Editor’s Note: We love pulling the diverse voices and talents of Canada’s artistic community into our fold here at Toque & Canoe. Which brings us to our latest post – to John Wort Hannam’s story on his life as a travelling musician in Canada. And, also, to photographer George Webber, who shot the lead image for John’s story. To be honest, having both of these guys on our pages is kind of a sweet deal at our end. We hope you think so, too.
It was probably subtitled something like “Home and Native Land” or “From Sea to Sea to Sea,” but as far as I recall, atop a glossy photograph of the Canadian Rockies, there was only one word on the dust jacket: “Canada.”
It was a gift. Before emigrating from Jersey in the Channel Islands, my parents presented us kids with a large coffee-table book of photography with page after page of iconic Canadian people, places and events: the Calgary Stampede, Sir John A. MacDonald, Stanley Park, Bonhomme, the Bluenose, a Kainai jingle dancer, Parliament Hill. This was my introduction to my soon-to-be new home.
Fixated on images of the North—I was nine and had yet to see snow—I dreamt that night of my imagined new life. Dressed in my matching salmon-skin shirt and pants, and bathed in the glow of the Northern Lights, I stood outside our igloo, a team of huskies at the ready. At dawn, my long trek to the nearest outpost would begin. There, I would trade my gopher pelts for dry goods and sundries.
Ridiculous, I know, but I was a kid from England and my limited knowledge of anything remotely “hinterland” had come from watching stereotypical spaghetti westerns with my dad on BBC. Imagine my shock when we landed in Calgary that May to find a modern—and snowless—city.
Years later I asked my father why we left England. “I wanted more for you kids,” he said. He saw too many of the village’s young people end up in the pub. So, in their 30s, my parents decided to move, to leave everything they knew and start again.
In some ways, I repeated a similar process in my 30s. Walking blindly, I left my full-time teaching position to become a songwriter. “You’re crazy,” people said. “Have you ever even written a song?”
I hadn’t. “But I can rhyme,” I joked, showing off my skills: “Cat. Mat. Sat. Rat.” My ambition felt true and my goals simple enough: write a couple half-decent songs, pay my bills and see the country. So, under the guise of an artist, I began to tour Canada, all the while checking off the iconic places I had seen in that book so many years before.
Peggy’s Cove, check. The Great Lakes, check. Montreal’s Mont Royal, check. Save for Newfoundland and Nunavut, I’ve sung my songs in every province and territory over the past 12 years.
Touring and travelling, though, are not quite the same. There are days when the two are mutually exclusive. The long distances between shows often mean you see almost nothing of the places you play.
If you ask any touring musician about life on the road, they’ll probably describe some of their days like this: pack van, find coffee, find food, find gas, find highway, drive, find venue, unpack van, sound check, play show, repack van, find motel, sleep, repeat. It quickly becomes a grind.
Sometimes, though, the circles of touring and travelling overlap, and it’s that little sliver in the middle of the Venn diagram that makes this job so amazing. When the pace and route are mine to dictate, I’m able to skip the major highways for the secondary roads and scenic routes, and discover a wealth of quintessentially Canadian places along the less-travelled path.
Places like Bere Point Regional Park just outside Sointula, B.C., the utopian experiment on Malcolm Island settled by Finnish communists off the northeast tip of Vancouver Island. It’s one of a few places you can observe orcas, mere metres away, rubbing their huge bodies on the gravel shoreline to exfoliate barnacles from their bellies.
Places like Twin Butte, Alberta. It’s easy to blink and miss this sleepy hamlet with its handful of buildings. But come Friday night, insatiably thirsty ranchers come out of the hills and head for the Twin Butte Country General Store, sporting their town clothes. These aren’t your weekend-warrior, Stampede-party kind of cowboys. These are the real deal: wild-rag-tying, Gus-hat-wearing hill people of southwestern Alberta.
Or places like Hopedale, Labrador. In November 2013, 36 years after seeing those initial images of the North, I finally made it there. As part of the 38th Annual Labrador Creative Arts Festival, I wrote songs with the schoolchildren of Goose Bay and the Inuit and Innu students living up the north shore.
Accessible only by plane or boat, Hopedale is 128 nautical miles north of Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay. The village, nestled in Hopedale Harbour, surrounds the historic Moravian mission perched right on the water’s edge.
In winter, at least to this outsider, it seems a stark and barren landscape of rock and the odd scraggly tree. But Labradorite shimmers in the mountains and the locals have a warmth that defies the cold. The bottled moose helps, too. It’s hearty and deliciously salty. And then there’s the addictive smoked Arctic char, worthy of its own 12-step program.
Labrador changed me—in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. Nothing clears the mind quite like the huge white expanse carrying on for miles in all directions. When the only colour in your field of vision is that of your own boots, you are forced to be present and accept that you are, well, exactly where your feet are.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between travel and inspiration, as one fuels the other.
Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and most of Woody Guthrie’s songwriting spring to mind. I’m no Guthrie, but I understand the importance of seeing new landscapes. It’s not just a fringe benefit of this job I love, it’s a requisite part of what keeps the muse close at hand.
Three days into my Labrador tour, a winter storm blew in, grounding most flights. I sat and drank coffee at the airport for five hours, waiting for clear skies. I knew I would be sad to leave Labrador when the time came. I pulled out a pen and began to write:
I held you like a secret on the tip of my tongue
And like some young lover’s first kiss
But hell I couldn’t keep it quiet and unsung
Not something as beautiful as this
You move in waltz time and sing in minor keys
Ahhh, damn it Labrador, you’re gonna break my heart
But I’m ready for the journey to start
I have no idea where this music career of mine will take me, but I’m pretty happy playing for those who will listen, staying on the slow road and discovering as many Hopedales as I can.
The diverse people and landscape of this country fill me with wonder. As long as they do, I’ll continue my quest to write a couple half-decent songs and, one by one, cross off my list of great Canadian destinations, both famous and lesser known.
Niagara Falls, check. Blackfoot Crossing, Alberta, check. Batoche, Saskatchewan, check….