Say What You Will
“You can cage the singer but not the song” - Harry Belafonte
Language has its limitations. The spoken word can fail. That's why we turn instinctively to blues and roots music to express our innermost feelings, our hurt during trying moments and our joy in happier times. That touchstone in our personal lives has played an equally profound role in society at large as a voice for social justice and human dignity and a ground breaking champion for one of our most cherished privileges, freedom of speech.
Music was a lifeline for slaves working in the forced labour camps of the American South during the first half of the nineteenth century. It provided some semblance of a social life, an opportunity to gather, to sing and to dance. Spirituals stood double duty. Some sought salvation from God, others were metaphors for freedom. Work songs coordinated effort and offered respite from eternal drudgery. The field holler was an individual outlet for virtuosity of wit and artistry of tongue. A bold declaration of a spirit that would not yield spit in the calloused eye of slavery, the ultimate identity thief, it was arguably the first protest song.
Staring with ominous dread at reprisals that were always exemplary and sometimes fatal, early blues singers spoke from the shadows or defaulted to inoffensive stories about losing their baby and dealing with the devil. Grievances against an unfair lot in life toiling under abysmal conditions were invariably sung in code. History can only imagine what candid wonders the lyrical inclinations of blues legends like Robert Johnson and Son House might have created in the absence of intimidation and censorship. Sadly, we'll never know.
Ironically, the protest song gained serious traction when many white Americans found themselves disenfranchised, battling for equal recognition under the law and protection in the workplace.
The shout that couldn't be ignored came in 1937 with Strange Fruit, a song bemoaning the 1930 Indiana lynching of two African-Americans. Made famous by Billie Holiday, Time Magazine hailed it as “the most important song of the century.” A generation later, the Civil Rights Movement resurrected its outrage wrapping blues music's fundamental call-and-response format around spirituals armed with politically charged lyrics to create anthems of change.
War, nuclear armament, abortion, gay rights, poverty and the environment, the topics of the protest song mushroomed with society's ever increasing complexity and marched from the streets into the halls of government. Blues, rock, jazz, R&B, hip hop and rap, every genre of music has spoken plainly to just causes.
Ultimately, African-American talent and staying power have permeated and reshaped America's popular culture and, in turn, been exported to the world.
Today, people seem increasingly inclined to turn to social media as their preferred platform for protest. But, even there, a catchy melody and a solid back beat would enhance the message. Perhaps, we need an App for that!
Freedom of speech entered North America's political dialogue in 1791 as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Originally, it only placed constraints upon legislation passed by the United States Congress. It wasn't until 1925 that a Supreme Court ruling held state legislatures to the same standard. But, oppression refused to die with Jim Crow Laws, which institutionalized racial segregation in the Southern States until 1965, an egregious example. An ongoing struggle expedited by progressive legislation, informed education and most importantly, enlightened attitudes, freedom of speech continues to evolve presenting new challenges to us all.
The 2016 edition of the Thunder Bay Blues Festival unfurls the Maple Leaf on an all-Canadian blues, roots and rock spectacular that covers the breadth of our nation from Nanaimo, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
This year's marquee acts are drawn from the who's who of Canada's music. Friday's headliner, Tom Cochrane, will have Marina Park riding life's highway all night long. Saturday will feature Canada's quiet superstar, the ever-rebooting master of blues, rock and swing, Colin James. The festival will soar to a close on Sunday with Burton Cummings, the inimitable voice of rock as front man for the iconic Guess Who and as an acclaimed solo artist.
Downchild, the quintessential sound of jump blues in Canada for the past 45 years remains a tour de force without equal. Guitar virtuosity will be present in abundance with Jack de Keyzer's definitive string bending bopping and jiving, David Gogo slathering solos with blues-rock goodness, Carson Downey shooting staccato bursts of blues on Red Bull from the hip and Steve Strongman's wickedly tasteful picking and sliding. Steve Hill has been racking up Maple Blues Awards at a torrid pace (3 this year alone) based largely on his jaw-dropping one-man show that has to be seen to be believed. You'll be rocking both in and out of your seat.
Backed by the 7-piece Ben Racine Band, smokey chanteuse Dawn Tyler Watson, Montreal's Queen of the Blues, promises audio Eden. Infectious, compelling, a mile-high voice, no one makes a stage sparkle like Serena Ryder.
A mix of straight ahead rock n’ roll and power ballads, April Wine's long list of Top 40 hits will be a blast from the past. Since Gowan brought his ripping talents on vocals and keys to Styx 17 years ago, they've been among the highest grossing acts in the USA. One of Quebec's chief musical exports, heavy hitters, Jonas & the Massive Attraction have exploded out of La Belle Province forging a name across the nation and storming Europe.
This year the festival welcomes two newcomers whose careers are in rapid ascent. Bluesy balladry, edgy rockers, gutsy vocals, catchy riffs all delivered with uncommon panache, that's Terra Lightfoot. The Devin Cuddy Band will mine the timeless veins of New Orleans jazz underpinned by ragtime and honky-tonk piano.
Anchoring the festival will be the immense talents and enthusiasm of 5 local bands, proud heirs of our city's blues and roots legacy. Ever popular veterans, The Chain, will focus on original blues, pop and rock numbers featuring fine soloing and powerhouse vocals. Just voted Thunder Bay's Best Blues Act, Loose Cannon's brand of blues is “soaked with rock and roll.” Since relocating to Thunder Bay in 2012, James Boraski has worked tirelessly to weave his band MomentaryEvolution into our night life. Blues, rock and R&B are their calling cards. The Roosters promise to keep it “rootsy' but expect some surprises. Back from capably representing Thunder Bay at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in January, Camden Tiura will mix a unique brew of “avant garde post pop blues punk rock.” So, come down to the festival early, our fine local musicians make it worth your while.
How much fun can you stack on a lawn chair? Find out as summer sun beckons, great music awaits, food and beverage tantalize and memories linger at the Thunder Bay Blues Festival. Where Canada comes to sing the blues!