I'm back from the lovely Folk Music Ontario conference in Toronto with an armful of CDs and newly rekindled love for my father's native land. And though we have a stereotype of the overly-nice, boring Canadian here in the States, there is indeed a very dark streak running in their blood. So in honor of Halloween, here are 5 Spooky Canadian Songs that I've recently discovered.
Murder Murder - "Bridge County, '41"
I met the wild and wooly boys of Ontario folk-punk band Murder Murder in the hallways of the Toronto conference. They were dressed in suspenders, woolen pants, and sweaty old-timey shirts, and were passing around bottles of their own moonshine. They all hail from the Northern Ontario town of Sudbury, which most of my friends there seemed to believe was some crazed hillbilly hinterland, but damn that was some great moonshine. The pumpkin pie moonshine tasted like a Starbucks drink gone horribly right, and I drank my fill both nights hanging out with them while they howled away to packed hotel rooms of drunken ramblers. Murder Murder call their music "Bloodgrass" and their new album, From The Stillhouse, is made up of 100% murder ballads. It's pretty kickass stuff, and I'm partial to a number of songs here that deal with rough backwoods folks. I especially liked "Bridge County, '41", which plays like a modern take on that old Appalachian song "Policeman". It tells the story of a moonshiner discovered by the cops. After discussing the legality of the still with the sheriff, the protagonist tosses over a sample for the sheriff, and that's where it all goes wrong.
"Toss him a swig and when he tilts his head
I threw out my daddy's colt and filled him full of lead
Coughed up red and with his last breath
Said it's not half bad but it ain't the best.
Well I know you is a liar but you ain't no good
Cause that shit's the best thing from here to Collingwood."
Check out Murder Murder on Bandcamp and discover a darker side of Canadian whiskey.
Lynne Hanson - "Gravedigger"
I met Ottawa songwriter Lynne Hanson at the Folk Music Ontario conference and loved her brash, hard-rolling style of songwriting. She let me know about her new project, 7 Deadly Spins, coming right on the heels of her last full-length album. This new 7-song EP consists of seven murder ballads written by Hanson, drawing from all manners of bad men and women, touching on creepy hotels, arsonists, and gravediggers. The album's a creepy blast and perfect for Halloween. There's a touch of rockabilly swagger in some of these, and pinches of swampy blues, and Hanson's got a keen ear for a turn-of-phrase that paints a quick picture. Only the pictures here are a little rougher than you might be used to! Check out her chilling opening verse from the first song, "Gravedigger":
"Murder at the shipyard, as the sun went down
The soul crossed over, didn't make a sound.
Split into pieces, all the lights went red.
Murder at the shipyard, I'm burying the dead."
Pick up the album from Lynne Hanson's Bandcamp, and it's the perfect soundtrack to a Canadian Halloween party!
Ken Tizzard - "All Gone"
I met Ontarian roots songwriter Ken Tizzard at the conference and he sure was an affable guy. Outgoing, friendly, and clearly a very talented musician and songwriter. And though the song of his I'm featuring isn't about a Canadian subject, it's remarkably dark from such a nice guy. "All Gone", according to Ken, was inspired by the story of American serial killer Ed Gein, a murderer and body snatcher who was the inspiration for the film "Psycho". As Goins says, ""I wasn't interested in telling his story, but I came up with a 14 year old girl from his small town, Plainfield, Wisconsin. She is leading a lovely life in a peaceful place, but when he is arrested and the national press invades, her whole life changes. Nothing is normal anymore." It's a remarkably subtle way to write a song about serial killers, and if you hadn't been told the backstory, you might not even realize from hearing the song. But knowing Ken's inspiration, it's a deeply eerie and unsettling song that touches closely on how trauma can remain in people's lives. It's a masterful stroke from a lifetime songwriter. It's on his latest album, No Dark, No Light, from 2015.
Genticorum - "Déline"
Genticorum are one of the best young trad bands in Québec, and their new album, which we helped them promote in the States, was recorded live in Brittany to a French audience. True to form, they share some wonderful old songs, taken from various sources, along with heaps and heaps of powerful Québécois dance tunes on fiddle, flute, and guitar. Though there are plenty of Québécois songs with creepy stories (the worst I ever heard was from Claude Méthé and was an 8 minute instructional ballad that taught angry wives how to poison their husbands, then gleefully described the various possible death throes), the traditional song "Déline", taken from the singing of Daniel Roy and sung in Genticorum by Yann Falquet, has a kind of funny zombie feel to it. It tells the story of a young man who leaves for war, but regrets leaving behind his girlfriend, Déline, the one women who loved him so. When he finally returns from the war, he goes to look her up at her father's, and her dad tells him the sad news that she's dead (been dead a while) and buried. The young man runs to her grave sobbing and declares that his heart is broken and that he wishes he could die for her. At this point, Déline herself appears (either as a zombie or a ghost, I'm not sure which), and tells him to take comfort and that he'll find another woman and true love at the end of his grief. In a lovely touch, the next line describes the young man reporting back to his captain ready for war. This little juxtaposition, to my ears, means the young man was so terrified by the ghost that he braved the army to get away. But I could be wrong. Still, it's a strange little song with a hint of hopeful creepiness.
Norah Rendell - "Lost Jimmie Whalen"
Some of the other songs here deal with ghostly apparitions or dastardly murders, but the traditional Canadian folk song "Lost Jimmie Whalen" tells the tale of accidental death of a young logger, yet it also blends in a ghostly lover story from an older song. It's from a beautiful album of Canadian folk songs that Celtic singer Norah Rendell discovered in her archival searches. We helped promote this album in the States too, and we love Norah's delicate vocals and the sad tragedy of the song. She describes its background in the liner notes: "Jim Whalen (James Phalen was his actual name) was rafting logs down Ontario's Mississippi river near Lanark around 1878 when a dangerous jam formed in a treacherous part of the river known as King's Chute. Called on to help break the jam, young Jimmie fell in a drowned." Breaking up logjams on a river used to be a hideously dangerous job that saw young men crushed and drowned if they slipped in the turmoil of the rolling logs.
The song is pretty scary. It tells of Jimmie's desolate lover calling to him at his grave, with some stark poetry:
"Sighing for one who is now lying lonely,
Mourning for one who no mortal can save,
As the dark falling water flows sadly around her
As onward they roll o'er young Jimmie's grave."
Jimmie responds from beyond the grave, rising as a beautiful ghostly apparation from the depths of the river:
"While red robes of crimson encircled around him,
Unto this fair maiden to speak he's begun.
'Why did you rise me from the realms of glory,
Back to this place where I once had to leave?'"
Jimmie's wife begs him to stay, but he declines with these unearthly lines:
"Darling, to me you are asking a favour,
That no earthly mortal can grant unto thee,
For death is the dagger that holds us asunder,
And wide is the gulf, love, between you and me."