University of Ottawa Review

The ‘00’s’ perhaps may be remembered as a decade in which the Canadian nation was reintroduced to the realities of sending its young men and women overseas to fight hot wars on foreign soil after a half century of relative peace and contentment. If this is the case, Canadian folk artist Jon Brooks hopes his latest album Moth Nor Rust will give the listener some inner reflection and inspiration toward the ramifications and general social discontentment perpetuated by conflicts like the Afghanistan War. Brooks will be bringing his folk music performance to the Black Sheep Inn on Sept. 24 as part of a tour this year that has taken him to England and various locations in Southern Ontario. 

The title of the album comes from a passage in the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew which suggests certain immaterial things which neither “moth nor rust can touch”; virtues and ideas that Brooks calls most important like faith, love, trust, memory, justice, and spirit. 

From his music and storytelling combination, the artist has made a strong presence in the folk music scene in Canada in recent years with three albums and a Canadian Folk Music Award nomination for best songwriter in 2007, for example. Yet he also offers an assertive and authentic interpretation of what it means to live in the modern age. His music tends to be peppered with bread and butter Protestant Christian morals, themes of injustice, loneliness, hope, and war heroism; and probably most importantly involving real characters that have inspired him through struggle. Figures like James Loney, Romeo Dallaire and Sgt. Tommy Prince are but a few that have driven him to write tunes of great warmth and meaning in the past. One of his featured hits on the Internet is a piece called “War Resister” which is an anti-war ballad with a campfire style sound that speaks to the mechanized actions of war. The warm refrain hence goes back to “just breathe, trigger, squeeze.” “If You Seek Amy” all of this is not and that his sound is more mature and literate seems fine with him as he notes somewhat cynically “that the arts and entertainment industry is mainly fuelled by 14 year-old girls and their baby boomer parents’ money.” But he does know who is audience is and what they are looking for from his music. 

“It boils down to the illiterate question: ‘do you sing any happy songs?’” he says. “The answer is no, I sing hopeful songs. The folk music community is currently divided into two distinct groups. The first group fairly aims to entertain a mostly passive audience. The second group aims to transform a participatory audience. The first group ushers its audiences outside of themselves and their worries. The second group ushers its audiences inward and to whom they are and to whom they could become. The first group offers a break from the examined life. The second group offers comfort and transformation by the examined life. The first group’s audience goes home tired, filled up with empty calories, and alone. The second group’s audience goes home just as tired, but hopefully, inwardly nourished and with the feeling that they are no longer alone. Neither group is better than the other for their mandates alone but: the second group, to me, is the truer purveyor of happy songs.” 

Moth Nor Rust comes at a time when there is seemingly a bit of a hangover from the worst of the conflicts in the Middle East, whether it be in Afghanistan or in Iraq. As such there is a question as to whether people want to be as engaged with war art when the war is actually on, as to when the war is either over or at least winding down. The war film “The Hurt Locker” over the summer of 2009 was partly such a hit at the box office, it may be suggested, compared to other films of an Iraq war theme, because U.S. involvement is gradually coming to an end in 2011. 

“Today people are justifiably too distracted by their own struggles to get from Monday to Friday to be engaged with our presence in Afghanistan,” he said. “Add to that, the impossibility of shaping an educated opinion on the matter when investigative journalism in general has degenerated into sound bytes, consumer blogging, and celebrity gossip. This is the real reason I wrote a CD of Canadian war stories: I wanted people to engage with such stories; I wanted to remind them: we are no longer a nation of peace-keepers – we are a nation at war! ” 

What is key about Brooks’ music is that he believes that music and art can actually soothe souls and improve peoples’ lives. His drive to improve the world he does realize has its limits and he is realistic about how much he can offer. 

“When I use words like ‘inspire’, ‘improve’, and ‘change’ – I’m only thinking of the individuals who are listening to my songs at the folk festival or club,” he says. “I’d be better off to sell the guitar and stay home to watch endless LAW & ORDER episodes eating dill pickle chips than to actually go out onstage every night with the absurd notion that I – personally – can, alone, lift humanity from moral ruin. Songs – and humanity – move more quietly and slowly than that.” 

Jon Brooks will perform at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield Sept. 24 at 8:30 p.m 

-Works, thoughts, and provocations of Simon James Whitehouse 

Anti-war folk artist Jon Brooks to perform at Black Sheep Inn, Sept. 24 

September, 2009