ouest en est, a story of love and duty in Le Roisier.

Ken Whiteley has been making music since he was a teenager in Ontario in the 1960s, work which has seen him travel all over North America with a variety of bands and put his musical skill to work as a producer on more than one hundred albums. His latest adventure is Ken Whiteley & The Beulah Band where he sings, plays guitar, mandolin, washboard, and many other things with band members Frank Evans on banjo, Rosalyn Dennett on fiddle, and Ben Whiteley on bass. Ben, who is Ken’s son, produced the project, bringing out flavors of gospel, old time string band, swing, country, and blues as the band has a good time working their way through songs which touch on time, place, faith, and love. There’s the gospel song Beluah Land next to with How Fast Flies Time, written by Whiteley and his First Nations musical friend Arthur Renwick, a pairing that will certainly have you reflecting. Friends All Over the Place speaks of warmth and friendship and time and travel, while Indian Buffet takes a wry look at another side of traveling life. Hackett’s Cove is a thoughtful refection on lessons that may be learned from watching the waters, and the recording concludes with a song by Pete Seeger, Quite Early One Morning, which you could say is about lessons learned from experiencing daybreak, or life — or music.

Photograph of flag of Canada is by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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