I stood blurry-eyed, half scorched from the hot prairie sun beating down onto the back of my neck. It was not a great day to wear black. In front of me sat a handful of enthusiastic onlookers, awaiting the first strum of my weather beaten six string.
Perched atop a flat-bed trailer, my eyes fixed on a cobblestone trail winding through a growing crowd, leading to the site of an old county jail. I could hear ghosts of generations past, playing rural music while Prairie families danced beneath an ocean of stars. I could sense the crowd waiting with eager anticipation for the first strum…the first words…the first sign of celebration.
“Happy Canada Day Bruno Saskatchewan” I screamed.
And so the ceremony began. This was my thirty-sixth show of the tour and it felt like my finest moment.
Wait a minute, where was I? Bruno, Saskatchewan?
I’d left Saskatoon in the early morning en route to Bruno for that Canada Day show. Still reeling in the big-city afterglow of opening for a poetry slam the night before, I relished this morning drive.
As the city of Saskatoon faded in my rear view, so did the memories of Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax. Within miles, I felt the calm of the wheat fields, surrounding me like an ocean of stillness; I could hear the sounds of banjos, fiddles, guitars and accordions. I could sense our heritage, our roots; our culture rising from the land as I approached this small town on what we once knew as Dominion Day.
In truth, it was only the beginning of an odyssey that would lead me to small towns across Canada for several years to come. It was my introduction to ‘the other Canada’.
It’s where we hear the yodeling of Hank Snow, the drums of a pow-wow circle, an Irish reel, a fast moving polka, or a wedding waltz ringing out from a village hall. It’s where you can feel the stillness of Tom Thompson or the hilarity of Stephen Leacock.
It’s Canada Day in Bruno Saskatchewan or a Friday night in Wakefield, Quebec. It’s a Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Stony Plain, Alberta, or a house concert in Nanaimo, BC. It’s a lobster dinner in the Acadian village of Saulnierville, Nova Scotia or a singalong around a campfire in Onanole, Manitoba.
There is indeed a unique voice to this other Canada where authentic roots music is not only welcomed — it’s required. Here, folks will tell you how appreciative they are that you’ve taken the time to visit and perform in their town; these are folk who’ve stood fast against time, working the fields, farms and small factories while a high tech world clips by them at a frenetic pace. They embrace the culture of generations past: the stories, the rituals and the songs.
This ‘other Canada’ so wants to be remembered for its heritage – its unique landscape, people and voices. Enter with humility and you will leave with new friends, a new song and maybe a few new fans.
The days roll by and the CBC crackles out of the car speakers as I move on to the next series of shows in even more remote unknown Canadian towns. I find myself in Longview Alberta, home to the last vestiges of the old west. Working cowboys dot the landscape as I imagine hearing Ian Tyson songs drifting down from the eastern slopes.
I excitedly work my way toward Twin Butte Alberta where I anticipate a show at The General Store. This will be my first time through but I’ve heard the stories: “Good thing you aren’t playing on a weekend! Those country boys can get mighty rowdy in there!” Perfect!
When I arrive the host informs me that the turnout will be small. “We have at least ten folks showing up so don’t take it personally. It’s pretty hard to compete with these hockey playoffs!”
But this “quiet night” will offer me something more perfect than a crowded folk venue in the big city: intimacy. The “show” begins and it’s an honest exchange of emotions that flow between us at ten paces. I learn about the dangers of high winds and rising creeks, and they learn about unknown parts of small town and big city Canada, told through song.
Suddenly, as if transported through time, I look up to hear the bagpipes leading my aunt’s casket out of the church. I’m home. I blink for a minute, and awake in Hilton Beach, Ontario, the tiny village of my youth, where the ceremony begins again.
This time the conversation is personal. Tonight the stories are familiar and we’ll sing our songs together. It’s difficult to explain how this little village has so shaped my worldview — the local cenotaph, the baseball diamond, the government dock, the fishing holes, the apple trees, Neil Young’s songs, my mom and dad.
At ten years old I heard the bag-pipes lead the annual parade through this tiny village; 33 years later I’m hosting a musical celebration with my own family in the place that started it all. Like the cenotaph, I will be a part of this landscape, remembered for the ceremony carried on long after I’m gone. In this ‘other Canada’ we maintain and cherish our traditions.
As Canada Day in Bruno comes to an end, I am sitting at a table of new friends, talking politics, sex, religion, music and the history of this community. My fingers, lungs and eyes are tired from a day of work and play. I look up from my guitar to a gentle voice saying “So what do you think of our town so far?”
“It’s no different than any other small town I’ve been to.” I reply. Then I pause. “No, wait a minute. It’s totally different”.
The other Canada — Bruno, Longview, Hilton Beach, Shelbourne —waits for us with open arms.
What’s that you hear?
Sounds like beautiful music.
Jay Aymar is a singer and songwriter; his latest album Passing Through marks his fifth CD to date. Visit http://www.jayaymar.com. By the time 2012 ends, he will have played close to 200 shows, many of them in small towns and villages across Canada.