When Jon Brooks was growing up in King City, he was more concerned about delivering his newspapers than world events.
“I delivered papers, skipped classes, dislocated shoulders in the King arena, carried out bags of groceries at the IGA and made lots of necessary adolescent mistakes.”
Two years of washing dishes at Hogan’s give him plenty of time to reflect on his place in the world and he eventually found it in music.
He describes himself now as “a troubadour wholly devoted to the song as being a necessary means toward greater social justice”.
Mr. Brooks, recently named Best Songwriter of 2006 by the international Green Man Review, has just released his second CD, Ours And The Shepherds (Exile Music). He will be a featured performer at the Kingfest Music Festival June 23 at Seneca College in King City.
He is an unrepentant folk artist who says the folk song is “a legitimate and relevant art form and vehicle for social change. I am a songwriter that aims to tell the truth about a certain people in a certain place and of a certain time and thus improving the world by showing it to others. That’s folk, that’s the mandate of art and that’s a vocation to be proud of.”
The latest CD is a collection of Canadian war stories from the First World War to the current mission in Afghanistan.
“It begins where my 2006 CD, No Mean City, leaves off,” he said.
No Mean City is a 13 song/novel set amid the homelessness of Toronto streets and is aimed at what Mr. Brooks considers “our contemporary moral fatigue and lack of inner life”. It examines the failure of neighbours to get along. Ours and the Shepherds examines the failure of nations to get along and particularly how Canadians have participated in wars.
Greg Quill of the Toronto Star gave the new CD 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) and called him an exceptional acoustic guitarist. CBC Radio One – Metro Morning said the CD should appeal to fans of roots and folk. But Mr. Brooks is not an overnight sensation.
These days, he play primarily guitar and harmonica, but paid some dues as a Hammond organ player and leader of The Norge Union, a Toronto and area band that recorded Bulldozer in 1993. When that band broke up in 1995, Mr. Brooks moved to Poland, travelled and played solo shows throughout Poland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Hungary and Belarus.
In 1996, he hitchhiked throughout Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslavia, which had been devastated by civil wars and ethnic cleansing. It was here he experienced war first-hand and was impressed by the soldiers he met who still had “hope in the face of hopelessness”.
Years later, he wrote two of the songs on the current album — Jim Loney’s Prayer Part 1 and Part 2. James Loney was the Canadian “Christian Peacemaker” held hostage in Iraq in 2006. The songs are meditations for a world that challenges hope, love and faith.
“I chose to bookend a collection of Canadian war stories with stories of James Loney because I consider him a hero of our times,” Mr. Brooks says. “As well, I understand the controversy of his story. Today’s humanity is seldom driven to moral action. I wanted to include something hopeful, a prayer attuned to the difficult idea that if one part of the world hurts, we all hurt.”
Mr. Brooks is pleased to be playing on the Habitat Stage at Kingfest and says: “Like James Loney’s Christian Peacemakers, and like every urban church with a basement shelter and soup kitchen, Habitat For Humanity is a rare and accurate witness to those living on the outskirts of privilege.
“Habitat is ecumenical and global as only true charity can be and I look forward to playing a festival that seems to understand that songs and charity do, essentially, the same thing: they connect people and, in so doing, they improve the world.”
Mr. Brooks is working on his next CD, to be called The Tired Soil, which will tell stories of new Canadians. His own path has taken him to many places, but through his parents who live here, he is still part of King City. His dad, Jack, played drums on the latest release.
Mr. Brooks has the following suggestions for young artists. “First, ask yourself what is it you need to say to the world? Then ask yourself why does the world need to hear you say it? Or, what is so unique about your artistic voice/expression that the world needs to hear it? If you can answer those questions, perhaps you can improve the world by offering your artistic voice.”