History clearly resonates for Canadian
05:00 AM, Oct 16, 2013
If you go
What: James Keelaghan and Jez Lowe.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Rochester Christian Reformed Church, 2750 Atlantic Ave., Penfield.
Tickets: $22, $10 for students, 12 and under free, available at goldenlink.org.
James Keelaghan and Jez Lowe hear a voice in their heads: It’s the Global Positioning System, instructing them to take the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River and into New York. Keelaghan pauses in the midst of his phone … interview as the two folk singers consult each other: Is this the right road?
The duo plays the Rochester Christian Reformed Church on Saturday. Keelaghan is perhaps Canada’s finest folk singer. All of the websites say so, and there is physical proof: History: The First 25 Years, has just been released. An anthology of 18 of Keelaghan’s songs. But something’s missing. “Jez is one of my favorite writers, and I’m not saying that just because he’s sitting next to me,” Keelaghan says of his English folk-singing pal, rattling off a list of Lowe favorites. Including “Last of the Widows,” about a coal-mining disaster. Lowe frequently writes about the decay of the working man’s lot. “He’s also a great comedic writer,” Keelaghan insists. “And I have never written a comedic song. We’re trying to rectify that.”
Any subjects in mind?
That’s a joke. And besides, it’s already been done. (See “Springtime for Hitler,” from The Producers). But at least we know Keelaghan has a sense of humor, so perhaps he may find that comedic song on the other side of the next bridge. Or the other side of a beer, as Keelaghan has been known to wander off with a few audience members after his shows, “if there is a good watering hole nearby.”
But, as History suggests, what Keelaghan is best known for is songs with a history. “Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,” he says.
“Kiri’s Piano” is one. In the United States, we’re quite familiar with the story of how innocent Japanese-Americans were rounded up during World War II and sent to internment camps. Fewer of us are aware that this happened in Canada as well. “I get a pretty strong reaction every time I play it,” Keelaghan says. “I know four or five people who have named their children after that song. I’ve talked to people at shows whose parents were in internment camps. I’ve played that song in Denmark, and they understand. Because they were a country under occupation. They understand about dignity.”
“Cold Missouri Waters” is another. It’s told from the perspective of one of the few survivors of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana, in which 13 firefighters died. Then song’s been covered by a few people, including fellow folkies Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams on the album Cry Cry Cry. Norman Maclean wrote a great book about it, Young Men and Fire. And you may have heard the song again this summer; TV news features used it as a backdrop for reporting on the Arizona wildfire that killed 19 firefighters. The stories are startlingly similar. History does repeat, and the story is often a sad one.
Some of the history is unfamiliar to Americans. “October 70” is inspired by The October Crisis, in which Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau used his country’s War Measures Act as a separatist movement was growing in Quebec in 1970. Two government officials were kidnapped one was murdered and troops were called in to control the growing crowds of pro-separatists, largely students. The Canadian Army and helicopters stood watch over the population.
“It’s relevant now, with the trampling of civil liberties in the pursuit of the chimera of added security,” Keelahgan says. “Some people make that connection. Any damn thing to keep us safe.”
As he talks, Keelaghan notes that they can now see a huge cantilever bridge from the car. The GPS has won. “We’re just sheep like everybody else,” Keelaghan says. “The machine tells us to do something, we do it. We’re going over the Tappan Zee.”
He sings about the tough lot of laborers in “Boom Gone Bust,” French fishing boats pulling British soldiers from the water in “Fires of Calais” and sometimes love, in the beautiful baritone voice of all Canadian folk singers. Except the female ones. Keelaghan comes by his point of view honestly, having studied history at the University of Calgary. But while real events “frame the debate” of his songs, as he says, they avoid overt argument. As in the United States, Canada is experiencing “fundamentalist Christians in control of the government,” the fact-fueled Keelaghan says, “pushing a great deal of non-science as fact.” There’s no point in a folk singer going there. “Quite literally,” he says, “I’d be preaching to the choir.”
Here’s a place he has been: “McConnville’s” is the story of a bar where 90 years of tradition has not allowed a bottle of the home-distilled whiskey to leave the premises. Until one day, when a favored patron dies in an accident. Mourners gather in the bar after the funeral and, on a whim, the bartender auctions off a bottle as a benefit for the dead man’s family. His friends buy it at an exorbitant price, and pour it on the grave.
“A totally true story,” Keelaghan says.
“Told to me by the bartender.”