The Living Tradition
of Fiddler's Green
by Alistair Brown Issue 46 January 2002
In the thirty odd years that the Friends of Fiddler's Green have been performing, they have achieved something close to mythical status in North America, and have been, some say, a major influence on folk music across the continent. Not bad for a band which prides itself on its amateur status, never tours, and whose members all have day jobs to return to on Monday mornings.
The whole affair began when Tam Kearney emigrated to Toronto from Glasgow at the end of the 1960s. He had been a major force in the folk scene there, in such venues as the Glasgow Folk Centre with Drew Moyes, Glasgow University Folk Song Club, and Clive's Incredible Club. With Jim Strickland, a recent arrival from Armadale in Fife, he founded Fiddler's Green Folk Club in an old house behind the YMCA on Eglinton Avenue. Tam was playing with various Irish bar bands at the time, but they both missed the Scottish folk clubs and found that the coffee and beer bars of Toronto didn't do the job. The club quickly became a hub for performers and fans in the city, and a home away from home for such up and coming musicians as Stan Rogers and Leon Redbone.
No one really knows exactly when the Friends of Fiddler's Green made the transition from a group of club regulars into a band. Like many folk clubs, Fiddler's Green had its floor singers ready to warm up the crowd in exchange for a bit of recognition. The same group would go on stage for a bit of a song swap before the featured performer went on. Joining Tam and Jim was Ian Robb, over from London and a background with the Critics Group and the Goat Inn in St. Albans, not to mention Westminster Abbey Choir; John Bowden; Pete Shepherd, temporarily in Canada to complete his doctorate at McMaster University; Rick Avery, another transplanted Englishman; Margaret Christl; and 18 year old Grit Laskin, then an apprentice with guitar maker John Larrivee. The group used to meet regularly to sing, and, as Tam puts it, one day they discovered they could play tunes. A booking to play in Lansing Michigan convinced them that they could perhaps pull it off.
While band membership was essentially open to all comers in the early days, within a year or two the line up became established: Tam, Jim, Ian, Grit, Stew Cameron, of Scottish extraction and a fine singer of Bothy songs, Glasgow born Laurence Stevenson on fiddle, and myself.
How I joined is fairly typical of the Friends' approach to recruitment. In those days, the Old Scotia Inn in Stockwell Street in Glasgow was the main place for a session on Saturday lunchtimes. One Saturday, I saw a business card advertising Fiddler's Green pinned to the wall in the back room. As part of my preparation for emigration, I noted the address and number. A few months later in Toronto, I went looking for the club, unsuccessfully. The address was the YMCA, a large modern office building, but the club was in a fairly derelict house across the parking lot at the back. Since it wasn't a club night I had no idea what I was looking for. Fortunately, the phone book gave another address in North Toronto, a small cottage on Erskine Avenue. a bit small for a club I thought, but I was new to Canada. The door was open and in we went, to find Tam, his wife Margot, and Jim lying on the floor watching television in their living room. They treated our arrival as a fairly common occurrence, and it probably was. I had a cup of tea, watched television for the rest of the evening, stayed for three days, and a month later I went with the band to the Fox Hollow Festival in upper New York State.
Shortly after, actor, mediaeval scholar and storyteller David Parry joined the band, contributing wonderful stories, from Marriott Edgar to Robert Service, a vast knowledge of mumming plays (and a supply of extravagant costumes from the University of Toronto), not to mention an enormous repertoire of English songs, and an actor's exquisite sense of timing.
There has of course, been some coming and going over the years. Both Jim and Stew left to pursue other interests. Pianist Jeff McClintock arrived for a few years, before moving to Saudi Arabia in the mid '80s. There he inexplicably carved out a musical career for himself with the trio FrillyKnickers, playing the expat. circuit. Next year he returns to Canada to live in Halifax, and will no doubt play a few gigs with the band, it being a rule of the band that no one gets to leave. Cherie Whalen of Detroit, armed with a degree in music and a remarkable degree of tolerance, now plays piano and fiddle. Guitarist Ian Clark, a Scotsman now living in Ottawa, is our most recent arrival. He has played with Ian Robb for many years, in the resident band for the Old Sod country-dance series. I'll be the latest expatriate member soon when I move to live in England next year. I have every intention of making as many gigs as possible though - they're too much fun to miss entirely.
Performances have always been memorable, and not just for the virtuosity of the musicianship either. I remember one time when at the end of two sold-out performances at the Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Tam made an impromptu announcement that we would do a third concert on the Sunday night. Seven people showed up, to our consternation, as the rest of us had planned to see Bill Forsythe's "That Sinking Feeling" at the local repertory cinema. We soon worked out that with concert admission of $8, and movie admission of $5, we would profit by taking the audience to see the film. We drove them to the theatre in the van, entertained them in the queue, and when we got in, did a little concert in front of the screen. Surprisingly, no one stopped us, perhaps assuming that this was part of the package when a Scottish movie was featured. Afterwards, we all went back to the Ark for juice and cookies. Very satisfying.
For many years, mummers' plays have been part of the repertoire. Sometimes circumstances dictated that the tradition would just have to go hang. On one occasion we had the dilemma of having a play to perform with six cast members, but on that occasion, we had a guest along - the actor Reed Needles. Fortunately, We had acquires a magnificent dragon costume, courtesy of David, and some mystery play just performed. We wrote a part for a non-existent fiery dragon. Whenever a character was called in, there would be noises of a mugging offstage, and in would come the dragon, wearing some aspect of the missing combatant's costume, with an, "In comes I, the fiery Knight," or, "In comes I the fiery dragoon." The other characters would chorus, "There's no fiery dragon in this play!" and off he'd slink, garnering great sympathy from the audience. It was a great schtick, and it is interesting to note that our interpretation had entered the tradition, with several recent performances reported by our spies.
"He arrived at breakfast the next morning and threw a sheet of paper with the words of "Barratt's Privateers" on the table in front of us, uttering the memorable words, "Suck that back you limey bastards!" We like to think we helped him find his muse."
Practical jokes aside, the Friends of Fiddler's Green have been very influential, I think, on Scottish and English folk music in the current North American revival. In their thirty-two years of performance, they've played almost every major club and festival, from Mariposa to Vancouver, from Winnipeg to Bermuda. The individual members, all performers in their own right, have played many hundreds more. They've recorded two albums. "This Side Of The Ocean" was originally released on Stan Rogers' Fogarty's Cove label, reissued later on CD with a number of live tracks included, and "The Road To Mandalay", released in 1989. Individual band members have appeared on another 25 or so recordings. Our choice of repertoire and approach to performance have influenced a number of performers, including the late Stan Rogers. The story of "Barratt's Privateers" is a case in point. Fairly early in his career, Stan's repertoire reflected that of the coffeehouse circuit where he did most of his playing, and to that point, little of the music of his maritime roots. At one festival in Sudbury Ontario, at an after hours party, the Friends were holding forth with the usual selection of noisy chorussy stuff that tends to dominate such events. Stan had little to contribute, and it obviously bothered him, for he left fairly early (for him) in a bit of a huff. He arrived at breakfast the next morning and threw a sheet of paper with the words of "Barratt's Privateers" on the table in front of us, uttering the memorable words, "Suck that back you limey bastards!" We like to think we helped him find his muse. Stan was a great pal, and we miss him.
Those band members who write songs and tunes have found their material quickly entering common currency. Ian Robb doesn't write many songs, but he has written some crackers - the kind that very quickly assume the status of "Trad. Arr." "The Old Rose And Crown", about the MacDonaldification of English pubs has cropped up in a surprising number of places around the world, and his angry anthem, "They're Taking It Away", about the downsizing, privatizing antics of right wing governments (ours in particular) was quickly adopted as a marching song for the widespread labour unrest in protest against Ontario's fundamentalist Harris regime. Grit is widely known as a songwriter, with songs recorded by The Tannahill Weavers and Pete Seeger among others. One of his tunes has been adopted by CBC radio for the theme music of a nationally syndicated program. David, inspired by Peter Bellamy's interpretations of Kipling's poetry, decided to do the same with the work of Canada's Robert Service. The resulting CD, "The Man From Eldorado", poetry of Service set to music by David, has several songs that are now widely sung.
Band members are active and influential in many aspects of song and dance across the continent. Grit is a founder and director of Borealis Records, one of Canada's major folk labels after only five years. Borealis features Canadian based artists covering a wide range of musical genres, from Eileen McGann and Tom Lewis, to Grand Old Opry harmonica player Mike Stevens and blues and gospel singers Jackie Washington and Ken Whiteley. Grit is a guitar maker, whose high quality instruments are played by many top artists. You can too, if you can last for the three year wait that is now required. Grit does a lot of radio and recording session work too, has received one of Canada's most prestigious awards for his craftsmanship, and recently completed his first novel.
Ian too, contributes in many ways to the wider world of folk music. At home in Ottawa, he co-founded the Old Sod Folk Music Society, familiar to the many U.K. performers who appeared there, and stayed with him and Val. A regular morris dancer, he was founder of Hog's Back Morris, and teaches regularly at music and dance camps in the United States. He was a director of the Canadian Folk Music Society, and is currently Canadian Board member for Local 1000, the travelling musician's local of the AF of M. His column, "The British North America Act", appears regularly in Sing Out magazine. He tours regularly with the trio Finest Kind, much in demand at festivals and clubs. His Folk Legacy album with Grit and Margaret Christl, "The Barley Grain For Me", British folk songs found in Canada from the collections of Edith Fowke, Helen Creighton and MacEdward Leach, was a landmark recording which brought many classic songs to the attention (and repertoire) of a much wider audience.
David, who died in 1995, was an eclectic performer. Director of Poculi Ludique Societas, the University of Toronto's mediaeval drama group, he toured North America and Europe with reconstructions of mystery plays. A PhD, in drama, he taught at several universities in Canada and elsewhere. Latterly he worked with the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, commissioning and producing dramatic presentations on Canadian history. He died just before he could take up his latest gig, as shantyman on board a tall ship sailing down the Saint Lawrence to the fort of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. For his wake, the Canadian Museum of Civilization hosted a concert in his honour, attended by thousands.
Laurence Stevenson is by day an award-winning producer with the CBC radio show "Outfront", where he is trying to recreate the spirit of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. He is also a producer of several CD recordings, and member of countless musical ensembles, from flamenco to jazz, when he's not with the Friends. For a folkie, he has an unhealthy preoccupation with things electronic, and tends to show up at concerts with new instruments that look like weapons out of Mad Max.
Like the rest of the band, I perform as a solo artist too. I'm also involved in morris and country dancing, broadcasting, club and festival organization and teaching. In London, I'm founder and one of the organizers of The Cuckoo's Nest Folk Club (yes, we're a little embarrassed about the name, but we're stuck with it now). Many U.K. performers will be familiar with this performance venue too. Take a look at www.cuckoosnest.folk.on.ca for some idea of who they are. I was artistic director of London's Home County Folk Festival for a number of years, and teach regularly at music and dance camps across the United States. I've been program director for some of these, at Plymouth Massachusetts, and Mendocino, California. I was on the National Council for the Country Dance and Song Society and teach a course on folk music for the University of Western Ontario. My radio show "A Sign of the Times" has been on the air here in London Ontario for twenty-five years. For five years I also had a syndicated show, "Off She Goes" on National Public Radio.
Tam Kearney, of course, is the godfather of British folk music in Toronto. There's hardly an aspect that he hasn't influenced in some way, from organization to hosting. Fiddler's Green folk club no longer exists, but the model he established has remained the example that others follow today. His encyclopedic knowledge of songs and singers makes him a reference point for many. Now if we could only be sure that he's not setting us up.
You could well ask how a band manages to coexist for over thirty years. Not touring is certainly a factor. The fact that we're all good friends also helps, as is the fact that each appearance is, for us, a social event as well as a performance. We've never divided up the performance fee. Each of us takes whatever expenses we've incurred, and the rest goes on gracious living, or paying for our families to travel with us to festivals, or for a slap up dinner somewhere (one time, when David was off on a one-year sabbatical teaching at a university in Jerusalem, we bought a three-course dinner for him in his absence and mailed it to him. He was probably declared a security risk as a result). Certainly, both individually and as a band, this group of four transplanted Scotsmen, one Englishman, one American and one Canadian ("We only bring him along so we can apply for grants," says Tam) has contributed greatly to the knowledge and appreciation on British folk music and dance in North America. And they've hardly begun.
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