Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Portrait of Blues in Canada: A Photo-Documentary

Colin Linden and Tom Wilson of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings (Photo by Randy MacNeil)

"What you see on this site [and in this book (ed.)] is a compilation of photographs taken over a 30 year period. Unlike most contemporary photographers, I have chosen to pursue film photography. While digital provides immediate access without the costs and time associated with developing, I prefer the latitude that film affords me. The bottom line for me is the quality."  – Randy MacNeil

A Portrait of Blues in Canada, a new coffee-table book by Randy MacNeil and Francine Aubrey, highlights the wonderful black and white photography of Randy McNeil. MacNeil is a firm believer in the use of film for his photographs, but apparently doesn’t mind using some digital techniques in the printing. There are several solarized photos spread throughout the book that take on an almost cartoony look when compared to the fine focus and contrast of the prints. But this is nit-picking. For the blues aficionado, especially one north of the 49th parallel, the book is a goldmine.

Right off the bat, on the front face of the dust jacket, McNeil displays his love for the music, and for the musicians. It’s a photo of a keyboardist’s back, playing on a festival stage, wearing a shirt marked ‘performer’.  Right then, you just know that this is one photographer who is going to take us right inside this world. McNeil’s own portrait on the front flap shows him standing with guitarist Colin Linden. This picture is the only one not taken by McNeil (it’s credited to Brian Cote). As soon as you get into the body of the book, it’s magical. After a quick foreword by McNeil, Quebec writer Bill Barclay offers a five-page introduction describing the beginning of the blues and its migration to Canada. He credits (and I love this) Hamilton’s own Jackie Washington with being “probably the very first Canadian blues performer”. As a fan of Jackie’s for most of my life, and a friend for the last few years, it is fantastic to see him getting the credit that he deserves.

Dutch Mason (Photo by Randy MacNeil

Page one, of the official text, shows Jackie at Ottawa’s Folkfest, his battered Gibson in his hands, tam on his head and a grin from ear to ear. That was Jack! McMaster University was honoured to receive his archives about a year before he passed away. We celebrated the gift with a musical evening that featured his old performing partners Mose Scarlett and Ken Whiteley. Jackie told me beforehand that he would not be singing. “That’s okay Jackie, maybe you could just say, ‘Hi!’” An hour before the event, I got a call, “Jackie doesn’t want to come, he’s not feeling well.” The worry was he might need to go to the hospital. I went down to greet his car. I told him it was up to him, but there were 100 people upstairs, including Ken & Mose. “There’s 100 people?” he said, “”I think I could come up for a minute.” By the end of the night he was telling stories; somebody passed him a guitar, he played and sang. It was his last performance. He looked pretty much like he does in this picture. Call it the healing power of the blues.

Colin James (Photo by Randy MacNeil)
Ken Whiteley writes a remembrance of his old friend, and the book reprints the lyrics to Colin Linden’s song tribute “Jackie Washington”. Ken is the next subject, right over the page. He sets the tone for the rest of the book. McNeil and Aubrey have allowed the subjects of the pictures to provide the text. Each artist writes his own description. Some are short, others longer, but many of them talk about how hard it is to make a living playing the blues, and yet they ruminate on how they can’t imagine doing anything else. They all credit earlier performers for inspiring them. Whiteley says, “I couldn’t make a living if I only played the blues in its traditional forms. At the same time the blues is at the core of everything I do in music…” He mentions Lonnie Johnson, Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Amos Garrett, then Joe Mendelson, Donnie and Rick Walsh, Morgan Davis and others. The Canadians among that group all have their own portraits within these pages.

Rheal Lanthier writes a one page history of Crowbar. (It was about a year ago Crowbar reconvened for the Hamilton Music Awards and Rheal was still bopping the blues.)  Mose Scarlett makes an appearance and, of course, mentions Jackie Washington. Mike McKenna (from Mainline), Jim Byrnes, Ronnie Hawkins, The Blues Brothers, Dutch Mason, and Donnie Walsh. Then the names get harder to recognize. Bass players, guitarists, singers but none of them less than devoted to the blues, and each one deserving a spot in the book.

Harrison Kennedy (another Hamilton lad) is shown playing the banjo, on which he plays a particularly primitive style of blues. He says, “I have been on the Dick Clark Show, Soul Train, England’s Top of the Pops, had Stevie Wonder join me on stage while I played harp and he sang… the blues is part of my cultural heritage, as a black Canadian the blues followed us up here.” The blues might have followed the black Canadians but it was quickly adopted by white Canadians too. Carlos del Junco is one of the world’s finest harp players, and appears in two portraits.

The names that appear most often are Jackie Washington, Dutch Mason and Downchild Blues Band, whose many performers look also to the great keyboardist Richard Bell for their inspiration. Colin Linden, shown playing alongside Bell, writes a 2-page tribute to his old friend. Harry Manx is photographed with a banjo in one photo and a Martin guitar in the other. No Mohan veena! Younger players including Steve Marriner and Jimmy Bowskill are featured alongside veterans like Colin James and Frank Marino. The quality of these intimate photographs more than make up for the numerous typos which appear in the text.

Layla Zoe (Photo by Randy MacNeil

The blues is not just men! Layla Zoe, Roxanne Potvin, Dawn Tyler Watson and Shakura S’Aida are among the female performers pictured. Ontario is not the only province featured either; performers from all across the country are shown, in action, on stage playing guitars, harps, keyboards, accordions, and singing the blues. Dutch Mason’s son Garrett has this to say, “You might not make much money but when you’re playing music, there are times when it feels so good you wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world. I’ve had to make lots of sacrifices but they’re all worth it to be able to play music.” You can see it in the faces on virtually every page. Every one of these men and women looks like they love what they’re doing. As part of the audience I can confirm that if you listen to a CD of some good Canadian blues music – maybe Sue Foley, or Mainline, some Colin Linden or Steve Strongman – while you’re flipping through the 245 pages you’ll have one heck of a time with A Portrait of Blues in Canada.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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