IMG_3241 For the first time in many years, I was without my constant companion at this year’s Vancouver Folk Festival. And my cousin’s young ‘un had the nerve to get hitched on Friday, the Folk Fest’s opening day, so I missed the fabulous Pokey Lafarge, when he still had a voice. Still, I had a blast.

Artistic director Linda Tanaka managed once again to assemble a vintage brew of the known, the barely known and the unknown into an eclectic, heady mix of outstanding music. There were fewer ultra-headliners than unusual this year, and yet the festival was terrific. All these people I’d never heard of. How dare they be both young and great…?

Not everything was perfect.

The legendary Birkenstock 500 dash to earn a good tarp place in front of the main stage wobbled on Days One and Two. But by Sunday, organizers got it right, and the 9 a.m. run was one of the smoothest this panting old codger can remember. (Let’s hope rumours that the “first come, first in line” tradition will be scrapped for a lottery are nothing more than the bureaucratic imaginings of someone who doesn’t get out much….).

And why o why, is the bass so often turned up to an unbearable level? Although it’s not nearly as commonplace as it used to be, for which I am thankful, when it does happen, the pain blasts through my feeble brain like a U-2 rocket. But hey, in spite of an unforgiving, broiling sun that had aging folkies clawing for shade, this was a wonderful few days of music.

Herewith some highlights.

BEST QUOTE. Vancouver’s one-of-a-kind Frazey Ford, at a workshop featuring songs of the human heart: “For songwriters, when you get dumped, it’s money in the bank.” Beside her, the ever-cool Basia Bulat completely lost her sangfroid and split a gut laughing.

BEST WORKSHOP: the aforementioned “Messin’ with the Wrong Heart”, featuring Bulat, Ford, Jenn Grant, pride of Halifax, and two luminous singers from the hot Brooklyn indie band, Lucius, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessing, clad in flowing, airy frocks of vivid yellow. In addition to their standout songwriting (heartaches and all), the performers displayed an appealing sisterhood and mutual admiration that made this a very special workshop. There was also a nice touch at the end, as the Lucius “girls” resurrected that fine old, Ian and Sylvia chestnut: You Were on My Mind. If you’ve never heard of Lucius, by the way, try this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcu5zJtWndI IMG_3264 BEST ANECDOTE: spun by Adam Cohen, son of Lennie, baby. Finding himself at some sort of odd Hollywood party, he looked around and noticed Tom Waits, there with his young son and wearing, naturally, a fur coat. Eavesdropping, Cohen heard Waits tell his kid to touch the drapes. “That’s silk,” he said. Then, he instructed him to touch the sofa. “That’s velvet,” father Tom affirmed. Finally, Waits asked his son to touch his coat. “And that’s fur,” he rasped. At that point, Waits saw Cohen listening in. Whereupon, he explained to the mystified Canadian, in his famous gravelly voice: “It’s never too early to teach your kids about fabric.”

BEST MAIN STAGE ACT BY A COUNTRY MILE: the legendary African powerhouse from Benin, Angélique Kidjo, who, at 55, showed as much dancing and prancing, fire and desire, charisma and melisma (look it up…), swirling and twirling as a pre-jowly Mick Jagger ever mustered at the peak of his preening. Her performance, complete with a dynamite band and some low-key but right-on political messaging, was mesmerizing. I didn’t even mind all those “young people” crowding in front of us older, sit-down folkies, who had risen at the crack o’ dawn to earn our coveted spots. We all stood and danced. For her final number, the show-stopping Afirika, Kidjo ventured right into the frenzied masses to help us with the song’s rousing chorus. Then, she materialized on stage again with a long line of dancing young people plucked from the crowd, including several tireless 10-year old girls, who couldn’t stop bouncing up and down. As the song went on and on, we grew ever more delirious, hoping it would never end. It did, of course, but I cannot remember a more dynamic closing to the Vancouver Folk Festival in all my 30 or so years of blissful attendance. (The lame, official closing of the festival after that was a complete anti-climax.) This gives you a sense of Afirikahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LInq0EioZjg


BEST CONCERT FEATURING HEARTFELT COVERS OF CLASSIC CANADIAN SONGS: The charming, brother and sister duo, Matt and near-neighbour Jill Barber. Their version of Ian Tyson’s Summer Wages, one of my all-time favourite songs, was a festival highlight. But they also did lovely covers of Gordon Lightfoot’s Steel Rail Blues, Comes a Time by Winnipegger Neil Young, and, quelle surprise, the haunting French resistance song, The Partisan, which Leonard Cohen made sort of Canadian by including it on one of his early albums. (These comments about the song by Cohen are quite interesting… http://genius.com/Leonard-cohen-the-partisan-lyrics) I really enjoyed the gentle songs of the Barbers, reminding us that not all enjoyable music has to puncture our ear drums. IMG_3247 BEST PERSON I’D NEVER HEARD OF OVER WHOM I KIND OF SWOONED: Eileen Hodgkins, the out-there, tap-dancing, portrait-of-Eileenukelele-playing, bandana-wearing, cowboy-boots-from-Chilliwack devotee and all-round, irrepressible, effervescent spirit of the Perch Creek jug band from Oz. I hope she likes adjectives, too. Others in the band, complete with washboard and jug, were also great, particularly her wise-cracking sister Camilla, who kept referring to you-know-who as “My Sister Eileen”. The first song I heard them do was I’m a Woman, another long-time delight of mine, best sung by the equally irrepressible Maria Muldaur (then Maria D’Amato) of the famous Jim Kweskin Jug Band. So I was won over right there. They were just so much fun, as this shot of Camilla’s “wild sister Eileen” attests. IMG_3266 BEST SONG I NEVER TIRE OF HEARING: Mary Gauthier, as real a person as there is in this crazy world, and her searing, unforgettable, Mercy Now. I last saw her in Trondheim, Norway, a week after the bombs and shootings in 2012 that took the lives of 77 Norwegians, most of them young people. Never was Mercy Now more appropriate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IT7NiFpJmvI

BEST IDLE THOUGHT BY ME: Listening to a soft, beautiful, Scottish fiddle tune, as I read about the mad, musical mayhem going on simultaneously in Pemberton, I thought there’s still a lot to be said for quiet and tradition in the music world. It has a sweetness all its own, and I wondered if, later in life, the 40,000 raucous, fun-loving fans then camped out at Pemberton would come to appreciate the worth of music that wasn’t blasted out at them through mountain-sized speakers. Oh, and also learn to pick up their garbage, before heading home…

BEST DESCRIPTION OF WHY WORKSHOPS SOMETIMES CREATE A MAGIC ALL THEIR OWN: A fellow from the Gaelic band Breabach suggested to musicians from another band that they merge their next number. “We’ve got a tune you’ve never heard before, and you’ve got a song we’ve never heard before, so it should work.” It did.

BEST TWO COVER SONGS IN A ROW: By Marlon Williams, the rising young Kiwi crooner, who wowed just about everyone who heard him sing. During his solo concert, Williams did a heartfelt song by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, followed by, yep, one of the best country songs ever penned, He’ll Have to Go, which became a massive hit for Jim Reeves. How often have I sung along to this all-time hurtin’ song? “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone/Let’s pretend that we’re together, all alone./I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low./And you can tell your friend who’s with you, he’ll have to go.” Oh my aching heart.

BEST NON-EXPOS BASEBALL HAT: By the time I arrived on Saturday, Pokey Lafarge had lost his voice. While his vintage, old-timey band carried on, Pokey sat forlornly mute on stage, strumming his guitar. But what was that St. Louis ball images-1cap he was wearing? I didn’t recognize it. A few hours later, I came across Pokey sitting by himself at the CD signing table, looking glum. I took a chance that he could whisper, at least, and asked him about the hat. “Do you know the Federal League?” he whispered. I said I did know about the short-lived, outlaw league from a hundred years ago. “St. Louis had a team in the Federal League, and this was their hat,” said Pokey. “The Terriers.” Cool, I replied, in that winning, hipster way I have, and ambled on, leaving Pokey blessedly silent, once more. All in all, another great festival. Thanks, folks. See you next year. (picture below by Naomi Moses)IMG_5113



I have more than a few books about the tragic Spanish Civil War. Yet I can barely bring myself to read them. Well, except for Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s bittersweet, affecting memoir detailing both the heroic commitment of those who fought for a republican Spain and the bloody witch hunt by hard-line Stalinists against those fighting with the anarchists. I just find it all so depressing. In addition to the millions of Spaniards caught up in the ferocious struggle, thousands of young idealists from all over the world headed off to Spain, fired by a zeal to fight fascism and support a democratically-elected government that sought to make progressive change. The issues could not have been more black and white. The conflict has been rightly labelled ‘the last great cause’. It ended, of course, in disaster, an aching reminder that the good guys don’t always win.

With the fall of Barcelona and then Madrid in 1939, Franco’s goose-stepping, fascist forces, backed by Hitler, Mussolini and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, were triumphant. Western countries had done nothing to support the Spanish Republic, while Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed and strafed soldiers and civilians at will, with nary a peep of protest from “the democracies”. In fact, many countries, including Canada, even made it illegal for their citizens to fight on behalf of the Spanish government. After they returned home, they were blacklisted, harassed and often jailed for their bravery, labelled as “premature anti-fascists”.

More than 1,500 Canadians defied their government to fight in Spain, their idealism and radicalism forged by the economic hammering they’d taken during the Depression. Of the 50 or so countries whose nationals fought in Spain, Canada had the second highest proportion of volunteers, after France. They formed their own fighting force, the famed Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, and their blood ran deep in the soil of Spain, as many as 400 killed or missing in action. One of them was Allan Howard, the older brother of Jack Howard, who was married to our “Auntie Irene”, not a blood relative but an aunt in every other way.


Three of the Mac-Paps were coal miners from Cumberland, my favourite town in all the land: Arthur Hoffheinz, and the Keenan brothers, Archie and Gordon, who was universally known as “Moon”. They had a tough time. Captured by the IMG_3032Falange, Hoffheinz was held as a prisoner until well after the war ended. Archie Keenan came back early, and Moon Keenan was killed during the critical Battle of the Ebro, a disastrous defeat that basically sealed the fate of Republican Spain. He was 30 years old. For years there was a plaque in the Keenan family plot in Cumberland, attesting that Gordon “Moon” Keenan “died for democracy in Spain”.

Last month, during the community’s annual Miners’ Memorial Weekend to commemorate labour martyr Ginger Goodwin, a special ceremony was also held to mark the sacrifice of Moon Keenan. As a colour guard of flag-carrying, black vested fellows wearing red shirts stood at attention, the Last Post sounded, its last, lingering notes hanging over the silent graveyard.


(Photo courtesy of the Comox Valley Record).

There were speeches. Archie Keenan’s grandson, and Moon’s grand-nephew, spoke for the family. “They were my IMG_3015grandfather and great uncle,” he told us. “There was a little bit of a rabble-rouser in them, and they went to Spain to help out. For that, I salute them.” Beside the tomb of the Keenan boys’ parents, a IMG_3021new, more detailed plaque was unveiled for Moon Kennan. Several surviving relatives, one of whom was overcome with emotion, laid flowers. On the other side of Moon’s plaque was a simple marker for his brother, Archie, adorned by a single rose.

Attitudes to the Mac-Paps eventually softened as the old volunteers grew old and died, although they have never been recognized as veterans by the Canadian government. There are now monuments to their heroism in the legislative precincts of Victoria, Toronto and (gasp) Ottawa – thank you, Adrienne Clarkson! Jules Paivio, the last surviving veteran of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, died in 2013. May God bless them all.

The words of Dolores “La Pasionaria” Iburri to the International Brigadistas as they assembled for the last time in Barcelona live on: “You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are heroic examples of democracy, solidarity and universality. We shall not forget you, and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, come back, and all of you will find the love and gratitude of the whole Spanish people who, now and in the future, will cry out, with all their hearts, ‘long live the heroes of the International Brigade’.”

For a moving, emotional snapshot of the Mac-Paps, you can’t do better than this NFB documentary, Los Canadienses, produced in 1975, when survivors were still in their 60’s, hale and hearty and proud as punch of what they did. https://www.nfb.ca/film/los_canadienses