CANADIAN WAR STORIES DRIVE ONTARIO SINGER-SONGWRITER JON BROOKS
TORONTO — Canadian folk music is failing its grand tradition of truthful storytelling in times of war, says Ontario singer-songwriter Jon Brooks. The straight-talking musician is nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award for his disc of Canadian war stories, “Ours and the Shepherds,” a stirring collection of tales touching on the Korean War, the genocide in Rwanda and Canadian peacekeepers in Afghanistan. It includes songs about James Loney, the northern Ontario activist held hostage in Iraq while working for a Christian pacifist organization, Romeo Dallaire, the former general who led an ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda and Sgt. Tommy
Prince, the decorated Canadian aboriginal veteran who died a forgotten hero in 1977.
“If we went back 40 years and I was a folk singer and it was 1967, I don’t think I would be able to call myself a folk singer if I didn’t have a song about Vietnam, you know?” he says.
“I wouldn’t compare the two, but still, the idea of singing about wherever there is violence and social inequity in the world, that to me is the essence of folk songwriting, and yet, it’s not that common. There’s a lot of people uneasy about it.”
While artists like Neil Young, Steve Earle, Green Day and Bruce Springsteen have all produced albums critical of the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brooks says the Canadian
experience has been largely ignored. The 39-year-old adds that he has even been turned down for gigs because of his provocative portraits.
“They said, `We’re not quite sure, we think you might be a bit intense for our audience.”‘ he says of being rejected by some venues in northwestern Ontario.
“It makes me angry and it also makes me laugh because I just think that folk singing is not about writing in my diary about my last break-up. That’s pop. The folk singer should be singing about
the problems of the world.”
Fellow Folk Music Award nominee Bruce Cockburn, however, says he’s been inspired by what he sees as a healthy social awareness in music today. Cockburn, whose catalogue of politically charged songs includes “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “Lovers In A Dangerous Time,” says many of today’s protest songs are subtle in their approach.
“I’m hearing a lot of stuff lately that does seem to touch on the current goings-on, I think I hear it in the Arcade Fire stuff, kind of across the board,” says Cockburn, who has a leading four folk nominations for his disc, “Life Short Call Now.”
“The references I was thinking of are more oblique and seem to be more springing from a recognition that we are faced with a period of conflict and that the times are very volatile and that there’s reason to be fearful. And to me that’s very much like what was in the air in the ’60s during the Vietnam period.”
Cockburn says his job as a musician is to simply describe hisfeelings about real-life encounters.
“For some people it’s not necessary to personally encounter something before they write about it but for me, it generally is,” says Cockburn, who heads to Nepal this week, 20 years after his first visit.
“A song like `If I Had a Rocket Launcher,’ I didn’t write that in the abstract, I wrote it because I felt that way, because I’d been in those refugee camps in the south of Mexico where the people I had met had been subjected to unbelievable horrors.”
Brooks said he spent the better part of two years researching material for his album, which included interviews with dozens of veterans and military chaplains, and befriending Loney.
“Jim Loney, in my opinion, is a Canadian hero,” Brooks says.
“I know he’s a figure of contention, he put a lot of people’s lives at risk, he was over there doing something which most people in this day and age would consider completely irrational. But to me, he represents a hero of our time because here was a rare example of somebody acting on purely moral impulse.”
The Canadian Folk Music Awards will be handed out Dec. 1 in Gatineau, Que.