April 2000

v In Memoriam: Ed McCurdy - Lorne Brown

January 11,1919 - March 23, 2000

Where do you come from?
Where do you go?
Where do you come from,
Cotton eyed Joe?

These, of course, are the age old questions that have kept philosophers, theologians, scientists and historians busy for years. They are also part of the song "Cotton Eyed Joe" which served as Ed McCurdy's theme song on countless radio and television programmes in the '40s and '50s during his days with the CBC. I involuntarily started singing it when I heard of Ed's death in Halifax on March 23 this year.

The philosopher Santayana once said, "There's no cure for life and death save to enjoy the interval." Ed did his best to enjoy the interval, although his last years have been hard on him. I remember him sitting in front of a group of grade eights in the north Toronto school where I was principal, a group who considered themselves 'cool'. He stared them straight in the eye, and then announced, "I've done drugs, I've done alcohol, I've done it all. Let me tell you, it's no fun and I know what I'm talking about." In that instant he gained their attention; when he started to sing, he gained their respect.

I guess a lot of us could say that Ed gained our attention and our respect. Maybe we heard him on the radio, maybe we had one of his many recordings. A lot of today's performers of folk songs talk about their McCurdy records and how much they learned from them. Once while he was performing on stage, Joan Baez, then at the height of her fame, walked out and sat at his feet, just to be close to him.

McCurdy was born January 11, 1919 in Willow Hill, Pennsylvania, the last of a dozen children. Even as a boy he enjoyed singing and music. He listened to all kinds of music: jazz, church music, Bach, blues... By age 14 he started taking singing lessons. By age 19 he was singing hymns on the radio in Oklahoma.

He had a powerful baritone voice, and I suspect he harboured a secret wish to sing opera, Rigoletto in particular. He once sang the beginning of Rigoletto's great aria Pari Siamo to me. To the best of my knowledge he never performed opera, but that great voice was his meal ticket to a life on stage - singing, acting as master of ceremonies, burlesque (performing with Sally Rand!) shows, theatre, acting, radio, television, the whole works.

In 1946 he came to Vancouver and hosted a CBC radio programme. In 1949 the programme and Ed moved to Toronto, and in 1952 he made his first recording: Ed McCurdy: Songs of the Canadian Maritimes.

It was while in this stage of his life that he met an attractive young dancer. Beryl has been his wife for over half a century, I reckon, and they have three children.

By the folk boom of the '60s, Ed was at the height of his career. He hosted Tuesday night jam sessions in New York's Bitter End coffee house. He'd recorded at least twenty albums of folk music and children's songs, and his six albums of erotic songs brought him even wider audiences. He always loved the bawdy ballad, and had a great repertoire of them.

This repertoire stood him in good stead. Once, in between recording sessions for the CBC, he had a short break. He dashed to the CBC cafeteria in its old Jarvis Street building, but it was packed. No seat anywhere. Ed immediately started singing the bawdiest ballad he knew (which must have been pretty bawdy!) at the top of his not inconsiderable voice. Many people immediately cleared the room; Ed sat down and ate his lunch and then dashed back to the recording studio.

It's possible that at that time in his career he was the most recorded and best known folk singer, with the possible exception of Burl Ives. Ed admired Ives' work, telling me once that some of Burl's recordings were "pure poetry". Pete Seeger considered Ed one of the best folksingers around. The young Bob Dylan opened for him. He gave a recital at Ontario's Stratford Festival, ending with "Twinkle Little Star", commenting that there was a big difference between being childlike and childish, an observation that has remained with me ever since.

But life is passing strange. The new folk movement overcame Ed and swept by him. Maybe people thought his guitar playing was too simple. His voice too trained. His repertoire too traditional and not `protesty' enough. That he was too eccentric, too identified with bawdy material. I don't know why. He performed less and less, and his recordings went out of print. In the '70s his health failed him, and in the '80s he moved to Halifax with Beryl.

He took up the habit of drawing large, stylized birds, one of which hangs proudly on my wall at home.

Fifteen or so years ago I phoned him in Halifax, inviting him to participate in the Toronto Festival of Storytelling. He readily agreed. I met him at the airport, guitar case in hand. In my living room, we worked on a set we would do together. I suggested that I'd play Cotton Eyed Joe on my recorder, and he would sing it. I started playing it in C, a comfortable key. "Too low!" he thundered. Grabbing another recorder, I started playing it in G, far too high a key in my opinion. His voice cut loose, my windows began rattling, and I realized G was the right key after all. I've never forgotten the moment.

In our set at the festival, he sang the traditional Canadian folk song Blooming Bright Star of Belle Isle. It was extraordinarily beautiful, and I was awed by the intelligent use of his voice. "They don't make songs like that anymore," he announced with regret. "Oh yes they do!" cried several young people in the audience, and I was struck by the chasm that exists. The chasm between the traditional and the new. Ed was not an authentic traditional singer - he was after all an urban singer of traditional material. But he loved the traditional ballads and songs, and I think he never fit in to the singer-songwriter pattern that became so popular.

Still, he wrote some beautiful songs. One simple one I find myself singing often at night as I gaze up into the stars:

Countless stars are in the sky,
Have you ever wondered why?
Floating out there in the sky,
Have you ever wondered why?

One night in 1950 in a Toronto hotel he started to write a love song about a dream, and the next thing he knew, it had turned into an anti-war song. "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" never got played on the radio or printed in school song books, but it traveled all around the world. It was Ed's most famous piece, but many young people didn't know he had written it; some thought it was "traditional"! And, I'm pleased to report, it's actually in some school songbooks today. In his homemade cassette recording Ed McCurdy: Thoughts After Sixty, recorded by his son in New York in the '80s, he has a stirring rendition of Strangest Dream, complete with a children's chorus. Toronto's classical music radio station plays it every November 11.

In the summer of '99 Ed had serious abdominal surgery, complicated by pneumonia and congestive heart failure. I phoned him after he finally came home from the hospital, and he talked to me from his bed. He started to sing the great old ballad The Three Ra'ens. The voice was unmistakable, but the lung power was gone. Within a few short phrases he had to stop.

And now he's gone. When Canadian ballad singer Moira Cameron heard the news up in Yellowknife, she started to cry. "I think it has something to do with feeling there's not enough of us younger balladeers replacing the older ones," she said. "Doug Wallin, another great ballad singer, also died this week at the age of 80. Thank God these two have been amply recorded, so that people like me are able to continue their music. But for all that I revere these balladeers, I'm not convinced I am adequately carrying on from where they leave off. I am awed by the legacy these people leave. It saddens me no end to think that the people who are listening to me sing ballads may never know the awesome power and magic in the singing of people like Ed McCurdy, Ewan MacColl, Pete Bellamy, Doug Wallin, and others."

So, we who are left, we who love the traditional ballad and folk song, are left to carry on, however inadequately. We've had a great mentor.

Where do you come from?
Where do you go?
Where do you come from,
Cotton eyed Joe?

[ Lorne Brown is a Toronto storyteller and ballad singer, and founder of The Ballad Project. ]

v In Memoriam: Ed McCurdy - Merrick Jarrett

I first met Ed many years ago at CBC in Toronto, where at the time I was working with Edith Fowke on some folk music series. I had listened for quite some time to his programs originating from CBC Vancouver. I was just getting heavily involved in traditional folk music, and hearing this magnificent baritone voice over the radio singing songs that I was singing and learning, was an experience, believe me. Will anyone ever forget his theme song, "Where do you come from, where do you go, where do you come from, cotton eyed Joe"?

Normally, a trained vocalist singing traditional folk songs turns me off, but Ed had the artistry, the power, and the feeling for the songs that shone through all his performances, radio, stage, whatever.

When he and his wife, Beryl, moved to North Toronto where Mary and I were living we got to be good friends. I remember once dropping in, and he was busy writing a song...he asked me how I liked it, and I think I was quite ambivalent about it...it turned out to be "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream", probably one of the greatest anti-war songs written.

My youngest granddaughter, Rachel, at one time, said she wanted to sing a song to me...and that was the song she had learned and was going to sing at school. Rachel was six years old! That was just a small example of Ed's contributions to the folk process at work.

Apart from Pete Seeger, Ed was probably the most recorded folk artist of the time. His only Canadian LP was, if I remember, "Maritime Folk Songs" on the White Hall label, and he was probably the first singer of traditional folk songs to be recorded on a national Canadian label.

Ed was a very funny fellow. He spoke his mind, and didn't give a damn about who heard him or whether it mattered or not. I remember how he used to sit in the back of the CBC cafeteria, and as the secretaries, etc. came in for lunch or break, he would boom out (and I mean boom - Ed had a very powerful voice!) one of his more raunchy songs from his wonderful LP's of medieval erotic songs, one of which, again, if memory doesn't fail me, was "When Knighthood Was in Flower". If you ever come across these records, they are a "must" for your collection. (Editors Note: Several are for sale on eBay.)

He was completely shameless. At one of the early Mariposas, Mary and I went to visit him, with a couple of friends. The door flung open, and there was Ed, welcoming us in a big booming voice, clad in a jockstrap and nothing else.

I learned a lot of songs from Ed, not only from stealing them from his radio programs and records, but just listening to him and absorbing the wonderful breadth and range of his songs, and hints on breath control, presentation, etc.

(Not that swiping his songs bothered me too much, since later on, very mysteriously, and unknown to me, some of the cuts from my traditional cowboy songs records appeared on a couple of his introduction to folk music LP's!)

Not that it did me much good, obviously; Mary and I visited him in Halifax, where he and Beryl were living, and the first thing he said as we came in, was, "Well, you never had much of a voice but I hear you were a good lecturer!" (Referring to my stint at U. of Waterloo, lecturing on traditional folk music.) Typical McCurdy. He was quite right. I still don't have much of a voice!

Later on, Ed and Beryl moved to New York, and there he became quite ill. It left him partially paralyzed, and it looked as if he could no longer sing. Ed never thought much about money matters, and tended to spend it as fast as he made it, and he was not in too good a financial shape. But the folkies passed the hat around, and eventually he recovered, and his first public appearance was an event. But to me, the booming magnificent voice was no longer there, and a record he made of traditional cowboy songs just didn't seem to have the strength and timbre of the old Ed McCurdy...but Ed, not at his best, was as good as most of the other singers around.

Around this time a wonderful thing happened. True serendipity. Just at the time when both spirits and finances were at a low ebb, Ed received a good royalty cheque from Sweden, I believe it was, where his recording of "Strangest Dream" had hit the top of the hit parade.

Ed and Beryl moved to Halifax many years ago, not only for better medical coverage but better access to their children; but it was not such a good move. The dampness and sea air affected Beryl, and Ed's health gradually worsened. The last time we saw him, his dresser seemed to be covered prescription drugs, and some of the old McCurdy zip and fire had left. They had thought of moving back to Ontario, and I had almost persuaded him to come to Kitchener (and wouldn't he have been a great addition to the Old Chestnuts?) but I guess financially they just couldn't swing it.

Mary and I were in Halifax last fall, and talked to Beryl on the phone. Ed was home, recovering from some serious operating, and was pretty well bed-ridden. It is to our everlasting regret that we didn't get in to see him before we left Halifax, and it was not so much of a shock, but with a great deal of sorrow that we got the news that this wonderful personality, this great singer of traditional folk songs (and hymns, and some opera that he dabbled in, to say nothing of his acting, MC'ing, etc.) had finally joined the angel band, where, no doubt, he will prove a handful for the band conductor.

Pete Seeger called him the best of the folksingers of his time, and his CBC radio programs will long be remembered. Ed rarely played guitar on his radio programs - he felt, (and Alan Mills, our premier performer and collector of Canadian folk songs who was working out of Montreal, felt the same way) that he would rather concentrate on the presentation of the song without worrying about having to play an instrument.

Ed, your ebullient personality, your wonderful baritone voice, your contribution to folk music, your friendship, and your influence on so many singers, will not be forgotten. So long, and as Woody Guthrie sang, "It's been good to know you."

Sic transit Ed McCurdy, March, 2000

v Last Month and Next Month at OCSC! - Jack Cole

The record stays intact, as a few more new folks found their way to the Old Chestnuts. Welcome to all, and please come back and sing with us as often as you can!

We got through a lot of 'wheel' songs, from 2 wheelers all the way to 18! Not to mention "one wheelers" of Fortune and "Heart Like A..". Trains, cars, trucks, bicycles, buses, wagons.I was surprised that no one managed roller skates! With just over 20 people and not too many `passers', we went surprisingly fast and got in lots of singing.

April's Circle will be the last for the season, as we take a break in May for Aengus Finnan. It seems much too early this year - like we just got started and it's nearly done. The theme for this Easter Saturday Song Circle (April 22) will be in keeping with the season - songs about resurrection, rebirth, transformation, change, joy from sorrow. I hope many of you are able to come out and close the season with us.

If you need a singing 'fix' over the summer I recommend the festivals, the camps, and the GreenWood concert on July 10 (see below). If time permits I will do my traditional festival preview issue in May or early June. If not, this will be the final newsletter until we begin again in the fall.

v Concert Review: Songwriter's Circle - Jean Mills

Centre in the Square, Saturday, March 25, 2000

The publicity material suggested that this performance by three well-known Canadian singer-songwriters (Amy Sky, Marc Jordan and Laura Smith) owed its format to an East Coast tradition. I have a feeling it was more in the style of Nashville's Bluebird Caf‚: a group of songwriters presents an introduction to their songs and how they came to write them, in much the same way that a folk festival panel shares the stage. Whatever its origin, the concept was great, and the intentionally small audience was treated to an evening of bare bones, heartfelt singing and songwriting.

Instead of sitting in the massive hall, the audience of about 200 was seated at round tables placed up on stage (snacks and beverages were part of the package, a nice touch!) A small raised platform at the front of the stage was turned around so that the performers actually had their backs to the hall, facing us. We were all up on stage, in close proximity to the performers and each other. It made for an informal, casual and personal atmosphere, perfect for such a performance.

The format of the evening was simple: the three singers took turns sharing the story behind one of their songs, then performed it, either accompanying themselves on guitar, or relying on the understated and sometimes improvised accompaniment of a brilliant piano player whose name (I think) was Kevin Bright. The focus was on melody, lyrics and a single voice, not on arrangements or harmony. The effect of such a simple approach resulted in some magical moments.

Highlights included Laura Smith's slightly bawdy banter and her amazing vocals on "The Gate is Open" and that hilarious crossword song ("You're a Four Letter Word For Away"), and Marc Jordan opening with "Living In Marina Del Rey", a toe tapping singalong candidate if ever there was one. Amy Sky, whose style is more pop than traditional, delivered dramatic renditions of some of her latest songs, including "Everyday Miracles", a song about motherhood (and a hit with at least half the audience!) and "I Will Take Care of You." All three singers have distinct, strong voices. For me, the surprise of the evening was hearing Marc Jordan; we all know he can write a song, but I had rarely heard him sing. He's funny, intense and a compelling performer. His song about the Duplessis Orphans left us struck dumb with emotion.

There was a brief question and answer session before the second set, which produced the inevitable queries about "where do I send my demo tape?" But the bulk of the evening was devoted to songs and the stories behind them. Each of the performers shared a little personal history, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who would have loved to have heard more - especially from Laura Smith, who seems to have traveled quite a few difficult miles in her musical life.

So bravo to The Centre in the Square for presenting The Songwriters' Circle! It was a great idea for a concert, the audience loved it, and no doubt a few songwriters in the crowd found some inspiration from these three very accomplished artists.

v Celtic College 2000 - Jack Cole

My other favourite thing to do in the summer!! I received the following information from Warren Robinson of the Goderich Celtic College. Another amazing lineup, with a few additions still to come.

  • Maggie Christl - traditional song
  • Aoife Clancy - traditional song (Thursday only)
  • Alastair Brown - traditional song
  • Loretto Reid - flute/tinwhistle
  • Janice Crewe - flute/tinwhistle
  • Pat O'Gorman - flute/ tinwhistle/Breton music
  • Julie Schryer - piano
  • Ben Grossman - bodhran/rhythm
  • Nathan Curry - bodhran building, bouzouki
  • Brian Taheny - banjo/mandolin/fiddle/bouzouki
  • Pierre Schryer - fiddle
  • Anne Lederman - fiddle
  • Patrick Orceau - fiddle
  • Christina Smith - fiddle / Newfoundland music
  • Jean Hewson - guitar / Newfoundland music
  • Brian Pickell - guitar & tune writing
  • Sharlene Wallace - harp
  • Don Kavanagh - harmonica
  • Frank Edgley - concertina

Most of the music staff are returning from last year. About the new teachers: "Aoife Clancy is the lead singer with Cherish the Ladies and this will be her first workshop. Maggie Christl is from Scotland, temporarily living in Boston and is highly lauded for her work in Canada. Alastair Brown is another Scot, now living in Canada, who is a fine dance teacher as well as singer and concertina player. Don Kavanagh was raised in Dublin but now lives in Ottawa. He is an unbelievable tune player. One new thing is that we are having a welcoming ceili on Sunday evening, Aug. 6, as so many of the college students arrive on Sunday. " Another new feature is a "pre-college" tape and music package of session tunes, to "bone up" on before classes begin.

In addition to the music programs, there will be blacksmithing, Celtic design, stone carving, copper enameling, silver & brass jewelry, calligraphy, stained glass, two handed Fair Isle knitting, lantern making, sugan weaving, marquetry, Celtic cooking & hospitality, Irish Gaelic, history of Irish music & Irish folktales, ceili, set & step dancing, instrument repair, acoustic sound (with Stephen Darke) and ergonomics for musicians.

[ I am expecting flyers for the College soon and will gladly point you in the direction of more information. Just call or write. - jc ]

v Concert News

The Aengus Finnan concert for May 13, 2000 is Sold Out!! This is great news - a huge stress reliever for Ye Olde Ticket Seller! I have a waiting list and it is not unusual to get a few cancellations at the last minute. So if you would still like to see Aengus give me a call. Who knows - if we get enough on the waiting list we might be able to make some other arrangement to accommodate everyone. Failing that, Aengus is playing other concerts in the area, including April 15 at Folkway Music in Guelph.

On Saturday June 10, Eve Goldberg and GreenWood will share a house concert in Kitchener that is a benefit for Amnesty International. These performers are familiar to most of you I'm sure. Eve is a singer and songwriter in the traditional style, and has a repertoire of wonderfully singable songs. GreenWood (insert declaration of non-objectivity here) consists of Jack Cole, James Morgan and Jean Mills. Many instruments and well- blended voices are their trademark. Please contact me (578- 6298) for tickets.

Monday, July 10 GreenWood strikes again for a free, community, outdoor concert in Weber Park, just up the street from where the Old Chestnuts meet. As part of Millennium Mondays we will lead a 'community sing' featuring the best songs of the last 1000 years.

v Some Events in The Area (as space permits!)

Apr 22 Old Chestnuts Song Circle, Songs of Rebirth and Change. Arrive between 7:30 and 8 PM. 578.6298.
Apr 26 Grand River Dulcimer Club on CKWR radio!
Apr 29 Mill Race Spring Preview, James Gordon, Rathlin, Bobby Watt, Holmes Hook, MadriGALS. $10/$12, 621-7135
May 7 Tom Lewis with Geoff Lewis, Rose Cottage house concert, $10, 621-7135
May 12 Nonesuch, Button Factory in Waterloo, 886-4577. Second in a series which begins tonight (April 14) with Rathlin.
May 13 Aengus Finnan, Old Chestnuts House Concert, $10. Aengus is also on CKWR May 10. 578-6298.
May 19 Black Walnut Folk Club, Laurel Room, UW. $3. Open mic. With host. Third Friday of each month.
May 25 Andrew Kerth, The Boathouse Tearoom, Victoria Park, 570-3800

v About this newsletter..... It's emailed if I have your address. It's on the Web at http://www.mgl.ca/~jhcole and available at OCSC and BWFC get togethers. Also available by regular mail, but for that I request a few stamped envelopes or a contribution to postage. Call 578-6298 for more information. I hope you read and enjoyed the 2 remembrances of Ed McCurdy. For many of us this was before our time in folk music, and its important perspective I think. It was an interesting adventure finding the album cover shown above. My first visit to eBay, and an eye-opening experience. See you at Easter!!

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