Moments with Musicians ~ Oscar
It was early in the eighties … and we needed a break
We were still a very young couple married at least a decade and a half with three kids and very little cash, We had never travelled out of the country or really had a big time vacation together.
Serendipitously, Air Canada, at that time, discovered what Via Rail never did…the seat sale. Someone finally figured out that the answer to falling profits and empty seats was not to charge the customer more money, but to charge less and fill more seats…brilliant.
There it was … round trip ticket to New York … $130.00.
It was a fine opportunity … for Linda the painter, it would be a chance to see world-class art in the Met and the Whitney. For a somewhat innovative young principal, it could be an opportunity to visit some interesting schools with real challenges in tough neighbourhoods like Harlem.
We bought the tickets.
I can still recall following Linda through the Met, the Whitney and then into the smaller street galleries. I had no idea she knew so much and I felt like an insider with her as we explored some of the best art in the world.
I am not a comfortable traveller and my walk through Spanish Harlem to visit a “special-ed” school was a little unsettling. However I was to get an amazing clinic that afternoon from the remarkable principal of that school. I then went walking some more and drifted into another inner city school that turned out to be one of the tougher schools in the city.
There again, I met another brilliant principal who proceeded to up the ante to a master’s clinic. He was one of the most humane and successful educational leaders I have ever met in my life.
There was not a lot of real, live music in my life at that time but I knew I was now in the heart and home of so much of the music I loved. I lived for CBC radio and valued our cheap turntable on which we played Leadbelly tunes that we borrowed from the library. We needed to find some sources of this music it and so we found our way to Washington Square where the music revolution began in the streets. Then it was on to Greenwich Village where the change took firmer root.
We did have a couple of moments with a two iconic folk musicians, both whom were well known to me at the time. The first moment was fleeting but memorable…
As we walked down Bleecker Street, a lovely looking older man ambled toward us. You know that moment, when two people meet on a street and do a double take … thinking they might know each other, a little embarrassed nod and the moment passes.
So, that happens with this guy … maybe he thinks I am Abby Hoffman (see photo) and I am not sure who I thought he might be. Anyway we lock eyes, nod and the moment passes.
Linda pokes me hard and whispers, “Wow, that was Pete Seeger!” I have since been a little to embarrassed to admit that I missed a chance to shake that man’s hand but there you go …
Later we headed to the iconic Gerdes Folk City, one of the top three historic music venues in the world according to Rolling Stone. We were going to see Oscar Brand, who was a Canadian folk icon for me in the sixties.
I recall being quite taken aback when I saw very few patrons in the room. I suppose I expected that renowned music joints in legendary music towns would be jam-packed all of the time. Not so. Nothing’s changed I suppose.
After his set, I introduced myself and we had a fine conversation. He really seemed to love meeting Canadians and we soon got into a spirited banter around his early years in Winnipeg and his anthemic song, “Something to Sing About.” I remember when there was a move in the mid sixties for this song to be our new national anthem. I told him about how I used to be glued to his CBC television show “Let’s Sing Out” and he let me know that the show was a highlight of his career. I remember asking him whether or not he ever met Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and he of course, told a couple of stories that I have a hard time recollecting today.
I suspect that meeting Oscar Brand was the first time I ever had a real conversation with a working musician and he was a perfect one for me as he was and still represents to me, an important part of the true source of what we now call Americana music.
The next day we went shopping for second hand clothes in New York. As a recovering hippie it has always been important to go and look for the best sources in whatever city I am living in or visiting. In New York the search took us into a somewhat sketchy neighboiurhood, of course.
As we walked down the sidewalk, I was a little nervous, I admit, I noticed a rather menacing presence heading straight towards us … a huge double of Mr. T, without the safety of the Hollywood glow, if you will.
The prairie bumpkin in me started to push my child bride a little more to the right of the sidewalk.
He moved over into the same lane.
Ok then, I moved back again into the left lane …
He moved over as well.
Well, looks like we are going to be mugged and maybe die in New York, I think to myself.
He comes right up into my face.
I really need a public washroom right then …
He reaches out his hand, shakes mine and grins …“welcome back Kotter!” he laughs and moves on. (Check photo again)
We left New York on a bus heading to Montreal … got to the bus depot to find out the drivers were on strike. That should have been a clue for us to change plans but oh no, I was sure it would be ok to head north, in the winter, to Canada, with a portly accountant who was told he had to drive his first bus tonight.
Tonight, of course, we would hit a blizzard as we climbed through the mountain passes and the accountant was driving the bus like a gecko on an ice flow. I was explaining to a powerful little group of Puerto Rican women on the bus, that back home we never slowed down on ice as that causes you to spin out …
They proceeded to loudly threaten the driver with their own form of mutiny that suggested to him that right now, this Canadian should take over driving the bus.
I scrunched lower in my seat and showed enough cowardice that they finally abandoned their insurrection. You had to be there.
We got to Montreal safe. Linda was warmly welcomed into a gallery that had just received big crates of paintings for a show of Saskatchewan artists, all friends of hers.
We got to experience for the first time the gorgeous French Canadian culture that a boy named Chartier, living on the prairies, never knew…a boy whose ancestor, Willie Chartier, was a coureur des bois in 1645, a boy whose grandfather, a beat cop, walked the cobbled streets of Old Montreal in 1916.
The night before we left for home from the city of jazz, we passed a small club on the Main where Big Mama Thornton was playing. She was so tiny, made so frail by drink and illness, but for us to hear the true source singing Hound Dog made that night in Montreal pure magic and the magic took us home.