Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens/Yusuf…Song #17/250: Reader’s Choice

There are two stories to tell today with regard to the song “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens/Yusuf. The first is a short history of this song which, as it turns out, was first written as instrumental music for a church hymn over a century ago. The second story concerns our singer and his life, which has taken several twists and turns along the way making him one of the most interesting and enigmatic entertainment figures of all time.

Alfriston, East Sussex

The song “Morning Has Broken” has a long and storied history. It is believed to have been created as an instrumental piece of music by Irish monks on the Isle of Iona several hundred years ago. From there, the song (which was known as a hymn tune) made its way into Scotland. Once there, a gaelic speaking woman named Mary MacDoanld turned the hymn tune into a Christian hymn and named it Bunessan (which is the name of a village near Ardtun where Mary lived). In 1927, the Bunessan tune was written down in a hymn book called Songs of Praise. Once included in the book, the editors approached an author named Eleanor Farjeon to compose lyrics for the Bunessan. The poem that she wrote was inspired by the beauty of the village of Alfriston in Scotland. Together, Farjoen’s poem and the hymn tune, Bunessan, combined to form a new song that was entitled “Morning Has Broken”. It remained a church hymn up until 1972 when a singer who went by the stage name of Cat Stevens recorded it on an album called Teaser and Firecat. This album also contained the hit songs, “Moonshadow” and “Peace Train”, which cemented Stevens’ reputation as one of the great Folk-rock singers in music history.

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens was born as Steven Georgiou in 1948. By the time he finished high school, he was dabbling in both art and music. Like many young, aspiring musicians, Georgiou began his songwriting career by peddling his songs to other musicians. One of the very first songs he ever sold turned out to be a classic rock n’ roll tune for Rod Stewart and many others. It was called “The First Cut Is The Deepest”. As his career began, Georgiou was packaged as a rock singer. He even changed his name to something that was thought to be easier for the general public to understand…Cat Stevens! However, he did not feel that the person being promoted by his record label was a true representation of himself. That feeling was further entrenched within his mind shortly after the release of his first album when he was struck down by tuberculosis. During the year it took to recover in hospital and then several convalescent homes, Stevens watched the doctors and nurses and how hard they worked to save his life. He, also, watched others less fortunate than him pass away. As he lay in his recovery bed, he began to realize that there was much more to life than the rock star lifestyle that awaited him once he returned to health. So, as part of his recovery process, Stevens began practicing yoga, he became a vegetarian, and, most importantly of all, he began examining the religions of the world.

The album that spawned “Moonshadow”, “Peace Train” and “Morning Has Broken”. Cat Stevens did the art for the front cover as well.

When Cat Stevens had fully recovered, he made the professional decision to eschew rock music in favour of a style of music that better reflected the man he felt he was becoming. Consequently, Cat Stevens opted for Folk-rock. His next two albums, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, were big hits and established him as one of the world’s rising music stars. As the 1970s progressed, Stevens continued to embrace and explore various religions and philosophies. Once, while in Marrakesh, he heard the adhan being broadcast over speakers. When he asked about what was going on, it was explained to him that the adhan was the call to prayer for those who followed Islam and that its playing was “music for God”. The phrase “music for God” appealed to his burgeoning sense of spirituality. Not long after, he was given a copy of the Qur’an as a gift. Reading it, Stevens discovered that much of it spoke directly to his heart. Seeking greater wisdom, he approached an Islamic cleric and asked to know more. The cleric was happy to oblige. At the end of their discussions, which lasted for several days, Stevens was told that if he wished to truly immerse himself in Islamic culture, then he should convert and give himself over fully to Islam. He did so in 1977. To the surprise of his fans and his record label, Cat Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam and walked away from the music business for what was to be over a quarter century.

Presenting….Yusuf Islam!

Once he had fully converted to Islam and had been accepted into the Faith by those in authority, he was advised not to continue his career in music because western music often spoke of themes that would be deemed offensive to Islamic culture. So instead of music, Yusuf, as he now preferred to be called, threw himself into philanthropy. He used the royalty money that came pouring in from the sales of his previous two albums to fund the building of Muslim-oriented schools in England and around the world. Yusuf also funded organizations whose purpose was the spread of peace. He married and raised his children in the Islamic faith as well. Despite having several well-documented moments of controversy (such as when he was quoted as supporting the death sentence imposed on author Salman Rushdie for his book, The Satanic Verses), Yusuf settled into life as a Muslim man and was at peace with the decisions he had made.

But then, one day, several decades later, his teenage son brought home an acoustic guitar and asked his father to teach him how to play. Those lessons were the first time Yusuf had picked up any musical instrument in over twenty-five years. The urge to create new music returned. But, being as immersed in Islam as he had become, Yusuf knew that creating western music was not the way forward for him. Instead, he created albums for children that celebrated Islam. However, as significant anniversary milestones approached for his albums, Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, Yusuf was approached to sing selected songs in public again. With approval from his local clerics, Yusuf re-appeared in the secular world and gave several public performances of songs such as “Morning Has Broken”. Yusuf stated that a song such as “Morning Has Broken” spoke to the beauty inherent in our world, and that, in turn, reflected the philosophy of Islam that he found so compelling all those years ago and throughout his adult life. From Steven Georgiou to Cat Stevens and finally, to Yusuf…from rock star to folk singer to Islamic philanthropist…from bachelor to husband to father…the journey through his life has been a rich and fulfilling one, indeed.

A special thanks goes out to my dear friend, Jan Fluke, for nominating “Morning Has Broken” as today’s Reader’s Choice song. Like me, Jan is a retired teacher. We worked together for many years which allows me to say with great confidence that Jan is a champion for children in all aspects of their development. In her retirement years, Jan and a friend have co-written several books for children and have launched their own literary-based company called The Story Snuggery. Thanks again, Jan. Keep those song requests coming. Your taste in music is awesome!

The link to the video for the song “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for the playing of the hymn tune “Bunessan” can be found here.

The link to the official website for Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Story Snuggery can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post should be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Bruce Springsteen, Mud Morganfield, Amanda Shires and The Mahones: Tomorrow’s Top 40

In this edition of Tomorrow’s Top 40, we are taking a look at some new releases from some talented veterans of the music scene. So, if you are searching for some terrific Soul, R&B, Gospel, Blues, Country or Punk, this is your post because, as you all know, today’s new releases often become Tomorrow’s Top 40 successes. So, let’s quit the chatter and get down to it for the week of November 14-20, 2022. Here we go!

Jameson Street by The Mahones

Ladies and gentlemen….The Mahones!

OMG! It’s The Mahones! Canada’s preeminent Celtic punk rockers, The Mahones have been ripping it up for almost thirty years now. They sing songs about drinking and partying and loving and fighting in a way that is impossible to ignore. The Mahones have drawn their inspiration from the likes of The Pogues at their boozy best. They relentlessly tour, appearing regularly with bands such as The Dropkick Murphys, Stiff Little Fingers, Flogging Molly, Spirit of the West, even opening for The Tragically Hip on one of their Canadian tours. Jameson Street is their first album since before the pandemic so there is an extra energy infused into each song. There is nothing subtle about the music you will hear when you click on their link. It is loud and fast and brash and a whole lot of fun! I think their music sounds better with a beer in your hand but that’s just me. Here are The Mahones with a song that I predict will become a huge hit in pubs everywhere. It is called “Last Call at the Bar”. You can listen to it here. ***If you want a taste of The Mahones live then, check out this rendition of their most popular song, “Paint The Town Red” here.

***There is no lyrics version of this song at this time.

Take It Like a Man by Amanda Shires

Amanda Shires….and her fiddle.

Amanda Shires has been working her way through the ranks of the best female Country and Western singers for a while now. As a teenager, Shires was given a fiddle from a second hand store on the condition that she learn how to play it properly. So, she took lessons from some of Nashville’s best session players and soon found herself performing with The Texas Playboys. In her twenties and thirties, Shires released hit album after hit album. She was declared the “Best Emerging Artist” in 2017 and received a Grammy Award as a member of the band, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit that same year. However, what Amanda Shires is mostly known for is starting an all-female supergroup called The Highwomen. This group was meant to be the female counterpart to the legendary Highwaymen (Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson) from a few decades ago. The Highwomen consists of Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. Well, as it has turned out, Amanda Shires is turning forty this year and that has caused her to take stock of her life to date and her hopes for the future. This self-assessment has manifested itself in the form of a new album called Take It Like A Man. The title track has a clever twist at the end that helps make this song a feminist anthem of sorts. You can listen to “Take It Like A Man” here. ***Not sure if it just me but I think she sounds a bit like Dolly Parton.

***The lyrics version of this song can be found here.

Portrait by Mud Morganfield

He sounds as smooth as he looks! This is Larry “Mud” Morganfield.

Growing up on Cape Breton Island as I did, there was a great tendency among the locals to place everyone into family groupings on the basis of a single question that every newcomer tended to be asked…that question was, “Who’s yer fodder?” That is a slangy way of asking who someone’s father was. From there, the newcomer could be judged accordingly: being welcomed with open arms or pushed away, whichever the case may be. Well, it appears that the same sort of judging process has been a part of Larry “Mud” Morganfield’s life for as long as he can remember, too. You may not be familiar with Morganfield’s name but I guarantee you that if you are familiar with music history at all, and in particular, Chicago Blues, then you know Morganfield’s father, Muddy Waters. Waters was a legendary Blues master who passed away in 1983. At that time, Morganfield was driving trucks for a living. He had no intention of trying to start a career in the shadow of his legendary father. In fact, Morganfield was just trying to avoid the bullets that often flew around his neighbourhood in Chicago. But then, the story goes that one night after his father’s death, Morganfield had a dream that he was on stage with his father and that he was playing the Blues and that his dad was smiling upon him. When he awoke, Morganfield decided to pick up a guitar and see what would happen. Well, what happened was that he turned out to be quite the Bluesman, himself. In fact, Morganfield decided to introduce himself to the world by recording an album of his father’s greatest hits, for which he won Bluesman of the Year. To listen to Morganfield play and sing is to hear Muddy Waters again. To follow up his debut success, Morganfield is drawing upon his Gospel and R&B roots with an album called Portrait. From that album, his first single is a soaring Gospel song entitled, “Praise Him”. It is hard not to smile and sway as this song plays. It is magnificent. I am hopeful that Portrait becomes a hit and that Mud Morganfield becomes a success in his own right. Maybe the day will come when people refer to Muddy Waters as Mud Morganfield’s Dad. You can listen to “Praise Him” here.

The lyrics version of this song can be found here.

Only The Strong Survive by Bruce Springsteen

The Boss at age 73.

The storyteller in me absolutely loves Bruce Springsteen. The Boss has written some of the best story-songs of all time. I love “Thunder Road” and “Atlantic City” and “The River”, just to name a few. However, Only The Strong Survive is not an album of new material. It is a covers album containing tracks that Springsteen feels are essential Blues, Soul and R&B songs that today’s generation of listeners should be made aware of. I tip my hat to Springsteen because I have always maintained that the foundational songs that helped start Rock n’ Roll as we know it today all have their roots in black churches and nightclubs on the Chitlin’ circuit. It should not be up to someone like Bruce Springsteen to publicize these songs because they should be part of the Great American Songbook already. But, as many of you know, our understanding and appreciation of cultures that are different from our own tends to be limited. We often stick to cultural experiences that reflect ourselves, thus the Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys become more well known than the Isley Brothers or someone like Jackie Wilson. Whether this is simply due to human nature or to something else is a question for another post. But, for Bruce Springsteen, the answer is clear. He feels that the songs on Only The Strong Survive are under-valued and under-exposed and he is attempting to change that. For that reason, I commend Springsteen for having noble intentions. If you listen to the first single, “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”, you might think it is a terrific sounding song that fills your heart and soul and gets your toes a-tapping! But, as one critic put it, “The entire album sounds like Springsteen singing karaoke”. That was my impression, too. It will be your impression as well, especially if you listen to the real thing from Mud Morganfield first. That having been said, I am sure that Only The Strong Survive will sell well this holiday season. After all, anything that Springsteen associates himself with will always have a certain level of quality inherent in the final product. So, while there are no new stories from The Boss, he is using his 73rd year wisely to tell a story of a different sort. I hope that his efforts result in a Motown-esque revival because that is some music that really slaps. *You can listen to “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” here.

***The lyrics version of this song can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Mahones can be found here.

The link to the official website for Amanda Shires can be found here.

The link to the official website for Mud Morganfield can be found here.

The link to the official website for Bruce Springsteen can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Don’t Cry For Me Argentina by Andrew Lloyd Webber, as sung by Elaine Paige from the Original West End Cast Recording of Evita…Song #22/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen

The history of politics is filled with compassionate souls who have entered into the field of public service because they felt they had something to offer that would make the world a better place in which to live for everyone. To those kind folks, I salute you. Our world would be a much kinder, fairer and more just place to be if those sitting in the big chairs did so as leaders possessing charitable hearts. But, the reality of political history all throughout the world is that many who enter the political arena do so for less magnanimous reasons; power and money being chief among them. Politics has always been, or so it seems, an occupation not for the faint of heart. It is far too rare that political opponents join forces in pursuit of a common goal. Most often, we have maneuverings and intrigue, leaving someone to be the victor and someone to be the vanquished. And as the hoary old cliché goes, the history of our times is always written by the victors.

Who ends up dictating the events of history is an important factor to consider when discussing the story of one of the most controversial, beloved and misunderstood figures in any era of modern world politics, Eva Perón. In all of the research that I have conducted into almost one thousand songs, I have never encountered such a polarizing figure as the lady who would go on to inspire the hit musical, Evita. In fact, the information that I have read about her varies wildly depending upon who is doing the telling…the victors or the vanquished. So, let me take a few moments and give you the broad strokes of the story behind who Eva Perón was and how she came to hold such a position of influence within the country of Argentina. I state the following facts as being as true as I can know them to be. I am not an Argentinian scholar, by any means. If anyone reading this post has a greater pool of knowledge to draw from and can add to or correct what I am about to write then please, by all means, feel free to do so below.

Eva Peron as she while acting as the First Lady of Argentina.

Every biography of Eva Perón that I have read states that she began her life as Eva Duarte and that she had an impoverished upbringing. As she grew up and became a teenager, Eva Duarte began to have dreams of becoming a movie and music star. She knew that she would never become a star where she was living so she began to devise a plan that would see her move to the capital city of Buenos Aires. Not having money, Eva Duarte used her beauty to attract the attention of men in positions of power. It was through her relationships with these men that she made her way from her small town all the way to the big city. Once in Buenos Aires, Duarte began venturing into nightclubs and theatres looking for an opportunity to make herself known to those with the power to advance her career. As her teenage years moved along, she began getting roles in musicals, as well as opportunities to sing on stage in clubs. It was while working at a benefit fundraiser that she met one of Argentina’s rising young political stars, Col. Juan Perón. There was an attraction between the two and soon they began a torrid love affair. *(Up until this point in her story, the only bone of contention between those who consider Eva Perón to be akin to a saint and those who despise everything about her is whether she made her way to the top of Argentinian society because of her cunning determination and ambition or whether she prostituted herself). From what I have read, there appears to be no middle ground in this matter.

Eva and Col. Juan Person made for a glamorous couple.

Once Eva Duarte and Juan Perón became a romantically involved couple, they entered into a political partnership. As anyone with any knowledge of politics probably knows, no one rises to positions of power in isolation. They do so because they have supporters working behind the scenes, as well as in front of the cameras, who help their candidate of choice acquire enough popular support among the electorate to gain power. This is where the story of Evita becomes muddled and why it is important to understand the motives behind whoever is telling her tale. As the Peróns ascended to the Presidency of Argentina, they started a series of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of the working class. Hospitals, schools, orphanages, etc…, all received an influx of funding that flowed from the pens of Eva and Juan Perón. Up until their arrival, charities in Argentina were often run by the wealthy who would pocket much of the money that was raised from the citizens of the country. Needless to say, when Eva Perón essentially nationalized philanthropy, she made a lot of powerful enemies among the ruling class. It bothered them further that she was beautiful and revered by those she was helping. To her supporters in the working class, Eva Perón is viewed as an angel who made a concrete difference in their lives. For those who disliked her, she was nothing more than a political opportunist who stole from the rich to enrich herself and whose charity was nothing more than a power move to solidify support from those she considered her base. Many who oppose her claim that she was no better than another notorious First Lady, Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. Eva Perón died from cancer in her mid-thirties. Her husband was the subject of a military coup. Perón’s body was removed from its crypt by thieves and spirited away to Italy, where it was held for ransom for several decades before finally being allowed to return to Argentina. She was eventually laid to rest in the Duarte family plot in the same small village in which she had been raised. Her life had come full circle.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a famous creator of musicals, as many of you are aware. He has a musical partner named Tim Rice. Rice often composes the musical scores that accompany Webber’s lyrics. It was Rice who first heard of the story of Eva Perón. He spent years researching her life story. He visited Argentina dozens of times, going to all of the places that played a major role in her life. In his mind, the story of the life of Eva Perón was an obvious choice to be turned into a musical. However, his partner wasn’t so sure. Webber argued that no one outside of Latin America knew who she was and that the general public wouldn’t rush out to see a play about the First Lady of Argentina, even if they did. But Tim Rice persisted and eventually Andrew Lloyd Webber agreed to give it a try. Initially, the compromise solution was to create a live cast recording and leave it at that. But, as tracks were recorded, the story that became Evita began taking on an energy of its own to the point where even Andrew Lloyd Webber himself had to acknowledge that this was a musical waiting to happen. But this is where the politics of the storyteller’s perspective come into play.

The plaque placed on her tomb by the taxi drivers union. It was the inspiration for the song, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”.

Andrew Lloyd Webber was not entirely certain as to how to accurately portray Eva Perón on the stage. As noted, she is a historically polarizing figure whose biography varies a great degree depending upon who is doing the talking. So, what Andrew Lloyd Webber ended up doing was to insert a character into the story called Ché. *(This may or may not be a reference to the famous revolutionary leader, Ché Guevara). The character of Ché is used by Webber in the role of the traditional Greek chorus. Ché is cynical of Perón and her motives and helps provide a perspective that contrasts with the mythologizing of Eva Perón that comes from the rest of the cast who play the citizens of Argentina. That she was adored and despised in equal measure appears to be the truest path to tread when it comes to evaluating Perón’s legacy by those of us who were never there at the time and who have to rely on the perspectives of those with something to gain by how they share her story. In the end, Andrew Lloyd Webber appears to have come down on the side of those in her corner. For the show stopping number, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, Webber drew upon the true story of how ordinary citizens reacted upon hearing the news of her death. At her gravesite rests a plaque that was paid for by donations raised by the taxi drivers union of Buenos Aires. The plaque states that they will not cry for her (because they felt blessed to have had her in their lives, even for such a short time as it turned out to be), but that they would cry for their country (because of the opportunity for charity and compassion that had been lost).

Evita has gone on to become one of the most successful musicals ever made. The song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Song in a Musical the year it was released. In the 1990s, Evita was made into a Hollywood movie that starred Madonna as Eva Perón. Madonna had campaigned for years to play the role of Eva Perón because she felt that Perón’s life story bore a striking resemblance to her own. The movie opened to mixed reviews, mostly due to Madonna’s acting and singing voice. That may seem like a strange thing to say, since Madonna is one of the biggest selling singing stars of all time. However, what her performance showed, more than anything, was that there is a big difference between being a singer who sings Pop songs recorded in a studio as opposed to being a singer who belts it out on stage every night. Prior to Madonna singing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” in the movie, the song had been famously sung by such women as Barbra Streisand, as well as the legendary West End star, Elaine Paige *(who you will remember from her star turn in Cats as she sings that musical’s show stopper, “Memories”, which you can read about here). For my money, Paige is simply the gold standard. It is her version of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” that I will feature below. I will include Madonna’s, too, just so you can compare the two performances for yourself.

The politics of storytelling is not reserved for musicals and dramatic film adaptations. We are seeing this bear fruit in real time in our own society as more and more of our newspapers, television news stations and social media outlets are being taken over by those on the right wing side of the political spectrum. When the information we are being presented takes on the perspective of those who view themselves as the victors, then their reality becomes our history. An easy modern example is the resistance to Climate Change initiatives. Who are the ones who believe in a “Green” future, and who seek to maintain the status quo because it is good for the bottom lines of those in charge? Who are the victors and who are the vanquished, and, just as importantly, who gets to tell the tale? Our future just may very well depend upon the answer to that question. Perhaps I should tweet about my feelings on Twitter but, then again…..

The link to the video for the song, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” as sung by Elaine Paige can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer of the West End musical, Evita, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” as sung by Madonna from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Evita can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the film Evita can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Eva Perón Society can be found here.

*As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner with the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins: Song #22/250…The Great Canadian Road Trip

Martha and the Muffins are often thought of as “one-hit wonders” because of the success of their debut single, “Echo Beach”, in 1981. While “Echo Beach” was a huge hit…in fact, it won the Juno Award for Single of the Year…the song was just one of many that charted in those early days of the burgeoning Alternative music in and around Toronto. However, Martha and the Muffins had an impactful career, not just because of the music they produced but also because of the people they worked with along the way. In fact, an argument can be made that it was because of the band giving a break to a teenage boy working out of his Mom’s house in Hamilton, Ontario, that the face of music around the world changed for the better as the 1980s rolled along. So, sit down, strap in and make yourself comfortable. Here is the story of “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins.

Martha and the Muffins.

The band Martha and the Muffins formed in the late 1970s at the Ontario College Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto. The original members were the Gane Brothers (Mark and Tim), along with friends, David Millar, Carl Finkle and singer, Martha Johnson. At the time, punk rock was exploding around the world. Bands like The Clash and The Damned were making a name for themselves. The members of Martha and the Muffins wanted to play a form of Art Rock but didn’t want a harsh sounding name for the group, so, as a lark, they called themselves Martha and the Muffins. They never intended to have that as the real name of their band, but the joke was soon on them. In 1980, they recorded their debut album and released their first single, which was “Echo Beach”. While the band members all felt that “Echo Beach” was a cool sounding song, no one was prepared for how quickly it caught fire and roared up the charts. It became such a smash hit that the band’s name became their brand, whether they wanted it to be or not. In later years, after several lineup changes, the core members tried to rebrand themselves as “M + M” but by then, they had become too well known as Martha and the Muffins to make that change come to fruition.

In this photo, you can see how small Sunnyside Beach actually is and how close it is to the Gardiner Expressway and the rest of the City of Toronto.

There is no actual beach in Canada called Echo Beach. When the song speaks of having a boring job and of daydreaming about this idyllic beach, that much is based in fact. The song was inspired by Mark Gane having a summer job in a wall paper factory. It was a terribly boring job (checking the paper for rips as it came off of the production line) and one that had him dreaming of being anywhere else but where he was. The beach Gane was actually thinking of was a real beach in Toronto called Sunnyside Beach. Sunnyside Beach is a small stretch of sand on the shores of Lake Ontario. It sits almost directly across from High Park, on the southern side of a major highway in Toronto known as the Gardiner Expressway. The Gardiner Expressway is the major road artery that brings vehicular traffic into the lower downtown area of Toronto. Over one hundred thousand cars a day travel on the Gardiner Expressway as it meanders along the Lake Ontario coastline. Just north of the Gardiner Expressway sits the city of Toronto proper and all two million of its residents. Sunnyside Beach exists amid it all as a tiny little oasis of calm. A series of trees shields the beach from the noise of the Gardiner Expressway. Once you are relaxing on the sand of Sunnyside Beach, you can almost imagine that you are somewhere else entirely, even as two million people go about their business less than a kilometre away. The song “Echo Beach” speaks of the universal desire for peace and relaxation and for getting away from the hustle and the grind of everyday life. It is not surprising that its message resonated so well with so many who heard it.

Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Ontario. This was home base for Daniel Lanois when he started producing and recording music.

But, the story of Martha and the Muffins doesn’t end with this one great song. Their importance as a band stretches far beyond “Echo Beach”. The story goes that their one hit song had record executives clamouring for a follow-up. By the time the band was ready to start work on album #2, there had been several lineup changes. Most notably, they hired a new bassist named Jocelyne Lanois. *(When her time ended with Martha and the Muffins, Lanois helped form another Canadian band of note, Crash Vegas). In any case, besides bringing her musical skills to the forefront, Jocelyne Lanois’ most important contribution was recommending her seventeen-year-old brother for the job as producer. Her brother’s name was Daniel Lanois. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Starting in the 1980s, Daniel Lanois has become one of the most successful record producers and recording artists in the entire world. While he was a complete unknown when Martha and the Muffins came calling at his Grant Avenue Studios in his mom’s Hamilton, Ontario home, Lanois would go on to produce all of U2’s greatest albums during the 1980s including The Joshua Tree, as well as producing Peter Gabriel’s “So” album *(which was the very first CD I ever bought), Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Canada’s own The Tragically Hip and many many more.

Producer/musician extraordinaire Daniel Lanois.

The early 1980s, when Martha and the Muffins sought the services of a very young Daniel Lanois, was a time when the music industry was changing. The digitization of music was in its infancy. Compact discs were just starting to replace record albums as the format of choice for consumers. The process of digitization meant that recordings weren’t restricted to the sounds that artists could produce live, in studio. Now, sounds could be recorded, reformatted and tweaked in numerous electronic ways. Daniel Lanois was very interested in experimenting with the recording process. This involved everything from how microphones were used, to how many tracks could be laid over each other and so on. The members of Martha and the Muffins, having a background in Art and Design, were predisposed to liking the creative process of sound manipulation that Lanois was proposing. As a result, their second album was more experimental sounding. While the band liked their work, as did Daniel Lanois, there were no “hit songs” to emerge. After another album or two of music that was more cutting edge than it was commercial sounding, Martha and the Muffins were dropped by their record label. From this point on, the process of reinvention took place. The band tried to tour as “M + M” but to no avail. Eventually, the band members began releasing solo material. In fact, lead singer Martha Johnson created a children’s album and ended up winning her second Juno Award (for Best Children’s Recording).

The band eventually came to terms with the notion that they will always be Martha and the Muffins in the eyes of their fans and have started touring again. They now find themselves in a situation similar to bands such as Violent Femmes (with “Blister in the Sun”) and Pulp (with “Common People”) in that they have an entire catalogue filled with music they are proud of, but in the end, they know that their audiences usually come to hear that one hit song. They know that when they play those familiar opening notes that the roof will blow off of whatever venue they find themselves in, and, at least for that moment in time, they can help their own audience to remember those happy times when they, too, were able to get away from the hustle and grind for a while and feel the sunshine on their skin and be happy. To be able to do that for another is a gift worth giving. And so Martha and the Muffins continue to play “Echo Beach”, a song that is far away in time in more ways than one.

The link to the video for the song “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins can be found here.

***The lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the video for the 30th anniversary reissue of “Echo Beach”…much slower and jazz-like…can be found here. Excellent video, btw.

The link to the official website for Martha and the Muffins can be found here.

The link to the official website for the City of Toronto beaches and parks directory can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of the post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

In Flanders by Ivor Gurney…Composition 20/50: Keepin’ It Classy

In Flanders by Ivor Gurney…Composition 20/50: Keepin’ It Classy

Editor’s Note: I feel this post is a day late and a dollar short. It is November 14th today (as of the push of the “Publish” button). November 11th is known as Remembrance Day here in Canada. On that day there are many ceremonies held across the country to honour those who served in various wars under the banner of Canada and the Canadian flag. However, I am of the opinion that the act of remembrance is something that should be a year-long affair. After all, my ability to live a life of peace is a year-long affair. Therefore, I publish this post a few days in arrears of the official Day of Remembrance in Canada. My gratitude is not restricted to dates on calendars. Please enjoy these words in the spirit of remembrance in which they were written.

As of the writing of this post, I have been alive for fifty-eight years and not once in all that time has someone tried to kill me. At least to my knowledge. I have never pre-checked the food or drink I consume for poison. When I leave my house, I don’t look down for trip-wires or land mines. There has never been an assassination attempt made on my life as I shop in local stores or stroll along the shoreline of my town. I don’t personally know anyone who has been the victim of a suicide bomber. The truth is that every single day of my life I have known peace. Every single day. Without fail or exception. I have lived a peace-filled life for all of my fifty-eight years and for that, I consider myself extremely lucky.

Part of my ability to make this claim is based on circumstance. I live in Canada and have done so for my whole life. In the time that I have been alive, Canada has never fought a war on home soil. In addition, while there have been wars around the world during my lifetime, Canada has never declared war and become an enemy combatant in any of these conflicts, and therefore, there has been no wartime conscription in which I may have been swept up. This makes me a civilian. I am a civilian in a peaceful country. This allows me to go about the business of living my life without fear of being killed by someone who has set out to do me harm.

This sculpture is dedicated to those who served in the merchant marine. The sculpture sits on the boardwalk along the harbour in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

This makes the act of Remembrance different for me than it does for those who have served in Canada’s Armed Forces. It also makes it different for people like my ninety-one year old mother who still tells stories of German U-boats off the coast of Sydney, Nova Scotia during World War II when she was just a teenager. In fact, along the boardwalk by Sydney’s harbour, there is a commemorative sculpture that honours the men and women of the Merchant Marine. These brave souls sailed an armada of supply ships from North America across the Atlantic Ocean to England, thus circumventing attempts by German forces to erect a blockade of England and starve it into submission and surrender. My mother remembers it all, and for her (as well as those who have served in Peacekeeping missions around the world), the act of Remembrance is a personal and solemn affair. So, as I don my poppy and bow my head, I do so from a different perspective…gratitude.

Flanders Fields in Belgium during WWI.

I am thankful to everyone who bravely faced death so that I may not. I will never know what you know and I imagine that from your perspective, you consider that a lucky thing for me to be able to say. While I have never faced battle, I am under no illusion that doing so is like being in a video game or a Hollywood movie. I am sure that in real life, the enemy soldiers are not all poor shots. My only basis for claiming to have some sense of understanding of what it is like to be at war comes from what I have seen in news reels or documentaries, or else, that I have read from books, newspapers and magazines. For those of us on the civilian side of things, we owe a debt of gratitude, not only to those who fought in wars so that we may enjoy the freedom that we do today, but, also, to those with an artistic bent who painted pictures, wrote stories or composed music that described the hellish conditions of war for the rest of us. In Canada, the most famous example of this comes in the form of a poem entitled “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae. His poem is one that most, if not all, Canadian school children learn, and is one that is read aloud across the land on the 11th of November each year. Flanders Fields is an area of land not far from Ypres in Belgium. Not everyone is aware that many of the most horrific battles of World War I were fought in Belgium. The slaughter that was The Battle of Passchendaele took place less than half an hour from Flanders Fields. In photos and films that I have seen, it seems like the battlefields were not, in fact, fields at all. Instead, they were endless expanses of mud, pock-marked by shell craters deep enough and slippery enough to drown many a soldier seeking escape from being exposed above ground in No Man’s Land. I have only seen the photos, as taken by war photographers such as Canadian William Rider-Rider, but for me, those photos are enough to know that I would never have wanted to be there.

Poet/Composer Ivor Gurney.

But someone who was there was a young Englishman named Ivor Gurney. Gurney was a gifted poet, musician and composer when World War I broke out. At that time, it was considered every young man’s patriotic duty to enlist so he did. However, upon enlisting, Gurney showed the first of many indications that he was not your average soldier going off to war. Ivor Gurney enjoyed privilege in his teenage life, and so would have been automatically placed in line for the officer ranks. However, upon enlisting, Gurney asked to be registered as a Private. When asked about this decision in later years, Gurney proclaimed that it was the Officer ranks who always lead the charges out of the trenches, and from what he had heard of battles already fought along The Western Front, being first out of the trenches was often akin to a suicide mission. So, he opted for pragmatism in the face of insanity and stayed in the trenches as long as he could before emerging to fight. Between engagements, Gurney wrote poetry of the same sort that John McCrae did. He wrote of the horrific conditions he found himself in. He wrote about comrades held close and then lost in battle. He also wrote about the mundane things, such as the texture of his rations, the way cigarette smoke rose into the air and of his longing for his home.

This plaque is displayed at Westminster Abbey. It features the names of England’s sixteen great “War Poets”. Ivor Gurney is listed near the middle of the plaque.

Like many soldiers who survived WWI, Gurney got lucky, in a way, because of injury and by being gassed with mustard gas. In both cases, Ivor Gurney’s injuries allowed him to be removed from the front lines and placed in the care of hospital staff. It was while recovering from being gassed that Gurney actually met a nurse with whom he fell in love. Eventually, Gurney was given an honourable discharge on the basis of “shellshock”. At the time, not much was understood about what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. One hundred years ago, mental illness was something that wasn’t discussed in civilized society. So, when Ivor Gurney was discharged, he was unable to cope with civilian life and ended up being declared insane, and, as a result, was committed to mental health facilities for most of his adult life. While this may sound tragic…and, of course, it is…the fact is that the regimented nature of life in a mental institution helped instill a sense of discipline in Gurney. At the core of who he was, Ivor Gurney was an artist and a creator. With the majority of life decisions now made for him by hospital staff, Gurney was free to focus his thoughts solely on creativity. Thus, Gurney’s period of hospitalization ended up being the most prolific of his entire life. While a patient in a variety of psychiatric hospitals, Ivor Gurney created over three hundred musical compositions, as well as several complete volumes of poetry. One of his most famous compositions was called “In Flanders”. It was based upon a poem by his friend, fellow poet, F.W. Harvey. “In Flanders” is a lament by a soldier for the peaceful valleys of home in England. This poem/composition helped English citizens come to better understand the conditions under which the men in their lives fought and died. Ivor Gurney died at the age of 47. Like many talented artists, Gurney’s creativity was always tenuous in nature. To others, he always seemed to live on the very edge between brilliance and complete instability. As prolific as he was, there was an equal amount of his work that was incomprehensible, and that has only survived destruction because of how it provided a window for others to see into the madness that was Gurney’s mind. But, when the storms of his mind subsided long enough for his creativity to rise to the fore, Ivor Gurney produced some of the clearest and most articulate visions of the apocalyptic nature of war in the history of English music and literature.. Consequently, after his death, Gurney’s work was assessed properly in its complete depth and vast scope. Because of this re-evaluation, Gurney was accorded a much higher degree of respect for his work. This resulted in Gurney being acknowledged in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey as one of the sixteen greatest War Poets in English history.

So, when it comes to Remembrance, I remain grateful for the life I am able to live. To those who fought in the trenches and on the beaches, in the air and on the sea, I thank you. I thank you, and in doing so, I acknowledge that I will never know what you know. My knowledge comes from the artists who painted pictures for the rest of us with their paintings, their poetry and their music. To them, I am thankful for their vision and their skill at providing a sense of the horror of it all and giving scope to the epic nature of what war truly is. But most of all, I place my hand over my heart in gratitude that someone like me should be so lucky as to learn about war through the notes of a song or the words of a poem while never having to have lived through it. As I write these final words, I do so without fear. I am as safe as one can be on this day. My to-do list today includes many things, but facing death from an enemy combatant is not one of them.

The link to the video for the composition “In Flanders” by Ivor Gurney can be found here. ***Lyrics can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Ivor Gurney Trust can be found here.

The link to the video of Leonard Cohen reading the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae can be found here.

The link to the official website for the museum at Flanders Fields in Belgium can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Juno Beach Centre in France can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Vimy Ridge Memorial can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission can be found here. (The CWGC acts to maintain all war graves containing the bodies of Commonwealth soldiers regardless of where they are buried throughout the world).

The link to the official website for photographer William Rider-Rider can be found here. *(Mr. Rider-Rider’s photographs account for many of the most famous and important photographs taken by a Canadian photographer during WWI).

The link to the official Government of Canada website for all things to do with Remembrance can be found here. *(This includes maps/links to all memorial cairns/cenotaphs in Canada, all soldiers listed in the Book of Honour at Parliament Hill and much, much more).

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Can-can by Jacques Offenbach…Composition #19/50: Keepin’ It Classy.

Editor’s note: Today’s post contains another one of those words that seems to have multiple spellings. I have seen the dance known as The Can-can spelled as I just did but also, Can-Can and, as well Cancan and cancan, The most common way seems to be Can-can so that is the spelling I am going with. Just so ya know. 🙂

German composer Jacques Offenbach.

Jacques Offenbach was a German composer who gained fame because of his creative work in France. Offenbach was known for writing operettas, most of which were comedic and dealt with the ruling aristocracy in France. At the time of his fame, he often directed his humour at the Emperor Napoleon. While Offenbach targeted the ruling class in many well-received plays, there was one that stood out from among the rest. It was an operetta called, Orphee aux enfers or, in English, Orpheus in the Underworld. This operetta was a take on the famous legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. In Offenbach’s take on the classic tale, Orpheus and Eurydice are a married couple who no longer like each other and wish to be apart. Orpheus discusses his frustrations with Pluto, God of the Underworld (who happens to fancy Eurydice). The two agree on a plan in which Eurydice will be bitten by snakes that Orpheus will release. When that happens, Pluto will rise up and take Eurydice to his domain in the Underworld. It will be a win-win for them both. Unfortunately for Orphues, he is not allowed to enjoy his freedom. He is plagued by a Greek chorus-like character aptly named “Public Opinion” who berates and badgers Orpheus to the point where he agrees to go into Hell to get his wife back. While in the Underworld, Orpheus witnesses the God and Goddesses behaving badly, which many took to be a reference to Napoleon and his court. In any case, as the finale of the operetta was being reached, a scene unfolds at a banquet for the Gods in which a new dance is debuted. It was a raucous, joyous, energy-filled affair that was received by audiences with rapturous applause. That dance was called the Galop infernal or as it became known, The Can-can.

Jane Avril. 1893.

In Offenbach’s operetta, The Can-can was a group dance for couples. Like all trendsetting cultural situations such as this, The Can-can became popular outside of the parameters of the play. It began to be performed in night clubs all over Paris. At first, this dance remained a couples-only dance in which four couples would perform it together in a circle facing inward, then outward and then, expanding out into a straight line. As the popularity of the dance continued to climb, certain dancers became experts in the performance of it. Initially, those who excelled were all men. The Can-can became known as an athletic dance best performed by strong, supple males. However, it was soon copied by females. These females knew that they could not match the brute strength of the acrobatic male dancers but they knew that they had an advantage that the men couldn’t touch, and that was their sexuality. So, before anyone knew it, The Can-can became a sexy, sensual, scandalous dance in which the female dancers would wear crotchless and/or thong-like panties under their skirts. The high-kicking finale to the dance was quite revealing, if you know what I mean. Consequently, as it was in the beginning for the male dancers, the same trend happened for the females that saw certain dancers become famous for their Can-can routines. One of the most famous of them all was a woman named Jane Avril.

French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Avril danced in nightclubs all over Paris and became quite wealthy and famous because of her Can-can skills. In fact, she ended up being hired as the permanent headlining act at the most famous Parisian nightclub of them all…The Moulin Rouge. Avril’s time at The Moulin Rouge was immortalized by one of France’s most famous artists, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec created over 700 paintings before his death at age 37. Unfortunately for him, he had a physical affliction that caused his legs to be abnormally short. Because of the social stigma he encountered in life, Toulouse-Lautrec developed an addiction to alcohol and, as well, to prostitutes. Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec was known for his willingness to pay money for the attention of females so he became a regular customer at nightclubs like The Moulin Rouge. Once inside, the young dancers would make much of him and, for a brief while, he would feel happy and would be able to forget about his disability. In gratitude, Toulouse-Lautrec approached the owners of The Moulin Rouge and offered to create a series of professional poster-like paintings to promote the club. The owners accepted his offer. In the end, Toulouse-Lautrec created dozens of iconic Moulin Rouge posters, many of which feature a young dancer known as Jane Avril.

As has been the case with many composers of the classical era, Offenbach created hundreds of musical compositions of which he was very proud and for which audiences were generous with their applause. However, his Galop infernal became the musical creation that he is most famous for, whether he wanted it that way or not. It was said that Offenbach did not approve of the salacious manner in which The Can-can ended up being performed in venues like The Moulin Rouge but there was little he could do to stop the rise in interest once it became sexualized. While certainly not the first case of this sort, the evolution of The Can-can from how it was used in an operetta about Napoleon to how it ended up being marketed at The Moulin Rouge is one of the most famous examples of the advertising maxim that “sex sells”. Whether that should or should not be the way the world works is not up for debate because the marketing of healthy female bodies continues unabated a full century later. Whether it is a fashion runway, a “gentleman’s club”, an auto trade show or a venue like Radio City Music Hall in NYC (with The Rockettes), it isn’t difficult to find strong, healthy, attractive females moving about for money. Regardless of your view on this matter… you thank Mr. Offenbach for introducing his dance or do you curse him?…the fact remains that The Can-can is arguably one of the best known dance-oriented musical compositions ever created. For that, I think that Jacques Offenbach should be proud. It is not just anyone who can create something that ends up transcending time.

The link to the video for the composition, “The Can-can” by Jacques Offenbach can be found here.

The link to the official website for Jacques Offenbach can be found here.

The link to the official website for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec can be found here.

The link to the official website for Jane Avril can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Moulin Rouge Night club can be found here.

The link to the official website of the best classical music radio station….Classical 103.1….found in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am by Herman’s Hermits…Song #16/250: Reader’s Choice

Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am by Herman’s Hermits…Song #16/250: Reader’s Choice

Editor’s Note:

Just a quick note on spelling of today’s song. Today’s song was originally written and recorded using a Cockney-style spelling of the name, “Henry”. Thus, when referring to the original song, I will use the spelling of “Henery”. When the song was covered by Herman’s Hermits, they anglicized the spelling so as to appeal to a broader audience. Thus, when referring to their cover version, I will use “Henry” as the spelling. Just so ya know. 🙂

Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits.

I was born in 1964. By the time I came into the world, the British television show, Coronation Street, was already on the air. One of the cast members of that show at the time was a teenage boy named Peter Noone. Peter Noone had ambitions that extended beyond the reach of Coronation Street. The year prior, he had joined a band as the lead singer. That band was initially named Herman and his Hermits. They had a hit right off of the bat with a song called “I’m Into Something Good”. With that hit in tow, they rode the British Invasion wave and became a worldwide success story. By the time they struck with their second hit, their name had been shortened to simply Herman’s Hermits. Peter Noone’s popularity rivaled the lads from Liverpool as far as being considered the face of British music. That second hit was a song that at first blush seemed like a novelty song, but, in reality, was actually a song with deep cultural roots in British entertainment history. That song was the cockney-inspired “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am”. This song went to #1 in the UK, knocking “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones out of the top chart position. “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am” went to #1 in the U.S., as well as starting a string of musical successes in America that actually out matched their achievements back home. While The Beatles and the Rolling Stones emerged as the top acts from the UK to ride the British Invasion wave, Herman’s Hermits were always considered to be in that same peer group. One of the reasons for their success lay in the fact that the members of the band understood where they stood in terms of the history of entertainment in Britain. This knowledge was best reflected in their song choice of “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am”. British audiences immediately recognized this effort as being a history lesson that had nothing to do with royalty, but, in fact, everything to do with how English commoners got their musical entertainment throughout history. So, grab a pint, sit back and get comfy because this post is actually a history lesson as told through song. Enjoy.

The Wilton Music Hall is an example of the types of buildings that were erected in England toward the end of the 1800s.

As long as there have been people who have gathered together, there have been songs and storytelling and the sharing of food with good company. Hundreds of years ago, formal gatherings were the purvey of royalty and/or those who were in power, such as Popes and Archbishops. Music for the masses was a relatively rare affair unless, of course, those in power sought to have a village-wide celebration for some reason. The first formal music and entertainment festivals took the form of Fairs held in the countryside. The most famous example of this would be the Fair that inspired one of the 1960s greatest hit songs, Scarborough Fair. These fairs were the original Renaissance fairs and served to bring poets and minstrel acts and other entertainers into a public setting where ordinary working people could see them. As time rolled along, buildings known as “Public houses” began to appear along the thoroughfares that connected the number of growing towns and cities in England. These public houses…or pubs, as they came to be known…were basically homes that were open to the traveling public to stop by for a drink and a bite to eat. As public houses established themselves, they started adding musical entertainment. This practice began causing crowds to swell, profits to soar and was the beginning of a sort of star system for entertainers in the UK. As the owners of public houses got wiser, they realized they could increase the size of their customer base by being able to hire permanent entertainers, and then promote the appearance of said entertainers so that customers would know that if they showed up at a certain public house on a certain day, they were guaranteed a show by someone they enjoyed seeing, as well as a good drink. This was the start of entertainment advertising. It was, also, the beginning of the commodification of entertainment as a business. As business practices were refined, public house owners began to realize that their pubs were often too small to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds that clamoured to see their favourite entertainers. So, these owners started taking some of their profits and began building larger venues that became known as music halls. Music halls were often two story structures in which there was a balcony around the perimeter of the upper story, with the main floor being open for a stand-up crowd or else, most often, as a space filled with tables so that a dinner theatre experience could be had by those who paid extra to sit below. Because there was a formal stage area at one end of the main floor, music halls functioned like small theatres. There was room for entertainers to store props and musical instruments backstage. Because of the increased room to maneuver, the types of entertainment offered began to transition into what we would now call Vaudeville and/or burlesque type shows. Much of what was performed in British music halls by the end of the 1800s would be considered ribald or bawdy humour. The audience was mainly working class citizens. The subject matter of these shows often was reflective of the lives of the audiences who came to enjoy themselves. Thus, singers and comedians typically sang songs about drinking, about food, as well as poking fun at those who swam in upper class social waters. One of the big stars to emerge during the music hall phase of British entertainment history was a man who went by the stage name of Harry Champion. It is at this stage of this history lesson that the story of today’s chosen song begins.

Harry Champion around the turn of the century in 1900. He was one of the biggest stars in British Music Hall history. He was the first to sing “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am”.

Harry Champion was a well known, much beloved music hall singer and comedian in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of the songs he sang were about food and the act of eating. He always sang in a very comedic, slapstick manner. Physical comedy was his strength. Audiences of that era lapped up what Champion served up on stage each night. For a while, he was one of Britain’s biggest stars. As the years went by, Champion continually added to his repertoire of material so that, in 1910, when he announced that he was debuting a brand new song, people were excited to hear this new work. That song was “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am”. As many of you may know, one of the most famous kings in English history was named Henry the Eighth. Well, this new song by Harry Champion was not about the king but was, obviously, a play on his famous name. In fact, Champion’s Cockney-inspired tune was about a woman who had been married eight times, each time to a man named Henry! As Champion sang the song, he did so as the 8th Henry to marry this woman. Audiences roared with laughter and Harry Champion had himself a hit song. Unfortunately for Harry Champion and for many music hall performers like him, the start of World War I signaled the end of an era for music hall-style performers. As the War ended, radio began to be introduced on a wider scale. By the end of the 1920s, most homes had their own radio receiver. The BBC began to assume the role of the nation’s broadcaster. This was to be the case until the 1950s when television began to take its place as the primary means of obtaining information and entertainment. If you have ever paid attention to the Queen song, “Radio GaGa”, you will know that it is a song about the history of radio in the UK and the importance of it as a conduit for news and entertainment even to this day. In any case, the death of music halls as a primary means for common folk to enjoy entertainment meant the end of their career for entertainers like Harry Champion.

So, in 1964, when young British bands were preparing to embark on careers that would end up revolutionizing the music business, Peter Noone and his bandmates in Herman’s Hermits wanted to wave the flag of their homeland in a very intimate manner. They did so by covering Harry Champion’s hit, “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am” for a new generation of listeners, as well as for audiences in countries around the world who could listen to their song and learn a bit about British entertainment history if they wished to do a bit of research on their own. By honouring those who came before them, Herman’s Hermits showed a level of respect that helped them stand in good stead with record buyers and with those who came to see their shows in person. So, while “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am” may seem like a silly song when you first hear it, it actually is a throwback to a time when performers stood on small stages in public houses and music halls and brought humorous respite into the lives of common, hardworking folk. The song is a history lesson unspoken.

This was the album that “Poppa” found in a thrift store and ended up playing for my daughters. This was the first time they had ever heard “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am”.

Today’s Reader’s Choice post is dedicated to my in-laws, Bruce and Sheila Davis. They are good folk and I am lucky to have them as family members. They are a full generation older than I am. Why that is important is because the timeline of their lives places them as teenagers when the British Invasion was in full swing. They dated in an era when going to dances was more of a thing than it seems to be today. Even though they have reached their seventies, they still like to dance together. They take great delight in putting record albums on their stereo and dancing up a storm in front of my daughters (their grandchildren) as a way of introducing them to the music of their youth. During one of our last visits, Poppa (as the girls call him) was very excited to show us all his latest thrift store find. It was a copy of Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits still in the original cellophane! Poppa asked the girls if they knew who Herman’s Hermits were and when they said no…well, it was showtime once again. Gramma and Poppa danced like young lovers in the living room while Poppa sang “I’m Into Something Good” and then, “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am”. The girls expressed embarrassment and delight in equal measure. Gramma and Poppa laughed and hugged. I am fairly certain that when the girls read this post, the image in their minds won’t be the story of British entertainment through the ages nor will it be the original singer of this song, Harry Champion. Instead, the image that my girls will take with them is of their beloved grandparents singing and dancing together to a song that sounds quite silly in actual fact. But the real lesson here is that love is all that really matters. If you can mesh music into your heart in a way that it becomes synonymous with feelings of love then music becomes more than simply notes and chords. It becomes the soundtrack to lives lived with love. Whether that love is between two people or between a band and the country of their birth….love is all that matters.

The link to the video for the song, “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits can be found here.

The link to the official website for Herman’s Hermits can be found here.

Tomorrow’s Top 40: Maggie Rogers, Prince, Mary J. Blige and Elvis Presley, too.

Here are some of the bands and artists who are making news with new releases this week:

Horses by Maggie Rogers

Maggie Rogers.

Maggie Rogers is one of the most interesting young people in music today. She was the subject of a viral video that was uploaded during the initial lockdown phase of the pandemic, and as such, she became well known to thousands of folks without having released an album or performed on a tour. Maggie’s story goes a little like this…as a child, she was a self-taught multi-instrumentalist. As she entered high school, more musical opportunities presented themselves so she became involved in school choirs and theatre productions. But, in addition to that, Rogers used her high school years to learn about music production and sound engineering. As high school ended, Maggie Rogers recorded a series of songs that would end up becoming her debut album in a couple of years. In the meantime, she used those completed songs as her application to New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Needless to say, she was accepted into the programme. One of her professors there was star singer, Pharrell. (You might know Pharrell from the song “Happy”). In any case, in Pharrell’s class, the students there were tasked with writing, arranging, performing and producing an original song. The viral video that swept the Internet was one in which it was Maggie Rogers’ turn to present in class. In the video, she sits beside Pharrell at the front of the class. They conduct a brief interview so that Pharrell can get a sense of where the upcoming song got its roots, and then her song is played. The song is called “Alaska” and was written about an Outward Bound-type leadership camp she attended in Alaska as a teenager. Pharrell is a seasoned professional and yet, when he listened to “Alaska”, he was visibly moved. When it came time for him to critique her work, he was momentarily at a loss for words. When he did speak, he ended up telling Rogers that he had never encountered anyone like her and that she was completely unique as far as her vision of herself and her music was concerned. As for her skills, he compared her to the genius of Stevie Wonder. No one who watches this video feels that he was just blowing smoke with his comments. They all appeared to be genuinely offered. (I encourage you to stop and watch this video before going on. It is a star turn happening in real time and is really something to see. You can watch the video here).

Not long after graduating from The Institute, a bidding war erupted between record labels. But, just to show you how grounded this young lady was, she formed her own label before signing with anyone else. Her condition for signing with a major label was that all of her music had to first come through her own label so that she could control the content and direction of her career. The only role a major label would play was promotion and distribution of her finished product. A bidding war ensued anyway. Her first album was released. It was called Heard it in a Past Life which earned her a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. After the whirlwind ride that came with touring to support her debut songs, Maggie Rogers stepped away from the spotlight and went to divinity school at Harvard. She moved to Maine and lived by the sea. So, while learning about God and exposing herself to the salt air on the east coast, Maggie Rogers came up with the inspiration for new songs that comprise her album called Surrender. The lead single from this album is called “Horses”. This young lady sure can sing! She has a Folk background but “Horses” allows her to stretch her vocal range a bit, giving her a Country-Rock feel. But, what pipes! Wow! “Horses” was written after Rogers witnessed a herd of wild horses in the mountains. In the song, she admires the freedom these horses seem to have and asks a lover/friend if they have the courage to join her in a quest to be just like those horses. Quite the song. Quite the singer.

***Here is Maggie Rogers with “Horses”. The lyrics version of “Horses” can be found here.

Between the likes of Maggie Rogers, Phoebe Bridgers, Lorde, Aurora, Arlo Parks and Brandi Carlile, there is as strong a contingent of ultra-talented female artists performing today as there has been in quite a while. I wish that radio programmers would reflect this more in their offerings. As much as I enjoy hearing Fleetwood Mac-era Stevie Nicks, the 1980s Tina Turner and Annie Lennox and the twenty-year-old songs of Katy Perry and P!nk, I would prefer, just as much, to cycle in some of these modern female performers, too. They are the present and they are the future of music. Let’s give them the air time they deserve, as well.

Holiday Offerings:

Just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, we have the following three offerings for your consideration:

Prince and the Revolution: Live.

Prince and the Revolution circa 1985.

There are many people who go on and on about Bruce Springsteen and what a task master he is and how his penchant for perfection helped to craft some of the most legendary live performances in rock history. The same assessment can easily apply to Minnesota’s own Prince. Like Springsteen, Prince was very much in charge of all aspects of his music; everything from songwriting, to studio production, as well as to concert performance. He was a stickler for details and he demanded complete obedience by everyone involved in the performance of his music. Again, like Springsteen and Rock, Prince was able to create some of the greatest Funk-inspired music of the 1980s. With a string of hits such as “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Purple Rain”, “1999”, “Raspberry Beret” and many more, Prince was one of the most prolific musical forces of his time.

Prince and the Revolution: Live captures him at his fiercest and funkiest. After touring for two years in support of the Purple Rain album and movie, Prince was growing restless. He had other musical ideas that he wanted to explore but he was beginning to feel trapped in the past, only being able to play his hits. So, while on a world tour, Prince suddenly announced that the tour was ending and that this particular show in Syracuse, New York at the Carrier Dome, would be their final stop. Because it was to be the last time Prince was to perform the songs that made up the first half of his career, he wanted the show to be one for the ages. So, he arranged for it to be broadcast live across Europe and to be recorded for national distribution in the US and so it was. This concert was first released as a video tape in the late 1980s. It was updated and re-sold as a CD a decade or so later. Finally, it has been digitally remastered, visually and audio-wise, and is being re-released again in 2022. So, if you have never witnessed a musical genius at the height of his powers, you now can. This is two hours of Prince and his band, the Revolution, absolutely ripping it up! If you like Prince even in the slightest, then Prince and the Revolution: Live is a must-have for your collection.

***Here is how the concert began with “Let’s Go Crazy!”. The lyrics version is here.

The Elvis Movie Soundtrack

As you may know, director Baz Lurhman released a movie this past summer that walked, bopped and rolled us through the life story of the King of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. I was very pleased that Lurhman included references to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton who inspired Elvis and so many other white musicians. In any case, there were 36 songs included throughout the movie. Most of these songs were original Elvis recordings, but many others were mash-ups, or else they were original songs by others such as Thornton or Tharpe. Well, the entire soundtrack is available for download or for purchase as a CD. Today’s music lovers will purchase this collection because of the inclusion of modern singers such as Doja Cat, Diplo, Swae Lee, Kacey Musgraves and Eminem. More seasoned Elvis fans will, no doubt, appreciate the King’s older, original tunes. In either case, Baz Lurhman presents the best of both worlds for Elvis fans. In reply, all I can say to Mr. Lurhman is…come on, say it with me…thank you…thank you very much! 🙂

***Here is Elvis with “In The Ghetto”. The lyrics version is here.

Amazing by Mary J. Blige ft. DJ Khaled

Mary J. Blige and DJ Khaled from the video for “Amazing”.

“Amazing” is the first single off of a new album by Mary J. Blige called Good Morning Gorgeous. This is the first new album of original material from the Godmother of Hip Hop Soul in several years. Just to put this event into some context for you…Mary J. Blige is revered in the Soul and Hip Hop communities. She has dozens of Grammy, Billboard and other awards for her music. Her career has spanned over three decades now and places her firmly in the company of such foundational members of the world of Hip Hop as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Eminem and others of their ilk. As Mary J. Blige has matured in years, she has branched out into the acting world. She has enjoyed much success in roles based upon real people such as Jazz singer Dinah Washington in the movie Aretha, and as Florence Jackson in the historical drama, Mudbound, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Good Morning Gorgeous is a return to her musical roots. It is an album filled with songs that reflect her status as a strong, black, female role model who has earned the respect that comes with such a stellar career. The song “Amazing” features rising star DJ Khaled in a supportive role, but, as the music video clearly shows, the song is all about the feeling of happiness and fulfillment that comes from enjoying success that was earned by staying true to your principles. The song has an excellent throbbing bassline, as one would expect from Mary J. Blige. Just as a personal aside, I find the official video to be visually distracting and prefer the lyrics version. All in all, this is a grand return to form from one of Hip Hop and Soul’s leading ladies. Enjoy.

***The video for “Amazing” is here. The lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Maggie Rogers can be found here.

The link to the official website for Prince can be found here.

The link to the video for the movie Elvis can be found here.

The link to the official website for Mary J. Blige can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post is to be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Opening Theme: Schindler’s List by John Williams…Song #21/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen.

The country of Israel is known as the homeland of those with Jewish ancestry. The creation of Israel was one of the political consequences of World War II. After suffering through the Holocaust, it was determined, going forward, that all people of Jewish ancestry needed a safe haven to return to in times of trouble. As many Jewish people experienced during the War, being Jewish in a foreign land was often a precarious position to be in. As many Jewish citizens attempted to flee in the face of German policies that placed their very lives at risk, there were many countries that refused them entry for political and religious reasons. Thus, when WWII ended, those Jewish people who had survived banded together and swore to never again be cast adrift on the world’s stage. So, the country of Israel was created to be the Jewish Homeland for ever more. ***Of course, politics and history being what they are, how the State of Israel came to be is not as black & white as I am making it out to be. Its creation is multi-hued, to say the least. But, for the sake of contextualizing today’s musical selection, the essential facts are important to know so I have presented them as such.

The Holocaust, or “Final Solution”, was a formal policy devised and implemented by members of the Nazi Party of Germany during the 1930s and into the 40s. The aim of the Holocaust was to remove all people of Jewish ancestry from Europe. The policy was carried out with tremendous efficiency. Starting in Germany, itself, and then spreading out to all countries that were conquered by the German Armed Forces during the War, the Holocaust was a cold, highly-organized administrative effort that saw laws enacted that limited the rights of Jewish people to work, attend school and to own property. They were even required to be seen in public wearing identifying yellow stars. As the lives of Jewish citizens were increasingly restricted, they were soon rounded up by military officers/police and placed in certain small, confined areas where they could be monitored. Their former homes, businesses and possessions were looted and then sold to others who were officially approved by the German government. Those Jewish citizens who were forced into these confined areas were then shipped by trains to work camps erected by the Germans. In some cases, these camps were used strictly for extermination purposes. In other cases, the Jewish people who ended up there became slave labourers who produced goods needed by the German war machine. By the time WWII ended, it was revealed that over six million people of Jewish ancestry had been killed in the Holocaust. As the scale of the atrocity was first being reported, many found the news difficult to believe. How could murder occur on such a vast scale, seemingly under the watchful eyes of the world?! Well, since that time, the stories of those who endured the horrors of the Holocaust have been told in the hope that by doing so, we may be better able to prevent such cruelty from manifesting itself again. In the words of the survivors, the world must never forget.

Oskar Schindler.

Amid the great cruelty, there were moments of great courage and sacrifice. One such story that seemed to stand out from the horror was the case of German industrialist Oskar Schindler. The short strokes of his story are that after the German Blitzkrieg had rolled through Poland and the “Final Solution” had begun to be implemented as official policy there, many German profiteers appeared on the scene to scoop up the spoils of war for themselves at a reduced price. One of those profiteers was a small-time industrialist known as Oskar Schindler. Schindler was no saint when he first arrived in Poland. In fact, one of the very first things he did upon arrival in Krakow, Poland was to bribe his way into Krakow and commandeer a factory for his own purposes and profit. The factory he appropriated was one that made enamel products. As Schindler moved into the factory, it came to his attention that some of the employees that he was going to need to effectively manage it were, in fact, Jewish. This was particularly true of a man named Stern, who was the bookkeeper. Using money as bribes, Schindler was able to pay off the German officers in charge of Krakow so that they would leave his Jewish employees alone. Just as all of this was happening, the new local German officer in charge of Krakow, Amon Goth, was charged with rounding up all of the Jewish citizens of Krakow and placing them in a holding area that became known as the Krakow Ghetto. From there, these citizens would be shipped to a new work camp that Goth was in charge of building. The purpose of this camp was the killing of Poland’s Jewish people. Needless to say, there was much chaos and cruelty on display during the process of rounding up the Jewish citizens of Krakow, which was a fairly large city to begin with. As panic took hold of Krakow’s Jewish community, many learned of Mr. Schindler and how he had protected his Jewish employees through bribes. Suddenly, those seeking protection began showing up at Schindler’s factory begging to be allowed in. Before too long, the list of those deemed as “essential employees for the war effort” grew and grew. Mr. Stern, the bookkeeper, managed the list. As one can imagine, that list became the difference between living and dying for over one thousand Jewish citizens of Krakow, Poland. No one knows the exact moment that caused Oskar Schindler, Nazi Party member, to change from a war profiteer to a humanitarian and saviour but that transition did happen. It even went so far that when German officer Goth built his new extermination camp, Schindler asked to move his factory nearby so as to have access to “more labour” (when, in fact, he was trying to shield Jewish people right up until the end when the camp was liberated by Russian troops in 1945. The Jewish people whose lives were spared because their names appeared on Mr. Schindler’s list became known as the Schindlerjuden or “Schindler’s Jews”.

Director Steven Spielberg.

In 1962, in the spirit of “Never Forget”, one of the Schindlerjuden decided that Oskar Schindler was a hero and that his story needed to be shared with the world. A man named Poldek Pfefferberg made it his mission to get Schindler’s story published. Finally, in 1982, a novel was written by an Australian writer named Thomas Keneally called Schindler’s Ark. It was based upon Pfefferberg’s story of his time with Oskar Schindler. A few years after that, a review of Keneally’s book was given to director Steven Spielberg to read in the hopes of turning it into a movie. At first, Spielberg, who is Jewish, felt overwhelmed by the cultural importance of such a story and was reluctant to touch it. He tried to get several other directors to take the project on (such as Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski), but each declined for a variety of personal and professional reasons. Eventually he agreed to helm the project but only if it could be filmed as more of a documentary than a feature film. The movie was shot on location in Poland and used all German and Polish actors as the extras for the film. Spielberg filmed the movie in black and white to give it a historical feel. Most scenes were filmed with hand-held cameras, too. A then relatively-unknown actor named Liam Neeson was hired to play the role of Oskar Schindler. Ben Kingsley, of Gandhi fame, was hired to play Mr. Stern, the bookkeeper. Ralph Fiennes was cast as the ruthless German officer, Amon Goth. Schindler’s List went on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, for Spielberg.

Composer John Williams.

Through it all, Spielberg has stated that the experience of making this movie was like no other, and that he required counseling and much emotional support in order to merely complete his task of finishing the movie. Many of those who worked as extras and as crew members relate similar tales of how devastatingly emotional it was to make this movie. One of the most important people who was asked to become involved in this project was somebody who didn’t appear on screen for a single second…it was Academy Award winning musical composer and film scorer extraordinaire, John Williams. As you may know, Williams shot to fame as the composer of the highly successful Star Wars series of films. When Spielberg first showed Williams the initial scenes that he had shot, Williams turned Spielberg down, saying that this movie required a better composer than he was. To which Spielberg replied that he agreed with Williams but that Mozart and Beethoven were already dead, so Williams was the next best choice he had. For the opening theme, Williams contacted renowned violinist and cellist, Itzhak Perlman. It is Perlman who captured the essence of this story by playing notes that appear as tears. For many, the opening theme is an excruciatingly sad piece of music. It is heartbreak as expressed in notes and chords.

Schindlerjuden or Schindler’s Jews at his grave site in Israel. Schindler is the only member of the Nazi Party to be granted a honorary citizenship by the State of Israel.

One of the things that Steven Spielberg did with Schindler’s List that helped to make it the great film that it is, concerns how he ended it. It is easy to take a story like the Holocaust and to wallow in the tragedy of it all. Make no mistake, the Holocaust was as horrific as a story can be. However, Spielberg knew that the counterbalance of horror and loss is hope. Spielberg knew and author Keneally knew and Schindlerjuden, Pfefferberg knew that unrelenting pain is unbearable, and that to simply pound audiences over the head with gore and pain would cause them to turn away in the end, which is the opposite of the “Never Forget” philosophy. So, at the end of the movie we get to meet those who have survived. We meet the Schindlerjuden. The importance of ending Schindler’s List in this fashion is to show the extent of the good that Oskar Schindler did in protecting as many Jews as he was able to in Krakow. Each one of those people who survived went on to do something with their lives that would not have happened if not for Schindler’s intervention. Some survivors turned out to become doctors and artists and teachers…most became parents of children who would never have been born without the help of Oskar Schindler. The power of helping out in times of trouble is shown in a way that makes a narrator’s voiceover explanation unnecessary. When there is Hope, there is Life. The Schindlerjuden are the proof of that.

In the world in which we all live, each person is worthy of life. This was true back in the 1930s, and yet much of the world turned a blind eye to genocide as it played out in Europe. It remains true in the 2020s. The story of the Holocaust is an important story to keep retelling, not just because of how it affected Jewish people. It is an important reminder that our history is replete with instances of groups of people being targeted for abuse and/or extermination because it suits the political agenda of others to do so. One need look no further than to cases of Pro-Nazism being on the rise around the world, including in my own country of Canada. Anti-semitic attacks are rising in lockstep. The times appear to be approaching a danger point once again. The importance of never forgetting has never been more relevant than it is right now. As much as I admire what Oskar Schindler did for the Jewish people in Krakow, Poland, I would rather that we all live in a world where such valour is not required at all. Instead, let’s strive for a world in which we would live in societies built upon the premise that all lives are worthy, and then live our lives by treating each other accordingly. That is my Hope.

The link to the video for the composition “Opening Theme: Schindler’s List” by John Williams from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack of the film Schindler’s List can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the movie Schindler’s List can be found here.

The link to the Shoah Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the stories of those who experienced the Holocaust, can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Oskar Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland can be found here.

The link to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Farewell To Nova Scotia as sung by Catherine McKinnon…Song #21/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

The former Glace Bay General Hospital. This was the view from the top of my street. MacQuarrie’s store was just to the left of where this photo was taken. Great memories of that store and the folks who worked there.

As a child, I often thought that I would always live in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. It was where my friends were. It was where my family was. It was where my school and my church and all of the stores I had ever shopped in were. Mary MacQuarrie’s corner store…where I spent my allowances buying O-Pee-Chee hockey cards and Richie Rich comic books was just at the top of my street, across from the hospital where my mother and aunt and two cousins all worked. The cemetery, where my father was buried, was there, too. Glace Bay was the world as I knew it then. I wanted to live there forever.

Well, forever lasted until the age of 18. As my final years of high school passed and visions of a career as a writer took shape in my head, I discovered that to further my career ambitions meant that I would have to move away from Nova Scotia. So, I planned accordingly. I applied to university in Toronto and was accepted. So I spent the summer as an 18 year old saying goodbye to my friends and my family, graduating from my school, walking out of my church for the last time, making the rounds of all the stores and restaurants that I used to frequent and getting ready to leave my home. By this time, even Mary MacQuarrie’s store had closed. The time seemed right to leave.

Seal Island Bridge as seen from the Bras d’Or Look-off on Kelly’s Mountain.

With my bags packed, I boarded the Via train out of Sydney. We chugged past the Newfoundland ferry in North Sydney. We crossed the beautiful Seal Island Bridge and began climbing Kelly’s Mountain (The tallest elevation on Cape Breton Island). We passed the Gaelic College at St. Ann’s Bay and soon found ourselves in Baddeck (The former home of inventor extraordinaire, Alexander Graham Bell and his wife). An hour after that we were crossing the Canso Causeway and had left Cape Breton Island for the mainland of Nova Scotia. At that point, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean gave way to the endless forests of Nova Scotia’s upper mainland and then, into New Brunswick. After a night of fitful sleep, sitting up in an economy class chair, we arrived in Montreal. We changed trains there. To my eighteen year old self, Montreal seemed very big and a little bit scary, I have to admit. There were so many people there and they all seemed to be in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. I remember feeling relieved when I found the line of people waiting to board my train to Toronto. I joined it hours before departure. I sat there on the floor of the Montreal station and quietly waited. I must have looked very small, sitting there amid my suitcases. I sure felt small. But, time passed, as it always does, and soon I was on the Via train to Toronto. At Union Station in Toronto, my cousin, Brent, was waiting to meet me. He was not thrilled that I had two suitcases and a steamer trunk to navigate through the rush hour crowds. But, just the same, he helped me. We made it safely out of there. I had arrived in the biggest city in Canada. As I stepped out of Union Station and looked up at the shiny skyscrapers that stood watch, I knew that I wasn’t in Glace Bay anymore.

Although I didn’t appreciate it then, my arrival in Toronto made me just the latest in a long line of Cape Bretoners who answered the siren song of dreams of a better life in the big cities of Ontario or oil fields and big money of Alberta. Outward migration is part of the cultural history of Cape Breton. Many young people leave each year and only a very small number ever return in any sort of permanent way. Most leave because there isn’t enough steady work on an island as geographically small as Cape Breton. The fisheries have been in decline for decades. Coal production has ceased to be an economically and environmentally viable enterprise. Even the Sydney Steel Plant, in whose shadow my mother and her family grew up, had long since been shuttered, dismantled and paved under. So, the young ones leave in hopes of finding career fulfillment elsewhere in Canada. I left in 1982. In fact, I have been “away” for three quarters of my entire life. In those three quarters of a lifetime, I have enjoyed a fruitful career as an elementary school teacher. I have married and become a father. I have made new friends and have acquired new family members along the way. I am used to shopping in new stores and eating at new restaurants. My house is paid for. My neighbours are terrific. There is a beautiful beach just five minutes walk from where I live. My life “away” has turned out to be pretty good. But, the funny thing is, I still call Cape Breton…home.

The Barra MacNeils performing in Oshawa, Ontario. Oshawa is about a 40-minute drive west of where I live.

There is just something in the blood of those of us who grew up there that we have taken with us wherever we have ended up settling. I prefer tea over coffee. I am drawn to tartan as a design aesthetic. But most of all, I still love the music of Cape Breton. I love the sound of bagpipes and fiddles. I try to see all of the Cape Breton-oriented musical acts that tour across Canada such as The Barra MacNeils, The Rankin Family, as well as Rita MacNeil and the Men of the Deeps, when she was alive and they toured together. Bringing a bit of Cape Breton to those of us from away is one way the connection to home is strengthened. The other way is to go back for vacation. My whole family and I go back home each summer and I do the same by myself in the winter. We go to see my mother and other family and friends who have stayed behind. But, as much as we do that, we also breathe in the salt air, we let the ocean’s water roll over our toes and, most of all, we simply bask in the beauty of one of the world’s great islands. Cape Breton Island will always be my home. It is part of who I am, even if I am far away from it for most of my days.

The parking lot on the left hand side of this photo is where Keri and I became engaged. The green bridge is the one that has the “Welcome to Cape Breton” sign attached to it. If you drive to the left, you enter Cape Breton. To the right, you are leaving it all behind. The causeway extends to the right slightly less than a kilometre more than what you see here.

The hardest part about visiting Cape Breton Island is that, sooner or later, I have to leave again. Although my Ontario home is fine, I am always sad on the day that it is time to leave Cape Breton. Having visited Cape Breton Island over one hundred times as an adult, I know from experience that it is emotionally easier to leave by plane than it is to leave by car. When traveling by plane, all you see is the inside of the cabin, the tops of the clouds and, if changing planes, the inside of another airport such as Stanfield Airport in Halifax. You don’t get to experience leaving Cape Breton the same way you do when you drive your way out. When we drive for Ontario in a car, we re-trace the route I took as an 18 year old on the Via train. Knowing what I am leaving behind makes it tougher to drive past the Newfoundland ferry terminal in North Sydney. The beauty of the scenery as we cross the Seal Island Bridge and begin to climb Kelly’s Mountain is amazing, but it is tough to see it in the rear view mirror. Baddeck is always gorgeous and peaceful and is a place for staying a while, not passing through on the way to somewhere else. But, onward we go. Eventually, we arrive at the Canso Causeway and prepare to leave the island. We always cast a glance to the right, to the parking lot next to the Causeway proper, where I proposed to my future wife because I wanted Cape Breton Island to always hold a special place in her heart, too. And then, it is gone. We are off to the Nova Scotia mainland and then New Brunswick, Quebec and back to Ontario. The girls are always excited to get back to their home in Ontario. But each time we leave, a little part of my heart stays behind.

Catherine McKinnon as she appeared on the CBC TV show, Singalong Jubilee, which was filmed in Halifax.

Leaving Cape Breton is something that many have experienced over the years. The lure of coming home is strong and the painful reality of knowing we have to leave again is something each of us feels. This has been true in Cape Breton for generations. It has also been true in the ancestral homeland of Nova Scotia, which is Scotland. For those who may not be aware, the words “Nova Scotia” translate as “New Scotland”. There is much about the geography and the cultural background of those who live in both places that are similar. In 1791, a Scottish poet named Robert Tanahill wrote a “lament” called “The Soldier’s Adieu”. It was about the emotional toll on Scottish soldiers who were forced to leave their highland homes to fight in wars in foreign lands. With Scottish culture such an integral part of the fabric of Nova Scotian life, it was not a surprise that “The Soldier’s Adieu” resurfaced just as World War I was in full swing and thousands of Canadian soldiers were flowing into Halifax to board ships that would take them across the Atlantic to England and onward to the battlefields of the Western Front. As these soldiers were taking wistful glances back at Halifax Harbour as they sailed away, “The Soldier’s Adieu” came to mind. Except this time, it was updated for the times and became known as “Farewell to Nova Scotia”. Even in times of peace, “Farewell to Nova Scotia” has been a song that holds a special place in the musical canon of Nova Scotia and of Cape Breton Island. When I was a child still living in Glace Bay, I used to hear “Farewell to Nova Scotia” sung by a lady named Catherine McKinnon on a CBC television show called, Singalong Jubilee. This show transitioned into another popular show called Don Messer’s Jubilee. Regardless of the show, Catherine McKinnon sang this song as if it was coming directly from her heart. Her rendition of “Farewell To Nova Scotia” became the definitive take on the song. So, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that for many years, whenever I drove my car across the island of Cape Breton as I returned to the real world in Ontario, I would do so to a soundtrack of the best of Cape Breton music. Catherine McKinnon’s “Farewell To Nova Scotia” was always one of those tunes that I heard as I drove across the Canso Causeway and off of the island. It is a song that makes me sad and happy at the same time because it is a song that is a fundamental part of who I am. And who I am is someone destined to always return home, only to have to eventually leave again. Maybe someday, I will get to return for good. Then, and only then, will “Farewell To Nova Scotia” cease to be a song that touches my heart.

The link to the video for the song “Farewell To Nova Scotia” by Catherine McKinnon can be found here.

The link to the official website for Catherine McKinnon can be found here.

The link to the official website for Cape Breton Island can be found here.

***PS: The photo at the top of this post is of Glace Bay Harbour.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written permission of the author. ©2022