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Ken Whiteley (third from left) with Beulah Band members Rosalyn Dennett, Frank Evans and Ben Whiteley. Courtesy of Ken Whiteley

Lovers, not fighters

Canada’s folk musicians still harness the power of musical protest. But it’s love, not anger, that overcomes

By Paul Knowles

I was watching from the wings at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis in 1982. Peter, Paul and Mary had sung the old favourites, but then launched into a new song, El Salvador, written only months before: “There’s a sunny little country south of Mexico / Where the winds are gentle and the waters flow / But breezes aren’t the only things that blow / In El Salvador.” As the audience realized the group was not just a nostalgia act but was making a present-day statement against American foreign policy, the boos began. It was familiar territory for the trio, who knew as well as anyone the impact of music with a message. 

Some of us remember the power of musical protest: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan. But today, 33 years since I spent that week in St. Louis, are there singers singing still for social justice, peace and love?

In Canada, there certainly are. 

From 2009 to 2014, my wife and I organized a music festival in New Hamburg, Ont., an event that put me in green rooms and after-concert dining rooms with congenitally creative Canadian songwriters like Ken Whiteley, Valdy and David Francey.

It would be a mistake to categorize these artists as “protest singers,” because while they do protest vociferously at times, theirs is a larger canvas. They might better be described as “singers of love songs” — understanding that this love may be about romance, but also love of peace, love of justice, love of our planet.

What strikes me about all three of these singers is their clear-headed optimism: while they see the world’s wrongs and take a stand against evil, in the end they believe in something better.

Consider Ken Whiteley’s new recording, Ken Whiteley and the Beulah Band, just released this spring. Whiteley embraces folk, roots, blues, bluegrass, world music and most definitely gospel. But he brings that folk attitude, speaking out for justice, peace and love.

One of his newest songs is called Try Not to Fail, and typical of Whiteley’s work, it can be interpreted either as a personal observation or a template for larger issues: “Show everyone some respect . . . / Just live in the light, let today be today. / There is so much to learn from the wise / But also from the other guys.” Love and lightness in one package. 

Valdy — born Paul Valdemar Horsdal — criss-crosses the country to protest wrong, celebrate the right, champion causes of peace and spread a little love everywhere he goes. 

His most recent recording, Read Between the Lines, touches all those bases. He takes on organized religion in Saviours’ Place, fights fish farms in Broughton Archipelago and celebrates a tragic hero in The Day They Shot Ginger Down. His lyrics demand our attention — you may agree or object, but you probably won’t ignore them. 

And yet, like his contemporaries, Valdy celebrates joy — and his concerts are inevitably an occasion for delight. Read Between the Lines includes his Cottonwood Memory, a song about the sheer pleasure of dancing.

Whiteley and Valdy have been singing for what feels like forever. Whiteley formed the Original Sloth Band in 1965 (he was 14); Valdy’s first big hit, Play Me a Rock ’n’ Roll Song (about trying to sing peace songs to a crowd that responds, “Don’t play me songs about freedom and joy”) came in 1972. Francey is the newcomer of the three. He was in his 40s before he began performing, releasing his first album in 1999. The late start hasn’t held him back. Kerry Doole, writing in Exclaim! Magazine, suggests that Francey “has had more impact than any old-school Canadian folk songsmith since the late great Stan Rogers.”

Francey is less rollicking than Valdy or Whiteley, but his work includes the same mix of love, life and the need for us to make things better. During his concerts, he will claim to be a pessimist, and in songs like Pandora’s Box (from his newest work So Say We All), he describes a world where justice is “bent and all but broken.” But his cynical stance doesn’t hold up in the face of such lovely songs as Come Rain or Come Shine (“I’ll always be your love”) and Nearly Midnight, where he celebrates the sheer joy of coming home to his lover: “In the darkened world / Of this road I’m on / You are the light.”

For Francey, home, with its light and love, is the sanctuary from a damaged, fractured world. Each of his recordings explores this emotional spectrum, and it feels remarkably akin to the classical Christian theology of sin and redemption. 

Like his folk music compatriots, Francey has the double vision of an artist: he knows there are causes for despair, but he also sees reasons for hope, usually summed up in the all-encompassing concept of love. Francey sings, “Love as blind as love can be / We are grateful to receive.” Whiteley celebrates, “I’ve got friends all over the place.” Valdy knows he’s “blessed” that he’s “got a woman that loves me, in spite of myself.”

My first contact with Valdy was a perfect introduction to this Canadian folk hero. When I sent him a brief e-mail invitation asking him to sing at our festival, he responded with characteristic warmth. He told me he was on a ferry bound for Vancouver Island, sailing through fog, returning home from a long tour. He accepted our invitation with delight. And he signed off, “Love, Valdy.”

Until then, I’d never met the man, but I was instantly captured. When he wrote, “Love,” I believed him. Love: the stuff of great songs — and great songwriters. 

Paul Knowles is a writer in New Hamburg, Ont.

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