A Songwriter’s Canada

British-born John Wort Hannam finds his muse on the road

Canadian folk singer John Wort Hannam / Photo by George Webber

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….

 

 

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  1. lorna crozier commented:

    Loved this piece, John, and admire your courage for leaving a teaching job and heading down the road, guitar in hand. You sure make me want to go to Labrador.

    Reply

  2. Suzanne Mealey commented:

    It was wonderful having you at the Labrador Creative Arts Festival. I’m sure glad you made me cry at Contact East. 🙂 After hearing ‘Infantryman’ I knew you were right for the Fest. Happy to see you also loved the Big Land.

    Reply

  3. Fiona Andersen commented:

    As the co-ordinator of the Labrador Creative Arts Festival I was thrilled when John accepted our invitation to be a visiting artist last November. The artists have a gruelling schedule and it may seem daunting but not one of our artists in 38 years have ever complained! I think it’s fair to say we got as much out of John as he did us… and if I was as eloquent and skillful as he is I’d write a response to his song lyrics! (I’d love to read/hear the completed song!)
    Artists like John continue to give and share with our young people -we are indebted to them. The 39th LCAF takes place in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador November 19-26, 2014.

    Reply

    • John Wort Hannam commented:

      Fiona, I will send you the song as soon it’s done. Just a few finishing touches in the studio. Thank you for allowing me to come. Here are the song lyrics in their entirety:

      DAMN IT LABRADOR
      Somewhere north of adoration
      And south of your love
      You have pinned me to the map of your heart
      That northern destination
      If what I’m dreaming of
      I am ready for the journey to start

      Me and my ponies
      We will sleep among the trees
      I haven’t money
      Only love with which to part
      But I’m ready for the journey to start

      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

      You’re gonna break my heart
      You’re gonna break my heart
      I can tell

      With every constellation
      I’m reaching for your shores
      Like some lost mariner at sea
      But is it my salvation
      or is it something more
      something I just can’t see

      I sang you to the wild flowers
      They fell upon their knees
      I sang you to the mountains
      They crumbled to the seas
      Ahhh, damn it Labrador
      You’re gonna break my heart
      But I’m ready for the journey to start

      You’re gonna break my heart
      You’re gonna break my heart
      You’re gonna break my heart
      I can tell

      Reply

  4. Steve Stubley commented:

    Great story from a great songwriter! As much as our youth today need dedicated teachers, I’m glad you made the career choice you did. Looking forward to hearing more song/stories of your travels!

    Reply

  5. John James commented:

    Loved the article and your keeping in touch is much appreciated. We were struck by your immediacy at Mariposa and again at a house concert in Sudbury. Infantryman is music to conjure with; its power is limitless. Please never stop writing, singing, and performing. Hope to see you again soon. You made the right decision. Pat and John

    Reply

    • John Wort Hannam commented:

      John (what a great name you have), the site of Mariposa is another great Canadian place to visit. I loved that whole area and anywhere where Stephen Leacock used to hang is good enough for me…

      Reply

  6. Cathy Woolsey commented:

    Wonderful article written by a talented artist, truly a poet of the prairies!!! Good job, John, keep writing music AND articles!!!!

    Reply

  7. Rose Brooks commented:

    I want to echo John’s delight at the way you keep in touch. Loved every word of your evocative article. More, it reminded me to go home and put your CDs back into my car on rotation!

    Reply

  8. Maureen Barnes commented:

    Wow – your prose is as touching as your music! Your ability to connect with an audience shone at our house concert some time ago. Best wishes on your musical journey.
    Maureen

    Reply

  9. Cindy McGee commented:

    John, I am thankful for the first time I heard you sing, I love your voice and your songs, I am a forever fan. This is a lovely story and love hearing things from your point of view, and the fact that you look beyond them moment to find the gem inside. Safe travels and hope to see you soon

    Reply

  10. Sharon Nettleton commented:

    Hi John:

    Wonderful that you could do this trans Canada musical tour and for Toue and Canoe to sponsor this! We Albertans are so proud to share you and your music.

    I’m so glad you got to Newfoundland. It is such a gem!
    Hope you’ll play in Calgary or Cowley Alberta soon!
    We can arrange accommodation at St. Joseph’s Inn (Cowley) if you are in the vicinity.

    Sharon and Rob

    Reply

  11. Lauren commented:

    Hello John,

    I’ve long enjoyed the stories in your songs and wondered about the depth of what lies beneath them. Thanks for this article that shared so much for both this new song and some of your classics.

    I love music with a story, especially when I can connect to it. Yours is right there at the top, no doubt because of your reference to the Lost Creek Fire that was part of my life that summer too.

    I remember your mention of teaching as something you never wanted to tread near again. Clearly this other profession suits you far better. Funny, I left my soul sucking job in Alberta to become a teacher and I love it! Icing on the cake would be a live performance of Nellie & Joe on the west coast… some day!

    Reply

  12. Becki commented:

    You may have left us as a teacher, which by the way you were amazing at, but when I hear your stories, mixed with your amazing voice, I know you made the best decision ever. Enjoy the journey for it only comes around once. Miss you my friend, your lovely wife and child, but I hope I will catch you all again soon… Sing on !!!! For now I will hit play, listen to you and reminisce

    Reply

  13. Marion DeCaro commented:

    Hey John, what great writing! I remember once seeing this: “the greater the love for the subject, the better the writing, as a rule” I sure believe that, especially after reading your story!
    It would be great to see you here again, come back to the Island!!
    Chapel concert??

    Reply

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