Folk Songs of Canada Now

Introductory Notes

by Henry Adam Svec


Certain aspects of my practice may go misunderstood by conventional folklorists and laypeople alike. These introductory notes are meant to explain the reasoning behind a few of the more non-conformist choices I have made as the collector of Folk Songs of Canada Now.


On the Attribution of Authorship

I have listed the names of the performers I have documented. I have even attributed authorship of these songs to their respective singers. This will seem like an error to those who are familiar with the work of the late Staunton R. Livingston, who has made it obvious that music is an immanent plane of anonymous communion (see The CFL Sessions; The Lost Stompin’ Tom Songs). It is a sin, Livingston has taught us, to write about or to write upon music, and it is a sin to tie Music to an individual source.


I have indeed been strongly influenced by Staunton R. Livingston. I desire to build the utopia his work has made it possible to think about – the utopia within which, then, Livingston has made it possible to live. However, even the folklorist must distinguish between tactics and strategies, which is both a matter of pragmatism and the reason I have documented the names of the folk performers to whom I also attribute authorship. Structures can both constrain us and move us along. Thus, rather than insisting on some impossible blueprint, I draw your attention to our current configuration of the virtual, the potential, and the real – which is the only seedbed of a truly revolutionary (i.e. folkloristic) utopianism.


Still, I intend the authorial attributions in each case to be kept by the listener in parentheses. For folk music, as we have long known, belongs not to one but to all the Folk (and to all who are open to encountering it). This is the reason that I have both 1) attributed anonymous songs to mere nodes within the Folk and 2) claimed authorship myself for the songs I sing (which I have merely siphoned, I admit). And yet, I have sacrificially performed impoverishment so that others may gain knowledge and grow strong, which is the essence of Livingstonian Dialectics.


On the Presence of the Collector (As Folksinger)

The attribution of authorship aside, you will notice that the collector himself sings a handful of the songs in this archive. I did not originally aim to have a place in front of the microphone; I merely wished to capture the folk music of Canada insofar as it exists. I thought that would be enough. One school of documentation to which many song collectors subscribe posits that there is a real world, which can be precisely captured, more or less, by the subjects inhabiting it via technologies of simulation and mediation. According to this school, it is important to maintain a distance from that which one seeks to capture. “I see, and what I see will be seen. I hear, and what I hear will be heard.” In some ways, I only wished to see and to hear and to communicate those experiences to others by means of inscription devices.


And yet, the logic of this interaction becomes transmogrified, I discovered, when the objects one seeks to record are the Folk and its lore. I remind you of Staunton R. Livingston’s definition of the Folk: “Sincere and authentic beings in communion with that which is real and with that which is both beyond and in constant relation to itself within civic, human life” (qtd. in Sommers). The category of the Folk, then, points beyond the individual and its desires. It points beyond objects and subjects in their cold isolation, because the Folk is a group that is always already beyond groups. It is a way of looking, not so much at the way things are, but at the way things have been insofar as they have been in the future.


Therefore, I have sung songs and made recordings of my singing. This in order to ensure that the thing I have attempted to document is exceeded (which the Folk necessarily desires to do of its own volition). The Folk can and will stretch beyond its boundaries, but perhaps only to the extent that the non-Folk, including the folklorist, can be plugged into the chorus. So I, too, sing.


On the Diversity of Recording Techniques and Technologies

I have not been consistent with the technologies I have deployed in my capturing of the Folk, and this is so for a reason. It seems to me that one of the qualities of the Folk is its radical heterogeneity – its way of being everywhere, all at once, across various times and places. There is the printing press, and there were Folk; there are mobile phones, there will be the Folk; there are trucks and highways and vacuum tubes, there have been Folk.


Walter Benjamin explores the Angel of History as recorded in a Paul Klee painting, which moves forwards as it looks back (or is it the other way around?), and the Folk does something like Benjamin’s Angel. It looks both forwards and back (plus, necessarily, across and along, technology being one of the phyla around which the Folk works and moves). Therefore, by documenting the myriad ways the Folk injects itself into the machine (from the multi-tracked elegance of an Andy Magoffin to the in-your-face rawness of a Ron Leary), I aimed to document, not only the Folk “out there in the world,” but also the Folk insofar as it in fact coexists with technological systems (cf. Bausinger).


Additionally, the Folk inhabits the whole globe, to be sure, but it does so only ever locally. By accommodating my recording apparatuses to each particular place I found myself in, on my song-collecting travels, I aimed to represent this quality.


On the Influence of Edith Fulton Fowke

Finally, the attentive student of Canadian folklore will notice that the entirety of the songs presented here have already been collected and presented by another – by the late Canadian folklorist Edith Fulton Fowke. What is the purpose of documenting songs that have already been documented?


The Folk is a dexterous organism, an evolutionary subject that incessantly tends toward itself, which is to say that it tends toward revolution. It is always worth making an inventory of such a situation, and Edith Fulton Fowke’s work offered an excellent roadmap. I went where she went. I re-collected the folk songs she once collected (which, of course, cannot remain the same).


I am not sure if Fowke would have been aware of Livingston’s methods, nor am I certain that she would have approved of my own contribution to the field of Canadian folklore. But I forgive her and acknowledge the role she has played in this project. In some ways, Folk Songs of Canada Now can be read as a synthesis of Staunton R. Livingston’s avant-garde methods with the traces of Edith Fulton Fowke’s journey across the territory of the Folk. Yet, faint traces can be just as vivid as broad, strong strokes, and I wish to privilege neither one of the two giants on whose shoulders I stand.


Works Cited


Bausinger, Hermann. Folk Culture in a World of Technology. Trans.
    Elke Dettmer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zorn. London:


Sommer, Bart. An Anthology of Writings and Sayings in Canadian
Fredericton: Marshlands P, 1987.

Art by Kate Beaton
Label Fantastic! Ontario Arts Council

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