Saturday, July 18, 2009

Jason Schneider's Whispering Pines

Books about Canadian music are few and far between. And frankly, many of them suck. I can count the best ones on one hand, starting with Nicholas Jennings’ Before the Gold Rush and Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road.

Jason Schneider’s new entry on this short list is called Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music from Hank Snow to The Band. In it, he tells the tales of what some call “Canadian Americana” by detailing the rise and influence of Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and The Band, with detours about Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Bruce Cockburn, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and others.

Full disclosure: Jason and I co-wrote a book together (with Ian Jack) in 2001 called Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995. In many ways, it was a reaction of sorts against the notion that the baby boom generation produced the only Canadian musical history worth mythologizing. Artists such as the Rheostatics, The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Sloan, Eric’s Trip, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Jr. Gone Wild, Nomeansno, Deja Voodoo and others were the soundtrack of our youth, and we felt that no one was going to stand up and vouch for their proper place in the history books.

The book sold out of its print run and was received extremely well; we’re still being asked about regularly it by a younger generation of musicians and fans. Schneider went on to write his first novel (3000 Miles), before setting to work on what became Whispering Pines.

When he first told me about the idea, I knew he would do a great job, though I’ll confess I was skeptical about covering what I felt were stories that were already entrenched in the canon. What could he bring to the table?

As it turns out, Whispering Pines is fascinating look at how integral Canadians were to the American folk-rock scene of the ’60s, and also at the cultural context that informed not only the work of these songwriters, but their motivation for leaving. Schneider goes back to the dawn of the recording industry in Canada, to sheet music collections of Canadian folk songs, and to the “urge for going” that informed the work and career path of so many Canadian icons.

A review appears here.

Jason Schneider will be reading from the book and hosting a launch party this coming Monday, July 20 at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto.

Jason Schneider
July 15, 2009
Locale: my kitchen

Whom did you come to appreciate much more while writing this?

Hank Snow, for many reasons. Mostly because I went to the place where he was born and saw what he had to overcome. He had a horrible family. And today, there’s nothing there, and I can only imagine what it was like in the ’20s and ’30s. The idea of a kid there with a dream of becoming a country singer and busting out of there, it’s incredible. From there, putting all that into perspective tied everything together. He was no different than any other kid today with a dream. I started hearing his music in a much different way after that.

How familiar were you with his body of work?

Just the basic hits. I really wanted to find and hear the stuff he recorded in Canada, because that’s hard to find outside of the Bear Family box sets, which I eventually got my hands on. I wanted to find as many of the original 78s as I could and get the feeling from them of what he was doing.

How different were they?

Aside from the technology, the performances sounded like four or five guys playing in a room. Hank was an incredible guitar player too, and I think that gets overshadowed in his work. You don’t think of a lot of country singers as being great instrumentalists, but Hank can hold his own with Chet Atkins, and they recorded instrumental albums together. He was doing it all back then. By the time he got his chance in Nashville, it didn’t take him long. [My girlfriend] Wendy made me a photocopy of a poster of Country Song Round-up’s top artists of 1953, which is the year Hank Williams died. Hank Snow was #1 in fan votes, and Hank Williams was #2. You can’t deny how popular and influential he was. And now there’s the whole story of Dylan’s “Little Buddy.” Did you hear about that?


It was about a month ago. I wish I could have stuck it in the book, because it would have been perfect. The story went like this: at the summer camp that Dylan went to as a kid, I guess he has nieces and nephews that work there now. Someone had this handwritten lyric by Bobby Zimmerman, which got printed in the camp newspaper or something. They’d been hanging on to this for years, knowing that this could be the first song he’d ever written. They finally decided to put this thing up for auction to raise some money. So his relatives asked Bob if it was okay to do this, and he said, yeah, sure, do whatever you want. They gave it to Christie’s [auction house] and spread the word about this rare Dylan manuscript. They posted it on the Internet, this song called “Little Buddy.” And the Post and the Times started talking about this unearthed Dylan masterpiece. A day later, all these Hank Snow fans said, “Wait a minute, this is a Hank Snow song that he cribbed the lyrics from.”

Had he changed them slightly?

No! He just wrote it out verbatim.

So it’s not an original song.

Not at all. And he didn’t say anything about it to his relatives, so it turned out to be a big joke. But it proved that Hank was a big influence on him as a teenager. And Leonard Cohen said that too, in his first band the Buckskin Boys, they played Hank Snow songs.

Hank Snow’s signature song was “I’m Moving On,” and there’s a line about moving on in “Four Strong Winds,” and departure is a common theme for Joni and Neil, and then through to the Demics singing “I wanna go to New York City” through to Cowboy Junkies’ “200 More Miles.” Maybe it’s reading too much into it to shoehorn that old trope into this context as a Canadian theme, but at the time of Hank Snow there was no Canadian music industry, nobody toured coast to coast. Canadian musicians left; they moved on.

That’s something I gained a lot more perspective on, too, what it was like to live in that era. Living in suburbs or satellite towns, we grew up with everything within a short distance available. To start thinking about things in that way, of being isolated, it can’t be avoided when you’re talking about songs from that era. Everyone had to move somewhere if they had any hope of doing anything.

Now everyone gets hung up about stuff like this—either about Canadians who leave Canada, or people in smaller cities about people who leave for larger cities. There’s a real grudge held there about how they’re no longer one of us, and this narrative runs right up to current discussion of Michael Ignatieff. If you leave Canada, then you’re not Canadian.

When you think of these artists at this time, it was not a question of choosing your country, it was simply the fact that there was only one place you could go if you wanted to make it. And all these artists are now beloved internationally, in part because they hustled. Then if you look at the period from where your book ends, in the period after that, I can only think of Rush and anyone managed by Bruce Allen, in terms of people who made a huge international impact. The list is really small.

When you and I were growing up, Canadian music was considered a joke around the world, and that’s why we had an inferiority complex about music of our generation. The paradox is that after the industry in Canada was established—which, as you say, was the late '60s at the earliest—we stopped having international stars of any artistic significance or impact. I don’t know if we lost the entrepreneurial nature, or if it just became easier to focus on Canada, or what it was.

I didn’t get a sense of that until I talked to Brian Ahern [Anne Murray's early producer; ex-husband of Emmylou Harris], who was really great.

He was one of my favourite interviews in the book.

What he said was that it was around Expo ’67 that he decided to become a producer, and he made a conscious choice to make records that didn’t sound like they were made in England or America. To me, that’s brave. That whole sonic element was something new to me. He couldn’t really explain to me how he did it; he just knew what he didn’t want to do, which arguably is a common trait in most Canadian art.

Affirmation through negation.


Because there wasn’t much domestic recording until into the 70s.

Nobody really had a handle on what they were doing, except him and [Guess Who producer] Jack Richardson. And everyone loves to dump on Anne Murray—even me, most of the time—but Brian heard something in her voice that was different and that he could do something with. It’s a shame that after “Snowbird” that became the sound of easy listening, which a lot of people end up copying.

But was her work that far removed from countrypolitan at the time, stuff like Lynn Anderson? I guess no one else had a sitar, as Anne Murray does in “Snowbird.”

No (laughs). That was the thing about Brian, was that he was still the psychedelic scene where he could bend the rules a bit. The idea of a “sound” came about through him, and Jack Richardson too on the rock side. Brian was conscious of using Canadian songwriters; he didn’t want to rely on the standard material, and he knew that there were a lot of guys here writing great stuff and he wanted to use them, no matter what any record company thought.

My major discovery in the book was this: when we think of the singer-songwriter movement—spearheaded by Dylan but also Cohen, Mitchell, Tyson, Lightfoot—we think of an integrity linking the singer and the song; the impact of the Beatles is as responsible for this idea as Dylan, where if you don’t write your own material, then you don’t have that integrity. But all these Canadian writers got their start selling their material to vocal stars who don’t have a reputation for their own material, most of whom are barely remembered today. Judy Collins is, to some degree, but who remembers Tom Rush? George Hamilton IV? [All three covered Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.] I don’t know who those guys are, but they were huge stars in the day who had huge hits with these Canadian songs.

They obviously had a sound that was palatable at the time for American tastes. I hadn’t thought about that, to look at it from the perspective of what Americans were hearing in those songs is a whole other thing.

Well, they’re obviously great songs with universal sentiments. But there was also this notion of sharing songs that was very prevalent—sometimes to an artist’s detriment, like the case of Bonnie Dobson that you talk about. There was a great exchange going on, and no one felt threatened by covering another up-and-coming songwriter; whereas in the last 40 years there’s been this unspoken assumption that you, the artist, have to be the complete package all the time. Back then, there’s such an openness to new writers; with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, other people were covering some of the first songs they ever wrote, well before they cut their own versions.

That is an amazing thing. I do wonder why that doesn’t happen more often nowadays. That happened a bit with Norah Jones—but I can’t think of that guy’s name off the top of my head, even though I’ve reviewed his records. (pause) Jesse Harris! But to take something as raw as that, when the folk world wasn’t so separate from everything else and so distinct as its own genre, that might be the biggest change. Folk doesn’t have that kind of influence nowadays. It’s so geared toward summer festivals now, it’s a pleasant little diversion from other forms of music. Back then, the song ruled.

People blame the Beatles for this, but their early records were all covers. And Motown was a pop machine with a clear distinction between artists and writers, and we think of that in some ways a model for how pop music works today. But as the context of this book reminds us, that was true in the folk world as well.

That’s why I really wanted to tell the story of [Bob Dylan's manager] Albert Grossman, too. I’ve always been fascinated by him, and not a lot has been written about him.

And you interviewed Mary Martin. [Martin was a Canadian working in Grossman’s office, managed some acts on her own, and introduced Grossman to Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen.]

Yeah. And everybody says Grossman was an enigma. Once he figured out how to make money off of folk songs, that changed everything. He was the first guy to have a foot in both those worlds: folk and the mainstream music business. Other people might have had the idea, but he was the only one with the muscle and the connections to pull it off, to get these songs into the laps of artists who would see the value in those songs. Whether that can happen again nowadays, I don’t know.

There’s so much ego now and expectations that the artist has to be the complete package. That was even at the centre of that Sarah McLachlan court case, that they didn’t want to taint the idea that this young, 18-year-old singer with no prior songwriting experience may have collaborated. Whether the specifics of the case had validity or not, I don’t know, but her management painted it as if her reputation was threatened by the whole idea. But the flip side of the song sharing you talk about here is the case of Bonnie Dobson and “Morning Dew”; she got seriously shortchanged. That was a new story to me; I can’t say I’m familiar with the song.

As I say in the discography, it’s hard to find a version of her doing her own version. She recorded it at least three times. The one she did with Jack Richardson—I was so happy I found that, it’s a good record. She has that pre-Dylan sort of more childlike approach with her voice, so I can understand why she didn’t become more famous than she was. I’ve always been fascinated by that song, and the amount of people who have covered it. One of the big motivating factors for the book was after laying out the territory of what I wanted to cover: here are all these songs that Canadian artists wrote, and they were covered so many times. That’s inconceivable now, to hear a song be covered so often—in the same year.

And that happened right up to The Band and “The Weight.” You write about how other people had bigger hits with that song than they did, right off the bat.

Every artist I talk about, they had at least a couple of songs where it was instant: everybody had to do a version of it. People automatically say something about how it must be something Canadian about these songs, which is ridiculous—they’re great songs, period.

What’s interesting, however, is the question of who are the analogous American songwriters? Kris Kristofferson is the only one I can think of, in terms of an acclaimed songwriter with many successful cover versions who is also a [moderately] commercially successful artist in their own right. All the people you’re talking about may have found initial success through other people’s versions, but they all went on to be far more famous for their own recordings. But a lot of the Americans remained songwriters, first and foremost.

Doing the research got me into a lot more obscure folk music that I had never really listened to before, people like Jackie DeShannon and this guy Bob Lind, who wrote a song called “Elusive Butterfly” that everybody had to cover right away. But what else did [Bob Lind] do, really? There were a lot of people like that back then. A lot of it had to do with the Dylan and Albert Grossman connections. If you had a guy like him on your side, it was easy to get yourself out there.

Later on in the book you talk about people like David Wiffen, who never really did get a big break.

With that chapter, I lump him in with the way singer/songwriters evolved into the early 70s, as more of an overtly poetic thing. I compare him to the Texas guys, like Townes Van Zant and Steve Young. Ironically, the success of all these singer/songwriters led to a more regional identity for a lot of these people in the ’70s. It wasn’t so much writing songs about “I gotta get out of here and see the world,” it was more “Here I am, waiting around to die.”

For reasons that fit into your thesis—and I’m sure, considerations in marketing the book—everyone in here is internationally known. I’m curious if you had more pages or if you were targeting a more specifically Canadian audience, if there were people you would have shoehorned into here. Willie P. Bennett and Stompin’ Tom get mentioned in the discography.

That was a tough call, because you can’t ignore Stompin’ Tom. But he is a Canadian phenomenon.

He wouldn’t argue with that, I’m sure. He would likely argue about a lot of things, but not that.

The same with Willie P. and Stan Rogers.

Although Stan Rogers is outside of your time frame. What about people in the '60s?

I’m not too sure. You caught me off guard on that. I did try to find out more about the Stormy Clovers. There’s a guy who lives in Kitchener now who was in the band for a while, but he was so burned out that he couldn’t remember anything.

Sorry, who are the Stormy Clovers again?

They were the Toronto band who first recorded [Leonard Cohen's] “Suzanne,” and Mary Martin managed them for a while. David, the guy in the band, I asked him if he had any demos or anything. He was like: (slow drawl) “I can’t remember; I think we did something.” I ran into that problem a lot, actually.

’60s burn-out?

There was another guy, a drummer who lived in town who played with Ian Tyson for a while and plays on Jesse Winchester’s first record, the one Robbie Robertson produced. He gave me some good insights about Tyson and Albert Grossman, but again, he was another guy who couldn’t really remember anything.

Did you go to Woodstock again? I know you did in 2001 to talk to Garth Hudson.

No, I didn’t go again. After being there for a few days, you’ve seen it all. It’s the size of Elora. I’m hoping to go see Levon do one of his Midnight Ramble things.

Were your Garth quotes from back then?

Yeah. The thing that Greil [Marcus] said in my interview with him is true: the similarities between Woodstock and smalltown Ontario are obvious. There’s a bit more of a redneck vibe—overtly, anyway. But other than that, it makes sense that they chose to live there.

What struck me in reading the book is that you have a “show don’t tell” approach for the most part. You resist the academic analysis and answering a lot of the whys. The book is more about narrative and context. Do you think it’s lacking in answering the whys? Do you think people expect you to provide that? Or do you choose to let people infer what they want?

That’s something I struggled with, and even more so after I read Carl Wilson’s book [Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste]. That book blew my mind, and I emailed him to tell him that he raised the bar for everybody. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t think I’m that kind of a writer. I like the narrative, I like people telling stories about themselves and using that to provide the context.

It reminds me more of Peter Guralnick.

Yeah. The one night I was looking at articles online, and I found an old interview with Greil Marcus where someone asked him what he thought of Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biographies [Last Train to Memphis, Careless Love]. He said he didn’t really enjoy them because Guralnick made Elvis sound like a normal person. Which is odd, because that’s what I found interesting about them. I don’t mind hearing the details of people’s everyday lives, and a lot of the books I kept going back to were books like that, that were more chronological and not necessarily the mundane facts of being a musician, but…

Less mythology. It’s interesting that Greil Marcus would say that, because some of his writing drives me crazy with his projections and myth-making—his piece on Sly Stone and Stagger Lee, specifically. It doesn’t enhance my appreciation of the music, and it’s more of a wild fantasy of what the artist is, rather than being about the artist themselves. Sometimes that can be great and revelatory, and other times I wonder: who are you writing this for?

From the outset, looking at the information that was out there, it surprised me that most biographies of these people were written by British or American writers. [The Neil Young biography] Shakey was an exception, because [author] Jimmy McDonough came here and went to all the small towns and talked to everybody. He did a great job.

You were jealous of that book, weren’t you?

[laughs] I was.

I remember when it came out, you were saying, “Dammit!”

Oh yeah. But other than that, re-reading Barney Hoskyns’ Band book [Across the Great Divide]—there’s so much wrong in that book.

What, you don’t think there’s a link between The Band and the Dream Warriors? [a link Hoskyns makes in the book]

There were things in that book that I wanted to correct personally, and getting to actually pose those questions to Robbie was a big breakthrough. I believe I’m the first source to get his father’s full name. I’m proud of that!

Has he been cagey about that?

No, he answered the question. The thing about his father is how he died; I don’t think even Robbie knows for sure how he died. But I got it on good authority from their booking agent, Harold Kudlats, who was pretty sure it was a hit-and-run. The story about him being gunned down was fantasy.

That was another great interview in the book: Harold Kudlats [who first brought Ronnie Hawkins to Canada and booked The Hawks/The Band]. How old is he?

He’s got to be at least in his 70s, and he lives in a retirement home in Hamilton. His mind is sharp and he remembered everything. He clarified many things too, that I knew were a little foggy in some of the other books. That felt good to talk to him.

Were you worried at all about people having read some of this stuff before?

A little bit. I was thinking more that the audience would be younger people. I know this book will appeal to baby boomers, but I wanted to write something for the people younger than me who are crazy about The Band and Neil Young.

A strength of the book, I think, is that it’s not written by a boomer. When you live through something, you experience it differently. For you, having been born in the year that Blue came out, there’s a remove there, that gives you tabula rasa. Some of this music you no doubt heard via your parents, but a lot of it you came to on your own terms.

I did think about that, and about how difficult it would be for me now if we were to embark on a sequel to Have Not Been the Same. I just don’t have that kind of emotional connection to a lot of the bands that have come out in the last five to ten years. I know a lot of them; I know them as people; I know the influences.

When we get to this age in our writing careers, so many things just appear obvious to us now, and there isn’t that romantic wonder so much anymore. “Of course they did that. Of course they listened to that. What do you want to write about?” Whereas exploring a different time period, it’s more interesting to find out the genesis of how all these things happened. Even in our book, I found that writing about artists in the '90s was less interesting to me than writing about artists in the '80s from when I was in high school.

What kept me going was constantly talking to young bands that want to be The Band or Crazy Horse. This music is still relevant. To throw Hank Snow into that mix and hopefully broaden that base, that was a lot of my intention.


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