Songs Of My People

Hey friend, hope you’re having a solid day, and there’s plenty of sunshine in it.  I know it hasn’t been the same everywhere, but if someone around here was looking for a grey, bleak start to winter they’d surely be disappointed.  ‘Ow’s a body t’get a decent grumble in with all that sun ‘angin’ about cheery-like?  Ah, hear that sound?  I think of it as the songs of my people.  Around here I can say almost anything in that accent and everyone smiles, I figure mostly because they have no idea what I’m saying.  Apparently I was born with that accent.  Well, not that I was actually born talking, although you’re right that would surprise no one, least of all my friends.  But when I eventually did speak it was in my parents’ accent, a fairly broad Lancashire.  Northern England, like ‘Coronation Street’ only not so posh.  You can imagine the kids’ response when I arrived at the Canadian country schoolyard.  Learned how to speak like the locals pretty darned fast lemme tell you, it felt like my survival depended on it.

It’s a funny thing about that accent.  You see, we were touring Britain, just at the beginning of a two-month schedule that had us going from Devon in the south all the way up to Thurso in the top of Scotland, where if you go any more north people start speaking Norwegian.  But first we had a weekend-long festival appearance.  And that festival was held in a place not far from my parents’ hometown, so I was looking forward to being around a bit of that culture.  We arrived in town and were directed towards our billet.  It looked like it was going to be quite a haul to get all the gear out of the rental, into the building, and all the way up where we were staying.  But I was assured that it would all be safe in the vehicle overnight.  Turned out they were mistaken.  We came down in the morning to find out that the specific model vehicle we had rented was apparently well known for being able to be opened with a slot screwdriver where you or I might use a key.  Lucky us.  Three guitars, all the gear, all of our recordings, all gone.  All they left was the harp, presumably because it was too big to get out of the car, and my flute, which they must’ve just overlooked because it was too small.  The rest of the stuff was just right, so it was truly gone.  Coming down and discovering all that was pretty darned special.  And no one to blame but myself for not sucking it up and doing the heavy lifting.  You’re right, I’ve never made that mistake again.  I may be slow, but I’m not stupid.

Now I want to tell you right up front that there was a reasonably happy ending.  Thanks to some local constabulary effort two of the guitars eventually came back, and the kind folks at the festival took up a collection which allowed us to at least continue the tour.  In the end we even got most of the recordings back, seems the guy who did the deed was caught with them in his vehicle, he just couldn’t offload them, which still tickles me somehow.  But before all of that, before we’d rolled up our sleeves to start dealing with it, before we’d cobbled together enough gear to roll on, and before I’d been offered several guitars to finish the tour with, there was some time spent in serious shock.  We didn’t know what else to do, so we went down to the cafeteria to pretend to eat breakfast.

Imagine, then, a cafeteria full of a few hundred people bustling about getting ready for their day, having a visit with friends, a bite to eat, buzzing with the excitement of the first day of their beloved festival about to begin.  Meanwhile the two Canadians are sitting at a table by themselves trying to make some kind of sense out of what’s happened.  There’s a few minutes of silence between us, and a few more minutes of talking about what to do, then a few more minutes of silence.  Like happy crowds everywhere, there’s a rise and fall to the sounds around us.  Except there’s this odd difference, it doesn’t sound like a roomful of people back home.  Somehow it’s just… different.  And after a while it becomes apparent that my partner and I are each having a completely different reaction to our surroundings.  It seems that in the chatter of the room something in me can pick out that for the first time in my life I am surrounded by a large roomful of people all speaking with my parents’ accent.  Without knowing why, I’m hugely comforted by that, and somehow it makes things easier to handle.  Meanwhile that very same sound is making a significant contribution to my partner feeling like we’re on a different planet, millions of miles from home, and it’s sure not helping matters.  The difference was so noticeable that we actually talked about it.  After a while we took a deep breath and made our way to our first performance of the day.  I didn’t know that there was already a guitar there waiting for me to use for the concert.  I didn’t know they’d already started passing the hat and would do so at every show on every stage all weekend.  And I most certainly didn’t know how the heck I was going to re-do all those guitar parts and make them work for the flute.

What I did know is that I had a new appreciation for the songs of my people.

People They Like

Y’know, I’ve noticed that there are people who only do nice things for people they like.  And that’s a bit unfortunate because I think that’s exactly how to grow a clique.  If they save their kindness only for their friends, or for grand gestures which make them appear kinder than they are in daily practice, you can be relatively confident that they are part of a clique.  The daily practice is a giveaway.  Or at least the lack of it.  Find me someone who is kind to a broad cross-section of people, and who makes that kindness no big deal just part of their normal life, and I’ll pretty much guarantee that person is living their life clique-free.  Or at least is currently inhabiting a clique-free zone.  Almost as commendable.

Cliques are about exclusion.  I used to be surprised when people would tell me that Guelph was full of that kind of nasty tribalism.  Cliques with sticks?  Here in the town of brotherly love?  Not possible.  At first I could not credit the thought, these were such pleasant people.  But after years of inside conversations I realised that in fact the arts scene in the town was a human resources nightmare, so many people who had nasty fights and arguments and misunderstandings with others, sometimes decades before.  And no one ever bothered to clean up the mess.  So many tribes that didn’t speak to one another, especially in a burgh that size.  Truly amazing.  The fault-line running smack down the middle of the Hillside festival, for instance, was mind-numbing in intensity, and my gosh how it has twisted the whole enterprise into entrenching some very ugly behaviours.  Do we do show-biz or do we do community?  I know let’s do neither and just agree to hate one another forever instead.  That’ll make a great festival.  Always wondered how they did it.  Of course no one would admit to doing anything wrong.  I know, I asked.  Got told to mind my own business.

Likewise no one in town would admit to being in anything like a clique.  Because they all considered themselves nice people.  And of course nice people don’t do things like that.  Just ask them.  Don’t ask the folks who would tell me they’re leaving town because they couldn’t find friends, couldn’t find people to play with, couldn’t find people interested in trying something different, couldn’t find a gig to save their lives.  Those folks are gone.  Presumably to a happier place.  Actually pretty much any place except an active war zone would be happier than that sad little scene.  At least to the folks who left.  If I were smarter I might’ve gone with them.  Ah well.  Guess I just wanted to see how it ended.

So no, when it comes to cliques self-identification is likely not helpful.  But I have found that it is indeed helpful to look at where they put their positive energy, their kindness if you will.  If the person or persons only do nice things for certain people, only people they like, then no matter how sweet they are there’s a very good chance that there’s a clique involved.

And it’s better to know that sooner rather than later.

Ask me how I know.

Strange Moments Again

Many years ago I worked in a duo with a harper.  It was a good gig while it lasted, people seemed to enjoy it, certainly we had more than our share of decent nights.  Of course, if you’re doing something like that long enough you’re going to collect a few interesting times.

They had decided to organize a first Canadian folk harp conference, and put together a big deal concert which they invited us to be part of, honoured guests actually.  Was nice to feel supported, so of course we accepted.  The concert was being held in a large church with ample room for a decent-sized audience, although the performance space was a bit tight.  However, we made it work by taking my three guitars and placing them on their stands each one in front of the next, three in a row (I know, I know, one was an electric, one was my main acoustic guitar tuned in dadgad, the third was another acoustic in standard tuning used to avoid having to re-tune on stage).  Sound check went well and by show time there were several hundred people in the audience.  We were given a nice introduction, walked out to solid applause thinking ‘Hey, it sounds like they like us, we’re going to have a good time!’, and took a bow.  Then my partner turned around and sat at the harp, while I took a half-step backwards so I could take up my position standing at the mic.  All good, just like we’d rehearsed it.  Except I’d misjudged where exactly I was standing.  And there wasn’t a lot of room for error.  None, in fact.

And that was when it happened.  The most amazing sound.  You see there were several hundred people there, they said five or six hundred, I don’t remember.  And many of them were musicians.  And when every one of them saw what was about to happen, I heard the sound of a significant number of people all catching their breath at the same time.  Yup, I backed up and caught the edge of the first guitar behind me, just like people had hoped wouldn’t happen, which then fell backwards onto the guitar behind it, which fell in turn domino-like and knocked over the third.  Either a strike or a full-house, I don’t know how you measure these things.  But you couldn’t have staged it more perfectly if you tried.  Happily there was no real damage and we picked up and gave a solid performance.

But the thing I remember about that night is not my goofy move.  Do enough shows and something like that’s bound to happen no matter how careful you are, no big deal in the grand scheme of things.  No, what I remember quite clearly is that sound.  Wordless gasp, large number of people.  Some folks carry colour, they have a memory for it.  I guess I carry sound.

And it’s funny what’s in my sound memory.

Bu yeah, that was a moment.

Strange Moments

Many years ago, we were performing at a festival, just about to begin our main stage set, we’d finished the cable-up, they gave the mc the thumbs up and they began their introduction while I took a moment to make sure my concentration was in place.  The intro was pretty standard at first, they’d taken notes from some of our promotional material.  I remember thinking that they were doing a pretty good job, which always helps the performance get off to a solid start.  Then they started to do a little biographical sketch of me.  And I lost my focus completely.  You see they’d done some significant research.  Yessiree, a whole whack of innernet must’ve gone into it.  Except they’d got the wrong Ken Brown.  I knew something was strange when they described me as coming from a musical family.  Huh??  My folks would’ve been deeply amused to hear that.  They spoke of both gigs and instruments I’d never played.  I’m sure it was only a few seconds, but it seemed to go on forever, was like watching someone else’s life pass before my eyes.  Just for a heartbeat I wondered whether we were at the right gig, or maybe I’d dropped into some kind of parallel universe.  Then it was over and the set started.  I will admit it took me a little while to get my mind fully back on the task at hand.  I guess we did okay, I remember the audience seemed to enjoy the set we played.  But yeah, of all the weird moments I’ve had on stage, that was definitely one of them.

No permanent damage, though.  Although ever since then whenever I’ve worked as an mc I’ve had this irresistible urge to begin with accurate material and then just take a left turn and work my way into bizarre-land.  Could be huge fun, no?  “Not a lot of people know this but our next performer actually invented the internet.  And then sold it to Al Gore…”  Never had the nerve.  Maybe one day.

Serving Up the Necessary

Hi friend, how’s your day?  I managed to get in a bit of sleep, although it took me a while to get there.  I was doing a favour for some folks, that involved getting up in front of an audience.  Always gets both the mind and body working at a bit of a pace, and takes a little while to bring things back to something approaching normal.  Not too much of a drag, really.  Although it means that an evening affair will pretty much guarantee I won’t get to sleep until early morning.  And once I’m asleep I’ll likely stay there for a while.  So I’ve spent much of today trying to catch up.

It was a good night, though.  Seemed to be worth the doing.  I’d heard that the Millrace folks could use a hand filling an mc-spot or two.  Didn’t think it’d be healthy for me to take on too much, so we agreed that I’d take care of Sunday night at what they used to call the main stage.  Was a night of good music, well performed.  And folks seemed to enjoy my little part in it as well.  I apparently managed to serve up the necessary announcements in a way that made them seem interesting and sometimes entertaining, or at least that’s what folks said when they passed by me as I was standing over there going over my notes for the next break.  So I had no choice but to figure that I was doing okay.  It seems that I was able to get the job done in a way that helped the show, and that the audience enjoyed in itself.  Good news.

It’s interesting how very different it is being up in front of a large audience without an instrument.  It always takes me a minute or two to get comfortable with the situation, nothing that gets in the way, just takes a bit of settling in.  I suppose that used to happen when I was beginning a concert, too.  It’s just that I would be busy playing and wouldn’t quite notice it as much.  I will admit to having fun once or twice over the course of the evening, though.  At one point I noticed that some people over on that far side were waving towards somebody the opposite far side, the message wasn’t getting through.  I started to joke with them about it.  What I wanted to do was to get the whole audience on that side to start waving, then to turn the other way and tell the folks on that other side that some of those people back there were trying to get their attention, guess which ones.  Didn’t quite have the nerve.  Oh well.

But yeah, it was a good night.  Good for the festival, which was most important.  And I guess it was good for me, too.  And that’s certainly got to be worth something.  But for now I think I’ll have something to eat.  And then maybe a nap.  Anyway, just wanted you to know I was thinking about you.  Hope you’re doing well.  Yeah, I guess I’m doing alright.  At least nothing a good night’s sleep can’t mend.  Write when you get a chance.  And I’ll do the same.


kbsitepicgig013Was a pleasure to play for nice folks again yesterday.  It’s a neighbourhood gathering which has become a small jewel of a festival.  I love the fact that they limit attendance in quite a sensible manner–you use the bathroom of whoever invited you.  No portables.  Kind of solves that issue, doesn’t it?

kbsitepicgig012I was asked several times whether I’d been at the first one.  Apparently in some people’s minds I have become a fixture.  No, I’m quite sure I wasn’t at the first one.  But it is nice to have been often enough that they look forward to seeing me again.  One of the reasons being in this town is such a different experience for me.

Being at Chequenat always reminds me of why I used to call myself a folk-musician.  People who make money at such things have gutted the social significance from that whole scene and turned folk into nothing but a minor-league version of what they think of as ‘real music’ (meaning pop and country).  I watched it happen, and not a darned thing I could do about it.  They sort of finished off the process that Pete Seeger talked about, where we lost what he called our ‘local heroes’.  Of course, those people making money at such things are doing much better now, thank you very much, although the musicians tell me it’s harder to make a living than it used to be.  So, no I wouldn’t thank you to call me a folkie now.  But nice to have this gentle reminder of what it used to be all about.


I had forgotten that I had these pictures from several years ago on my old site.  There’s a big clock that sits beside the stage.  When I first saw it I remember it seemed huge.  Somehow over the years it’s gotten smaller.  Sort of like what happened to your grade school hallways.  Not sure why, but there it is.


Next year will be their 10th.  And no temptation to succumb to the bigger is better disease.  Good going.  I used to think this was part of our future.  Of course I’ve had it explained to me more than once how I was deeply mistaken.  Nice to see these folks have got it right.

Because I Promised–Cambridge Concert

Remember I promised a while ago that I’d tell you when I’m playing in the area?  Funny, I always assume that friends are busy, but you made it clear that you want me to let you know.  Just so I don’t make that same mistake again, there’s a concert coming up that you might enjoy.

You know that traditional music festival that happens in Cambridge every summer?  Well the folks that do the festival have a concert series that happens in a really lovely room downtown.  And they’ve asked me to play for them.  Given the nature of the festival I thought I’d put together some of my personal takes on traditional songs and tunes.  Made me realize I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.  I’ve certainly never put all of them down in one place.  I’ll have to do that sometime.  In the meantime, the details look like this;millracelogo

The Mill Race Folk Society

Ken Brown

Friday February 27     8pm

The Galt Room, 2nd Floor, Café 13
13 Main Street, Cambridge (Galt)
Admission $10

If you’re coming from out of town the map looks like this (at the corner of Water and Main Streets).  I can vouch for the food downstairs, it’s worth coming early enough to have dinner.  As for the summer festival, modelled after many of the in-town festivals in Britain, it’s a wonderful reason to wander through downtown Galt.  The Mill Race organizers also hold their Annual Spring Preview which is a great concert and their major fundraiser, well worth checking out.