Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Joni Mitchell”

“Ask not what Canada can do for you”

mylescover

Eileen Myles, Chelsea Girls (1994)

There is nothing new or remarkable here, at least with reference to Canada, but this book does repeat a couple of ideas we’ve seen before, and I’ll simply catalogue those.

A Place to Dodge the Draft

This is from the story “1969”:

I’d often be found passed out on the couch of the house I stayed in that summer with Crime and Punishment on the floor next to my toes. If I could finish that book that summer then my life wouldn’t be a complete waste. I had a boyfriend. His name was Mike and he was also a blackout drinker. He was 21 and had just graduated from college. I thought we looked alike. He would always get drunk and say to me, “Leena, I ain’t gonna march.” I always felt like I was in a movie when he said that. Who does he think he is, I wondered. He wasn’t going to Canada. The war would end. Something would happen. He just wasn’t the type. When those foreign things would erupt from his soul it would just be so strange. It was like he was turning into a thing. I’d grab his dick and the crisis would be over. He was the first person I really had sex with.  (102-3)

When Mike says “I ain’t gonna march,” he means he won’t join the army and go to Vietnam, although the narrator (Myles herself?) seems to interpret this as self-dramatization on his part. It isn’t clear why she thinks he wouldn’t go to Canada — too uncivilized? he’s not decisive enough to take that step? — but Canada exists in the minds of these characters as a place to get away from the draft. Beyond that, though, the book has nothing to say about our country.

Neil Young and Joni Mitchell

There are also references to two Canadians who were staples on the U.S. music scene in the late 60s and early 70s. This is from the story “Bath, Maine”:

The place looked kind of “datey,” like it was attached to a restaurant. The clientele was sunburned and clean, like vacationers. Was I feeling better? In the last place when I had nothing to say in my notebook I began to write the words from the jukebox

And only love
can break
your heart
So try to make sure
right from
the start…

It made me suspicious. (7-8)

The song on the jukebox is, of course, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Canadian Neil Young — though he isn’t actually named in the story. I’m not sure why it makes her suspicious.

This is from “1969” again:

The safety of it all, the baby being held by the parents in the middle of the highway. Going home. Not even going to Woodstock.
Liked that baby, huh Leena? “Mo” asked me that from the front seat. I was that kind of Leena by now, and that was the end of the first night. Joanie Mitchell didn’t show. Do you blame her? I finally saw the movie in 1987. It would have been painful before then though I didn’t know why.  (113)

It’s strange that she spells Mitchell’s name as “Joanie” rather than “Joni”; if that has some significance, it’s not clear to me.

Larger Thoughts?

I suppose we could argue that these references are typically American in the sense that they see Canada only in terms of what it offers to Americans — a place to avoid the draft, a place that supplies music for Americans to listen to — but never question or wonder about what Canada is actually like on its own terms.

There is more about Canada as a haven for draft dodgers and about Joni Mitchell in our post on Lorrie Moore; there is more about Joni Mitchell in our post on Graham Nash and our post on Dave Van Ronk; and there is lots more about Neil Young here.

The Music

Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” seems appropriate, and this live version includes a little explanation of why, as Myles says, she “didn’t show”:

Here’s the CSNY version from the “Woodstock” film Myles mentions:

And here is the album version of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” presumably what is on the jukebox:

Advertisements

The Sexy Side of … Ottawa?

NashCover

Graham Nash, Wild Tales (2013)

This book is not so much an autobiography or memoir as a series of anecdotes strung together, and how much you enjoy it (or don’t) may depend on how much of an admirer of Graham Nash you are. Graham Nash is certainly an admirer of Graham Nash: he never misses an opportunity to tell you how great one of his songs is, or how well he performed at a particular show or studio session.

The focus of the book is really on the music he made and the musicians he worked with; there are tangential references to sex and drugs, but if you’re looking for a lurid portrayal of the debauched rock star lifestyle (and why not?), look elsewhere, because you won’t find it here.

You will, however, find a lot of references to Canada. I suppose that’s not surprising, given that Nash had a lengthy (by his standards) affair with Joni Mitchell and was in (and out of) a band with Neil Young for decades. I’m not going to catalogue every single one, since they aren’t all particularly interesting; instead, I’ll pick out a few of the more characteristic ones.

Joni’s Enchanted Castle

This passage describes how Nash met Joni Mitchell for the first time, while he was on tour with the Hollies in Ottawa, of all places:

Eventually, she invited me back to the place where she was staying, the Chateau Laurier, a beautiful old French Gothic hotel in the heart of town. Her room on the seventh floor was out of this world, literally: It had a beautiful steepled ceiling, walls made of stone with gargoyles hunched just outside the windows. Flames licked at logs in the fireplace, incense burned in ashtrays, candles were lit strategically, and beautiful scarves had been draped over the lamps. It was a seduction scene extraordinaire.  (116)

Joni then seals the deal by … grabbing a guitar and playing some songs. Nash is suitably impressed:

I never knew anyone could write like that. There was pure genius sitting right in front of me, no doubt about it. I was awestruck, not only as a man but as a musician. I thought I knew what songwriting was all about, but after listening to Joni’s masterpieces, one after the next, I realized how little I knew. She was twenty-four years old. My heart opened up and I fell deeply in love with this woman on the spot.

We spent the night together. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. It was magical on so many different levels. The next day we woke up at two in the afternoon and I realized I was in hot water. I’d put in a wake-up call with the hotel’s front desk, but somehow misplaced putting the receiver back in the cradle. The Hollies had already checked out of their hotel without leaving details about our itinerary. I only knew they’d be somewhere in Winnipeg. I had no idea where they were staying or playing or how to get there. Our gig was only a few hours off. Somehow, I got the details and found a flight to Winnipeg. Traumatic, but worth every minute of it.  (116-17)

Wow! Who knew that two musical icons of the 60s first met and fell in love in Ottawa?

And Ottawa, contrary to its usual reputation as monotonously grey and cold, provides a wonderful atmosphere for romance – the “French Gothic” hotel with gargoyles perched outside the window, the fireplace, the steepled ceiling – the Chateau Laurier sounds like the enchanted castle in a fairy tale, where the lovely princess leads her bold knight. Perhaps Ottawa is just different enough from other places Nash had been to lend his night with Joni a magical quality – or maybe it was all Joni.

And then, alas, the quotidian reality of Winnipeg calls, and the idyll comes to an end. Mitchell and Nash would eventually end up living together for several years in California.

Square, Straight Canadians

Later, there is a description of Joni Mitchell’s parents that gives us, perhaps, a sense of the typical Canadian upbringing of the time:

I’d met her [Mitchell’s] parents, Bill and Myrtle Anderson, a few months before this. Joan and I had gone to visit them in her hometown, Saskatoon – a nice suburban house, not posh but very clean, stark white walls. I can’t describe what Joan’s room looked like because I wasn’t allowed within twenty feet of it. Bill and Myrtle were a very straight, religious couple, and they weren’t about to let a long-haired hippie sleep with their daughter under their roof, that was for sure. It surprised the hell out of me. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, not even close. But just to make sure, they put me in a downstairs bedroom, separating us by a floor, and made it clear I’d need an army behind me if I tried to sneak up there.  (140)

“Not even close” – ouch! We almost pity these poor, prudish Canadian parents, valiantly trying to protect the sanctuary of their daughter’s honour, not realizing it’s been conquered and sacked countless times before. They’re just so out of touch with the realities of life in the major U.S. centres – an ignorance perfectly summed up in the single word, “straight,” which seems to capture so much of what Nash sees in Canada, and Canadians, at this time.

Genius Joni

There’s also this description of the crowd backstage after Mitchell’s first solo show at Carnegie Hall:

There was a great backstage scene after the show. Crosby was there, and David Blue, and Joni’s Canadian friend Leonard Cohen….  (141)

I find that description of Leonard Cohen endlessly amusing – “Joni’s Canadian friend”.

It does, however, raise a couple of points of interest: first, that in a music scene that was based largely in California and New York, an Englishman like Nash, at least, was aware of who the Canadians were, and used their nationality to mark them off and associate them with one another.

But even beyond that, Cohen is not given an identity of his own: he’s not the poet Leonard Cohen, or the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, or even the Canadian poet or the Canadian singer/songwriter: he’s just a Canadian who is friends with Joni Mitchell.

This might partly be due to the fact that Nash knows Mitchell, and so he sees other people in relation to her. But the way he portrays Cohen as just a sidelight to Mitchell is also part of a larger, recurring element in the book, which is Nash’s admirable respect for what he repeatedly calls Mitchell’s “genius”. To Nash, Joni isn’t just a woman he had an affair with: she is a truly great artist in her own right and someone who, through her talent, demonstrated to him how much farther he could go in songwriting, and who serves as an example and inspiration to him throughout his career (though he very modestly (and correctly, from what I’ve heard) says he never wrote anything as great as her best songs). Like Dave Van Ronk, Nash regards Mitchell as one of the leading songwriters of her time, and demonstrates how much of an influence this Canadian woman had on the development of the singer/songwriter tradition.

It’s interesting to hear Nash describe the influence Mitchell had on him as a writer when we consider, for example, Lorrie Moore’s portrayal of the music of Joni Mitchell versus that of CSNY in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? In that book, CSNY, an all-male group, are connected (through their song “Ohio”) with the public world of war, politics, and the general social ferment of the times, whereas the music of Mitchell, a woman, is connected much more with the personal sphere and with the concerns of women – one might almost say it provides the soundtrack for types of experience that are shared and understood exclusively by women. Nash, however, makes no such distinction: he never suggests that Mitchell’s music is somehow feminine or “for women,” only that he admired her brilliance and did all he could to learn from it.

Bad Joni

But the course of true love never runs smooth, as someone or other once remarked, and it’s not all roses for Nash and Mitchell. Here’s a scene of an argument they had:

“You keep slagging America after it gave you all this opportunity,” she said. “Why are you biting the hand that feeds you?”
Like us, Joni was opposed to Nixon and the war, but she didn’t think it was fair to throw hand grenades from the side of the stage. We argued, and she ended up pouring a bowl of cornflakes and milk over my head. I was stunned – to say nothing of being pissed.
There was a maid in the room. I turned to her and said, “Would you kindly leave?” Then I put Joni over my knee and I spanked her.
Needless to say, it was one of the more interesting moments in our relationship.  (180)

Mitchell here seems to be showing some North American solidarity, as a Canadian defending the U.S. against the attacks of an Englishman. Does this indicate some subliminal Canadian desire to free ourselves from our subservient relationship to the UK (the past) and form closer ties with the U.S. (the sexy, exciting future)? If we wanted to stretch a point, we might see Nash’s violent response as expressing the attitude of the colonial overlord determined to assert its continued dominance over its overseas possession by chastising it for daring to offer an opinion contrary to what the colonial overlord expects….

But no, we won’t.

The Mysterious Mr. Young

In addition to Joni Mitchell, there is (unsurprisingly) a lot about another Canadian: Neil Young, who, over the years, has temporarily turned CSN into CSNY, though never stuck around for too long. The following passage describes a party where David Crosby took Nash to meet Stephen Stills, though it ends up being more about Young:

I knew all about Stephen Stills. I was totally into Buffalo Springfield. Allan Clarke had given me their album, which I’d carried throughout our [i.e. the Hollies’] tour of Canada. I practically played the grooves off that record. The word on the grapevine was the group was about to break up. The problem, apparently, was with their lead guitar player, Neil Young. He often turned up late for gigs, or not at all. He didn’t show at Monterey Pop, flat-out refused to play an important showcase on The Tonight Show, all of which frustrated the hell out of Stephen. He’d had enough of Neil’s shit. Besides, Stills was a guitar virtuoso in his own right and wanted the lead guitar position of the Springfield for himself. Looking back, it’s doubtful Neil ever wanted to be part of a band. Here’s an illustration that’ll put it in perspective: David and Stephen saw A Hard Day’s Night and knew exactly what they wanted to do. Neil didn’t give a shit about A Hard Day’s Night. He saw Don’t Look Back (twice) and took that as his role model. Neil always wanted to do what Dylan did: be an individual, a great songwriter, an interpreter of his own music. You couldn’t do that in a group, a lesson I’d learn about Neil much later in the game.  (113)

Notice the skilled use of foreshadowing at the end of that paragraph.

There’s a lot of information and opinion there, obviously, but what’s interesting from our perspective is the portrayal of Neil Young as an individual who can’t or won’t be part of a group: in Nash’s view, he seems very much the opposite of what one expects of a Canadian, given that our country is supposed to be more cooperative (socialist?) than the U.S. Here Young appears as the classic American loner, despite the fact that he’s actually Canadian.

The book also contains a little history lesson on how CSN became CSNY: apparently, Ahmet Ertegun suggested adding Neil Young to the CSN lineup to bring more “heat” to their live performances. Crosby agreed; Stills, despite bad memories of Buffalo Springfield, came around, but Nash was unconvinced, and so he insisted on meeting Young, one-on-one, for breakfast:

Turns out Neil Young was a funny motherfucker. I knew he had this dark, looming presence, a scowl and a loner tendency. But Neil was funny. Now, maybe he understood that I was the group’s lone holdout where he was concerned and he was on his best behaviour, but at the end of breakfast I would have nominated him to be the prime minister of Canada.  (161)

Breakfast? Really? This is what world-class rockers do: they meet for breakfast, like high school girls scarfing down pancakes while rehashing the details of last night’s drunken party?

At least Nash shows some familiarity with Canadian politics: he knows we have a Prime Minister (being British helps there, I suppose). No doubt he knows prime ministers are actually elected, and that Canada doesn’t seek nominations for the office from rock stars.

Back to Joni

Later on, Nash and Crosby are trying to pull together songs for an album:

And there was always something to write about Joni. When we were still a couple, I’d spent some time with her in British Columbia, where she had a little stone house on a beach. It was a place where she was indeed bouncing off boulders and running on the rocks, so I wrote “Mama Lion” to capture that snapshot.  (224)

So Mitchell not only inspired Nash to develop his own songwriting skills, but she also continued to provide material for him to write about long after their relationship ended. The stone beach house carries a suggestion of idyllic solitude that is not surprising to find associated with Canada.

The Absent Goldfish

We get another glimpse of Canadian narrow-mindedness in the description of Nash’s tour in support of his 1980 solo album, Earth & Sky:

Despite all of that, I had to get it up to promote the album. There was a two-month tour, mostly small theatres, just a trio, nice and laid-back to complement the songs. Leah Kunkel, Cass’s sister, opened for me. The only other participant was Joey the Goldfish, who swam in his bowl onstage throughout all forty-eight shows except the show in Canada, where thanks to immigration I replaced the real fish with a slice of carrot.  (273)

What? I really can’t figure that out, but apparently Canadian immigration officials refused to let a goldfish cross the border. Here we are portrayed as almost hysterically focused on protecting our homeland from the dangerous influence of marauding foreign rock stars (and their pets) – though I suppose, given the RCMP’s experience with Keith Richards, we aren’t totally to blame. The only notable result of this championing of security was that the Canadian audience (note it sounds like there was only one show in Canada – is that an insult or a mercy?) was forced to stare at a lump of carrot floating in a bowl of water, rather than a goldfish, which no doubt drastically reduced the entertainment quotient of the concert.

The Music

On to the good stuff. This is Joni Mitchell singing “Willy,” a song she wrote about Nash (“Willy,” apparently, was his nickname):

Here is “Our House,” which is Nash’s song about living with Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon:

And here is a conversation with Nash (via the Library of Congress) that covers some of the same material as the book:

So if you don’t want to take the time to read it, that at least gives you a taste.

More Annoying French-Canadian Tourists

lmoorecover

Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

I read this novel because, years ago, I saw a woman reading it on the subway and I was intrigued by the title. It’s probably the second-best book I’ve discovered that way (after I Am A Cat), though that’s not a great compliment since the others I can recall are The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (great title, mediocre book) and Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree (an aesthetic disaster, but weirdly fascinating from a “people actually read this” perspective).

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? begins with the narrator, Berie (short for Benoite-Marie, of course) and her husband in Paris, and returns to this framing device from time to time. Most of the novel, however, is told in extended flashbacks and concerns the relationship between  Berie and her best friend, Sils, as they go through adolescence.  The set-up feels rather familiar in that the narrator is more withdrawn and observant (the “writer type”), whereas Sils is wilder and more adventurous; the style is given to the kind of metaphors and imagery that earn praise in writing workshops.

There are actually numerous references to Canada in this book – too many for me to catalogue them all – but they fall neatly into two general categories, some dealing with French-Canadians, and some with the role Canada played for draft dodgers in the Vietnam era.

1.1 Exotic Canadian French

One thing I like about Lorrie Moore: she didn’t make me wait long for a reference to Canada. This passage comes in the book’s opening pages:

Although no voice was ever plain in our house – not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that. There were fancinesses: Years of my mother’s Canadian French slipping out only in the direst of lullabies.  (6)

The word “fancinesses” suggests that, as a young girl, Berie was fascinated by a certain exotic sophistication in her mother’s Canadian French. And what are these dire lullabies, we are left to wonder? Traditional French-Canadian songs, perhaps, detailing folk tales of murder and revenge? Or has the word “direst” been chosen not to convey any actual meaning, but simply to provide a striking contrast with “lullabies”?

1.2 French-Canadian Tourists

Berie and Sils both have summer jobs at Storyland, a fairy-tale-themed amusement park in the upstate New York town where they live:

I was an entrance cashier. Six thousand dollars came through a single register every day. Customers complained about the prices, lied about their children’s ages, counted out the change to double-check. “Gardez les billets pour les maneges, s’il vous plait,” I would say to the Canadians.  (10)

On the next page:

In summer the whole county was full of Canadian tourists from over the border in Quebec. Sils loved to tell stories of them from her old waitress job at HoJo’s: “I vould like zome eggs,” a man said once, slowly looking up words in a little pocket dictionary.
“How would you like them?” she’d asked.
The man consulted his dictionary, finding each word. “I would like zem … ehm … on zee plate.”
That we were partly French Canadian ourselves didn’t seem to occur to us. Sur le plat. Fried. We liked to tell raucous, ignorant tales of these tourists, who were so crucial to the area’s economy, but who were cheap tippers or flirts or wore their shirts open or bellies out, who complained and smoked pencil-thin cigars and laughed smuttily or whatever – it didn’t matter. We were taught to speak derisively of the tourists, the way everyone in a tourist town is.  (11)

For reasons of geography, the Canadians Berie speaks to are all actually from Quebec, so perhaps we should cut Moore some slack on the way she seems to conflate “Canadians” and “French-Canadians.”  Still, it’s hard not to feel that she must consider Canada a fairly insignificant country if she so blithely elides the difference between Francophones and Anglophones and speaks of us as if we all spoke French.

The general attitude to French-Canadians is one of contempt – though it’s a fairly benign contempt compared to, say, Michel Houellebecq’s attitude to Quebec tourists. But it’s difficult not to notice a slight whiff of stereotype coming off the page, as if Moore were playing to her (largely American) readership’s preconceived notions of what French-Canadians are like: the use of “z” for “”th”, the open shirts and bellies – by the time we reach the pencil-thin cigars and smutty laughs, these tourists have begun to sound like moustache-twirling cartoon villains.

The fact that Berie and Sils mock the tourists despite being partly French-Canadian themselves adds a level of irony to these passages, but it also points to a certain truth: making fun of people who share their background is a way for the girls to distance themselves from their own French-Canadian heritage and confirm their identity as (proudly unhyphenated) Americans.

1.3 Blood, The Inescapable

Yet Berie continues to refer to her French-Canadian background, as in this description of herself and her brother:

The thick pelts of our eyebrows shrieked across our faces, some legacy of the Quebec fur trade.  (29)

The reference to the fur trade harks back to a classic (and familiar) idea of Canada as a wilderness nation to be exploited for its natural resources, but the meaning of the sentence is a little opaque. The use of the verb “shrieked” is an excellent example of “writing workshop style,” where so much focus is placed on the search for “colourful” or “expressive” verbs that regard for sense becomes secondary. It’s also not clear how thick eyebrows are a legacy of the fur trade; did the voyageurs develop extra-thick eyebrows to protect themselves against the cold? Is there some suggestion that they interbred with beavers or other fur-bearing animals, leading to thicker eyebrow hair in their descendants? The sentence sounds nice if you read it once, but the more you try to parse it, the less sense it seems to make.

There is also this intriguing passage, about Berie and her husband Daniel when they’re in Paris:

At night, Daniel is tired from the medical conference he is here at the Institut de Genetique to attend. As a researcher he is mostly, recently, interested in the Tay-Sachs gene we both carry – what Jews and French-Canadians have in common.  (70)

This is a reference to Tay-Sachs disease, caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in both both Ashkenazi Jews and French-Canadians. Curiously, early studies of the diesease led to the fascinatingly named (though now discredited) “Jewish Fur Trader Hypothesis,” which, in a weird way, seems to gather together several of the threads of Moore’s ideas about Canada.

Over all, Berie’s relationship to Quebec is one of forcefully trying to impose distance on something that remains inescapably close; the girls affirm their identity as Americans by mocking the Canadian toursits, but at the same time, from her eyebrows right down to her genes, her French-Canadian heritage is something that Berie cannot evade.

2 The Perfect Place to Dodge the Draft

Much of the flashback portion of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? occurs in the summer of 1972, in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, and in that context Canada plays another important role for the characters in the novel. The following passage is a description of Sils’ mother:

She was a sweet and guilt-ridden mother, exhausted from her older sons (their loud band practices in the basement; their overnight girlfriends; their strange, impermanent, and semiannual treks across the border to Canada to avoid the draft, though their numbers were high….  (14)

Canada is mentioned several more times in the same context, as Berie refers to Sils’s brothers being “in Canada again” (20) or “just back from Canada” (89). It is, of course, a fact that many Americans came to Canada to avoid the draft. This particular form of escape is also connected to a larger idea of Canada as a more pacifist country where Americans opposed to the war in Vietnam could go to avoid being forced to serve. So Canada is tied up, by virtue of its proximity, not only in the U.S. economy (as Berie notes above), but also in American politics and its ramifications.

There are also a couple of references to the music of the period that we might take note of:

…the country was in upheaval, there was Vietnam and draft dodging and rock music and people setting themselves on fire. Laws seemed to be the enemy. So we dispensed and dispatched, ceased and desisted: we made up our own rules, and they were loose. We were inventing things, starting over, nothing was wrong. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.  (34)

And this description of Sils just after she has had an abortion:

Joni Mitchell was keening “Little Green” on Sils’s record player. Sils listened to that song all the time now, like some woeful soundtrack. The soprano slides and oos of the song always made us both sing along, when I was there. “Little green, be a gypsy dancer.” Twenty years later at a cocktail party, I would watch an entire roomful of women, one by one and in bunches, begin to sing this song when it came on over the sound system. They quit conversations, touched people’s arms, turned toward the corner stereo speakers and sang in a show of memory and surprise. All the women knew the words, every last one of them, and it shocked the men.  (91)

It’s noteworthy that in two separate passages where popular music is connected with the idea of the ferment of the times and with the personal struggles of the characters, the music that speaks to them is by Canadians: Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green.” Despite Canada’s apparent insignificance as a country, individual Canadians have played a role in writing the soundtrack to the American experience of the twentieth century.

The Music

When content permits, I like to wrap up with music. Here is Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green”:

And here is “Ohio” as performed by CSNY:

Back In Those Old Folky Days

vanronkcover

Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005)

Although it was published quite recently, Dave Van Ronk’s memoir deals mainly with the subject matter you want it to deal with: his time on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s. The book is the basis for the recent Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, though having read the book, I have to say they started with pretty good source material and made a sorry hash of it. (If you’ve seen the film, you may be forgiven for wondering how much of the narrative came straight from the cover photo, with the cat nervously poking its head out of the doorway behind Van Ronk. The same image appears on the Inside Dave Van Ronk album cover.)

Based on the book, and also his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I suppose you would call Van Ronk a “raconteur.” Given that the book is written “with” Elijah Wald, it’s hard to know how much of the shaping of the anecdotes – and the book is really just a string of anecdotes – has been done by Van Ronk himself and how much by his amanuensis, though in the Afterword Wald makes it sound as though he essentially wrote the book in Van Ronk’s “voice”. Whatever the details behind its creation, it makes amusing reading, rolling along from one story to the next with a pleasant rhythm.

There are numerous references to Canada, and to famous Canadians like Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen, some of which are just passing mentions that don’t reveal too much. I’m going to try to pick out a few that I think illustrate some larger idea about our country, or that are just interesting for one reason or another. This one is part of a series of stories about Van Ronk’s friendship with Reverend Gary Davis:

Like most geniuses, Gary had his eccentricities, and one that sometimes drove me crazy was that he had his own sense of pitch. We were playing once at a concert in Canada, and he did his whole first set with the low E string about a quarter tone flat. It was driving me crazy, because every time he hit that note it was booming off-key, so on the break I borrowed his guitar on some excuse and surreptitiously tuned that string. He came back for the second set, started into a song, and just stopped dead, looked a little perplexed, and tuned that string right back down to where it had been.  (137)

I don’t know that we can conclude a whole lot about Canada from this, but it’s an entertaining story, and a decent example of the sort of thing you’ll encounter if you decide to read the book. Van Ronk makes no mention of whether the Canadian audience was as bothered by this out-of-tune string as he was; perhaps it was some sort of joke Davis liked to play on the philistines north of the border? But, at least in Van Ronk’s telling, it sounds habitual.

Those Competitive Canadians

This next passage is about a sort of “changing of the guard” on the Village folk scene as it became more popular:

…musicians began streaming in from all points of the compass: [Tom] Paxton from Oklahoma, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs from Ohio … Ian and Sylvia from Canada, Dylan from Minnesota … but with very few exceptions, my old friends who had been huffing and puffing all of those years to become professionals were nowhere to be seen. Basically, what I think happened was that the New York singers simply were not as competitive as the newcomers. You do not stick it out in this line of work unless you are fiercely driven, and most of the New Yorkers, while they might have had the talent, did not have that competitive drive.  (150)

Well, that’s a first: I don’t think I’ve ever come across a reference to Canadians being more competitive and driven than New Yorkers, but there it is – Ian and Sylvia, those fiercely competitive Canadians, driving the meek New Yorkers out of the Gaslight and taking their jobs (and dreams of folky stardom) away. This is certainly an unusual view of Canadians, contrasting with our more customary polite, almost meek image.

Of course, the Canadians are lumped in with singers from several locations in the U.S., as well, so they are only a part of a wave that washed the New Yorkers away – but still. And that’s another thing….

Canada – Just Another Place in the U.S.

It’s also noteworthy that in that list, Canada is mentioned alongside Oklahoma, Minnesota and Ohio, as if it were just another American state, rather than a separate country. The same thing occurs a bit later:

I was hosting the Tuesday night hoots at the Gaslight, as well as sometimes doing a week as a headliner there or at Folk City, and for variety I was making occasional forays into the hinterlands. I got to Tulsa and Oklahoma City for a couple of weeks, and I was going to the West Coast, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Canada.  (171)

There it is again, Canada lumped in with a list of U.S. place names as if we were just another American location – and the equal of a mere city this time, not even a state, as we were in the earlier list. (We saw something similar, incidentally, in Ted Hughes’ description of his camping trip with Sylvia Plath.) And Canada comes last in the list, as if to suggest that we are the most obscure of the “hinterlands” Van Ronk visited.

I really do think Americans sometimes forget we’re a whole separate country: we’re so close, and so similar, that they just lump us in as the “fifty-first state,” so to speak.

The Joni Mitchell Saga (In Three Parts)

Joni Mitchell is a significant presence in the book, and overall Van Ronk is very complimentary about her – there’s even a photo of him with his arm around her(!), so apparently they were friends. I’m not going to quote every drop of her name, but I will pick out three references that seem to illuminate something larger about Canada.

1. Typical Insecure Canadian

The major references to Mitchell kick off with this fascinating portrait of Canadian insecurity and our tendency to evaluate ourselves based on the opinions others have of us:

My favourite Patrick Sky story happened right around the time he recorded that album [A Harvest of Gentle Clang]. It was 1965, and we had been invited to appear on a Canadian television show called Let’s Sing Out, which was their version of Hootenanny. They were filming at a college in Winnipeg, and Patrick and I happened to be on the same plane out of Buffalo…. All the tech people were running around, setting up lights and patting us down with powder puffs and that sort of thing, and over in a corner, sitting by herself on a folding chair, was this lovely blonde lady. She was playing a guitar and singing to herself, just warming up, and I don’t know how it happened, but after a few minutes everything was completely quiet and everybody had just formed a semicircle around her. It was Joni Mitchell, and she was singing “Urge for Going,” and that was the first time I ever heard it or her. It was simply magical, and by the middle of the second verse, you could hear a pin drop. She finished, and there was just this silence, utter silence.
Then Patrick turns to me, and loudly says, “That sucks!”
As it happened, that was the highest compliment Patrick was capable of bestowing, but of course Joni had no way of knowing that. She later told me that she went back to Detroit in tears and told Chuck, her partner and husband, that the great folksingers from New York didn’t like her music, and she briefly considered quitting the business.  (174-75)

First, notice how the Canadian TV show is described as “their version of” an American TV show. This is a very common way of thinking about us among our neighbours to the south: they don’t consider us distinct, but rather as a slightly altered version of themselves, so anything Canadian is described as being “the Canadian version of” something American.

But more important, obviously, is the effect the opinions of these two New Yorkers had on Joni Mitchell. This is an absolutely classic expression of Canadian insecurity: it makes no difference how famous you are or how much success you have in Canada, you don’t mean anything until you succeed in the U.S. And this isn’t just an opinion held by Americans (though no doubt they would feel that way too, if they ever gave a thought to Canadians who weren’t famous in America); what is so telling about this passage is how completely Mitchell has internalized the idea that it’s the opinions of Americans that matter. She is there, after all, to appear on a Canadian television show – a show that these Americans have taken the trouble to fly north to appear on, so it clearly isn’t nothing, and the fact that she’s appearing alongside them suggests that she is more or less their equal.  But the high opinion of the people who run Let’s Sing Out means nothing when put up against criticism from those two giants of the New York folk scene, Patrick Sky and Dave Van Ronk.

And yet, show of hands: Who’s heard of Patrick Sky? Who’s heard one of his songs? And what about Joni Mitchell – who’s heard of her or heard one of her songs? I can’t see your hands out there, but I think I can guess the results of that little survey. So even a very talented Canadian who went on to incredible popular and commercial success could be led to question her own value by two Americans who (not to be rude) didn’t ultimately add up to that much on the music scene.

Just to give you a sense of what they were laughing at, here’s a remarkable version of “Urge for Going” recorded for a Let’s Sing Out program in Sudbury (not Winnipeg) – it even features the “Let’s Sing Out” theme song before Mitchell’s performance, which reminds us that “there’s room for all in the hootenanny hall” – a typically inclusive Canadian sentiment:

2. The Three Titans of Folk

Joni Mitchell’s name crops up again in a discussion of how musicians learn their craft:

There are some very good young musicians on the folk scene [today], but they will get to be fifty years old without having as much stage experience as I had by the time I was twenty-five. As a result, they will naturally mature much more slowly than the Dylans and Joni Mitchells and I did.  (121)

I just love the way he casually lumps himself in with Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as though when people talk about the folk music boom of the 60s, the first three names on their lips are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and … Dave Van Ronk. Somehow, I just don’t think Van Ronk has quite that level of popular recognition. On the other hand, it is a great compliment to Canada to see Mitchell mentioned alongside Dylan.

3. Hinterland Songstress

Later on, Van Ronk mentions Joni Mitchell in reference to the fact that, unlike Mitchell and Dylan and so many others, he rarely wrote or sang his own songs:

There were unknown songwriters like Joni Mitchell out in the hinterlands, and there was a grapevine that reached all around the country, so as far as new songs went, I was surrounded by an embarrassment de richesse.  (207)

Now, to be fair, there are probably parts of New York City that Van Ronk would consider “hinterlands,” but still, there’s that word again: Joni Mitchell, a Canadian, is off in the hinterlands. I think it’s just coincidence that Van Ronk’s idiosyncratic French (he was quite the autodidact, apparently) comes up in the same sentence as a reference to Canada, though perhaps there’s something going on subconsciously.

And Now, Some Music

Having talked so much about music, we might as well wrap up with some actual music: “Hesitation Blues,” which is one of Dave Van Ronk’s better-known (maybe?) songs. To start us off, here is Jelly Roll Morton’s version; I think at the beginning you can hear him say that he didn’t write the song:

Next, here is Reverend Gary Davis’ version – it’s fascinating to hear how he works the audience:

Here is Van Ronk doing his version:

And finally, if you’ve hesitated here this long, you might as well check out this relatively recent Jorma Kaukonen/Hot Tuna version, just to see that the tradition goes on:

 

Post Navigation