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Appreciating the Stringband

I've been playing hooky this past week. Whilst checking out how to get a copy of the rather excellent new Flying Bulgars album (Sweet Return), I discovered that the distributor, www.festival.bc.ca also distributed a two-CD set, "The Indispensible Stringband". It is indispensible.

If a man of Joe Clark's ability could rise to be premier of Canada, then by the same logic, he could have risen to be head of Ontario Hydro. If that happened, and if Three Mile Island happened here ... Joe Clark would have been in charge! Thank goodness he was only prime minister.

Who are the Stringband? Who, in particular, are the Canadian band that called itself, "Stringband"--they always intended to be the something something stringband, but before they agreed on a name, they were named, as it were. [I note right here that there are only vague tenuous Jewish connections to the Stringband, although there is a tenuous klezmer connection--read below. Although Bob Bossin is of Jewish ancestry, and seems to be a dynamite person and a dynamite organizer, I have never detected any Yiddishkeit in his songs. The closest he gets is the way you can imagine some Mordechai Richler old-timer from St. Urbain's st in Montreal, as the father in "Daddy was a Ballplayer". And while early fiddler Ben Mink went on to produce the Chava Alberstein-Klezmatics collaboration that has given us such incredible pleasure, this was not a Jewish gig for him, either. Fortunately, we live in a modern world in which we are engaged both within our community, and without. And sometimes, as here, so blown away by finding something precious and wonderful, that who cares?]

So, throughout the 1970s--during the period when I was hanging out in Jerusalem and listening to nearly enough Arik Einstein and Shlomo Gronich, Tzlilei HaKerem, and Tammuz, the Stringband toured backwards and forwards across Canada. Along the way, they helped create a new Canadian folk music. They celebrated Canada in songs such as "Maple Leaf Dog" or "Dief will be the Chief Again" or the uproarious, raucous, oh, so true, "Newfoundlanders." They celebrated good politics, too, from "Show us the length" to the best rewrite of "Talking Atom Blues" a person could ask for. It was hearing their "New Talking Atom Blues" on the radio that first caught my attention:

If a man of Joe Clark's ability could rise to be premier of Canada, then by the same logic, he could have risen to be head of Ontario Hydro. If that happened, and if Three Mile Island happened here ... Joe Clark would have been in charge! Thank goodness he was only prime minister.

We could say the same about our current president.

But there is more--There is Marie-Lynn Hammond's voice, and her own songs celebrating a different side of Canada, and a strong feminist politics different from Bossin's "causes": "Vancouver" or "I Don't Sleep with Strangers Anymore", "Flying/Spring of '44" or "Log Driver's Waltz" (that one actually a cover) and the incredible French ballads--this, years before the McGarrigle Sisters--and occasionally, whoever the band's fiddler was--someone in the band had to know how to play an instrument well--smoking, wonderful fiddle tunes. (Do I sound like I can't stop listing song titles? I'm listening as I type this, and each song causes me to pause and to enjoy, again. It's hard to leave out titles when each one is so different, and they're all so good.)

It's a picture of Canada, from coast to coast, an audio portrait of a time, and just plain wonderful folk music. The Stringband were the musical equivalent of Peter Gzowski's morning show on the CBC. Someone will one day have to pry my old LPs out of my cold, stiff fingers. But having so much of the material on this incredible set (plus a few pieces I hadn't heard) has distracted me, not just from klezmer, but from anything but listening and enjoying and remembering, and watching the younger folks in the house ask, "who are these people? they're really good."

I should also mention that listening to the Stringband also introduced me to the Vancouver Folk Festival, and Ferron, and Connie Kaldor, and Dave Essig--who knew there was more to Canadian music than Bruce Cockburn (Don't get me started about Bruce Cockburn--I could write as long, but differently, about his incredible music. This isn't his article.)

So, expect more writing about klezmer and new Jewish music soonest, and thanks for reading about something else for a few minutes. And if I've gotten you interested, do check out their website and listen to some clips online. As the band sings in Daddy was a Ballplayer, "there's some played harder, and there's some played smarter, but nobody played like you". The Stringband captured those moments, "singing about the old times, living in the new" that mark the best of folk music. You'd have to listen to new Yiddish music by Josh Waletzky to come closer. Oh, yeah, the program booklet is great! Nice typography, too.


I used to hang out, do promo and other stuff with Bob Bossin and the Stringband back in the mid 70's in Toronto, and I don't think I've ever known a cooler, more eclectic or nicer folk group anywhere (with the possible exception of Pentangle). The music is wonderful and includes Jazz, Blues, old French, English, Irish and just plain GOOD folk music. I think that anyone purchasing this new set is in for an enriching experience of exploring the many facets and moods of the Stringband.

Thanks for those memories. And I'm glad to hear that the Pentangle, too, are as nice as people as their music made them sound.

It was a nice point in my life to meet Ben Mink a few years ago at the coming out party for "di krenitse", the amazing collaboration between Chava Alberstein and the Klezmatics, and to be able to tell him how much I had enjoyed the music.

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