(The following is an abbreviated version of a paper I gave at the American Folklore Society annual meeting in New Orleans, LA. October 2012. It is the initial report of on-going dissertation research within old-time musical communities in Toronto, ON.)
With an urban population of 2.6 millions people, and a greater metropolitan area of 4.7 million, Toronto is nearly twice as big as Canada’s second largest city, Montreal, and more than three times the size of Vancouver, the third largest. Toronto is home to the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jays, and a massive identity crisis, fluctuating between the thought of as the country’s most cosmopolitan center, with the most diversity, economic productivity, international interest, and vibrant culture, and conversely as being the least Canadian city in Canada. Even the city’s most recognizable landmark, the CN tower, was built out of a desire to have something; anything that distinguished its skyline cluttered with ever more and more glass condominiums.
Any given night in Toronto offers hundreds of choices for live music, aside from the offerings of theatre, sport, film, dance, and the bars and restaurants that fill such a large city. A night out in Toronto offers a vast array of choices, a world’s buffet of options for pleasure and comfort. So it should not be surprising in the least, that there is something for everyone.
One week at the Holy Oak Café on west Bloor Street offers music that ranges from Turkish songs to Tropocalia beats to a set by DJ Kosher Dill.
And that same week, though not on their announcement board, is a night of Appalachian old-time fiddle and banjo music from the Square Peg Stringband.
Not too far away on trendy Ossington Ave, the Painted Lady hosts the Lonesome Ace Stringband, comprised of three of the best and most well respected players in town, John Showman, Chris Coole, and Max Heinemann. Again, there is no announcement of this show. No sandwich board, and no flyer. Yet the place was packed that night.
Because of the size of the city, the old-time community in Toronto relies heavily on a Yahoo Groups email list to communicate about shows, jams, parties, and other topics of human interaction. It’s through this list that I was first introduced to the old-time community, and how I heard about the first shows I attended. On this night at the Painted Lady, I met a several members of the old-time community, who come out for each others shows as often as possible. In several instances, the line between performer and audience member gets blurred, with several people sitting in.
Many people have said and agreed that while old-time music has a loyal and dedicated following in Toronto, it remains a hidden music and a hidden musical community. By the most generous standards, the number of people actively playing and listening to live old-time music in Toronto, the “old-time community,” constitutes no more than 200 people. In a city like Toronto, that means this particular community accounts for less that one one-hundredth of the city’s population. In other words, just like in America, the interest is nowhere near what it is for Hockey, Justin Bieber, or Nickleback.
Because of this, many of the core enthusiasts in Toronto have been making a yearly pilgrimage to West Virginia each August to the Appalachian Stringband Festival, colloquially known as “Clifftop.”
The connection to West Virginia and the Clifftop festival runs deep in the Toronto scene, and has shaped the course of several lives, including Scott Prouty (an American with deep ties to Toronto), Anne Hartman, Erynn Marshall, and Peter Fleming and Debbie Adams, for each old-time music has become a central theme to their lives, and for some, a profession that has prescribed moving to the States. Erynn Marshall, a native of British Columbia who lived in Toronto for decades now lives in Galax Virginia and works at the Blue Ridge Music Center, saying she probably wouldn’t be living in the states if not for West Virginia fiddler Melvin Wine.
This past summer at Clifftop a remembrance concert was held for legendary Wine where Scott and Erynn were both on stage, sharing memories and tunes. At one point, the moderated of the event said that Melvin Wine was born to play old-time music because of where and when he was born. What Henry Glassie might call the “accident of his birth.” The moderator suggested offhandedly, “What other kind of music was he gonna play?” My interest in Toronto old-time was born out of a quite different perspective, one I consider to be a clear twenty-first century condition, that is, how and why do people adopt and use traditions they were not born into?
While I don’t fully agree with the logic, the idea of being born into cultural conditions that make certain traditional arts readily available is still prevalent, and such assumptions still dominate much of the discourse on American vernacular music and it’s plaguing issue of authenticity. My question concerns the adoptions and reverence of traditional arts – in this case old-time music – from a vantage point of overwhelming options. Rather than the accident of birth, I find the choice to play fiddle music when fiddle music in not thrust upon you a compelling decision.
Of course, since the great folk revival of the 1960s there have been many old-time scenes that have developed in places outside the Southern Mountains of the US. Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, and John Cohen formed the New Lost City Ramblers in the public parks of New York City. The Highwood’s Stringband emerging from Ithaca New York. And on the West Coast the Portland Oregon Old-time music Gathering is about to celebrate its 13th year of old-time enthusiasm. But for all of these important instances of old-time music outside the South, there still lacks a critical mass, which is for many, the appeal of a festival like Clifftop.
Clifftop is the antithesis of old-time being hidden in Toronto. Here, for a week in August, nearly 3500 people come to camp and play together, all day, and all night. It’s not only a gathering for people who live in and around West Virginia, but from all over the country, the continent, and the world – with a few but notable yearly visitors from Koyoto, Japan.
Ironically, amidst this sea of Americana, the Canadian contingent has developed a rather tongue-in-cheek nationalism in their camp, known as Camp Canada. Here, Canadians from Toronto and Montreal come together to camp, jam, socialize, and reenergize their connections to each other and the music. Over the years Camp Canada has served to introduce Canadians to Americans, Americans to Canadians, and Canadians to each other. Two of the core members of the old-time scene in Toronto, Debbie Adams and Peg Evans, met not in Ontario, but in West Virginia. They live on opposite sides of Toronto as Debbie said operated in “completely different worlds,” and but after meeting at Clifftop years ago have developed into the best of friends. The Toronto old-time scene shares a symbiotic relationship with Clifftop. As one Canadian put it, “There would be no scene in [in Toronto] without Clifftop.” It has allowed Canadian players to learn from Appalachian masters, and has continued to nourish their interest and dedication, a spirit they bring back to Ontario year after year.
Over the years Camp Canada has also grown to be taken seriously at Clifftop. While jamming is the order of the day, there are competitions in fiddle, banjo, band, and flat footing. In 2008 Erynn Marshall was the first woman and the first Canadian to win first place in the fiddle competition. In 2011, John Showman followed in her footsteps by taking first in fiddle. That same year, 20-year-old Frank Evans from Toronto took second place in banjo. Frank is a student of Chris Coole and something of a prodigy on banjo. He has been coming to Clifftop since he was 12 years old.
This past summer, for the traditional band competition, a band was assembled with American and Canadian components, with Erynn Marshall playing fiddle, and Peter Fleming on bass. Calling themselves “Nervous Tick and the Bites” competition bands are just as often as not, assembled days if not hours before competition. Nervous Tick and the Bites would go on to win second place in the competition after a “play-off” with a North Carolina band. Or, as those in Camp Canada would say later that night, “They tied for first place.”
The metaphor “tied for first place” stuck me as perfectly appropriate after my week in Camp Canada. The Canadian contingent showed the same enthusiasm, talent, and dedication to old-time music, styles and traditions as anyone. In fact, they have either ignored or renounced Canadian fiddling traditions in doing so. Among those I’ve spent time with, I haven’t encountered anyone who plays Ottawa Valley Style, Métis, or French-Canadian music. Yet many of the Toronto old-time players are quite comfortable in the bluegrass and honky-tonk idioms, crossovers that can be contentious in the States. Yet this is not to say they aren’t proud to be Canadian, and have a healthy respect for their local culture. Just as old-time is “hidden” in Toronto, their Canadian pride is sometimes “hidden” within the community. Although there are clues if you look hard. Peg’s mounty sticker on her Art and Luthier guitar – a Canadian company.
Arnie’s Romero banjo:
Dennis’s Romero with white trillium – the official flower of Ontario – on the headstock.
Mark’s Alister Miller built banjo, with “maple leaf star” inlay.
Peter’s guitar, built by Anne Hartman (a Toronto native):
Like any music scene, the level of activity of old-time music in Toronto is constantly changing. While some lament the scene isn’t what it used to be, new comers suggest they cannot believe there is such a thriving community there. Indications of the community’s vitality can be seen in its attraction of other across Canada. Recently a fiddler from the Yukon and another from Winnipeg, Manitoba moved to Toronto because of the opportunities for old-time music, both professional and not.
What I have found in Toronto is that if you know where to look, old-time music is thriving in the exact modes and forms that has been its calling card for decades. It remains community music, formed by a healthy respect for local variations, and thus sensitive to regional variation. It is music played both in living rooms and intimate gathering spots. And just as in areas where old-time music makes up a higher percentage of the musical output, Toronto’s musical community has various layers, from occasional jammers to dedicated professionals. And they will continue to reorganize themselves, define and establish relationships, and hone their skills, throughout the cold Canadian winter, until the next summer, when they again gather, in the warm air, of West Virginia nights.