A Call to Action for People Who Love Folk Music in Ottawa

I am writing this to invite people who love folk music to come together and talk about how we can make more folk music happen in Ottawa.

I know that there are many small groups in Ottawa making and listening to folk and folk-inspired music in various ways. There are songcircles, tune jams and performing groups, open mics and other grassroots music events. However, we do not have an organization to promote the singing and playing of folk music. Much as I dislike spending time talking when I could be singing, I believe the time has come for people who love folk music to organize in order to keep the old songs alive and in circulation.

There are several different ways we can work at the same time, supporting each other’s efforts and interacting in different ways. Some might want to explore peformance-oriented formats to expose ourselves to more folk music: concert series, coffeehouse folk nights, etc.

Others might want to join me in the promotion of recreational singing and playing of folk music—people making music together for that moment, not for any audience but only for themselves and each other. This is the folk process, the DIY, open source culture of folk music. I want to help make more space for this kind of music making in Ottawa: not classes, not performances, but simply social singing and playing.

I have some ideas but I need to gather some human energy around me to proceed with this project. This goes way beyond my professional interest in leading singing. I want to be part of a larger project around the promotion of the singing and playing of folk music by ordinary people in their daily lives. I would like to network with others who meet in songcircles in this city (I know of at least three that meet here and there are probably more) to perhaps join in mass group singing events from time to time or to visit other circles. Also, I would like to see people connecting through some sort of organization for the purpose of creating new social singing and playing opportunities for themselves, much as people have come together to do group hikes and canoe trips. There are many possibilities for action to promote social music making with a focus on folk music. These are just a few. Let’s meet to talk about it.

Just to be clear, by folk music I mean songs and tunes that have been sung and played by many non-professionals in nonperformance settings, usually changing over time, with simple, predictable musical structures and direct, clearly understood lyrics. The music is simple and accessible, telling stories that everyone can understand in language that is easy to learn. Changes are allowed, even inevitable, as songs and tunes make their way through generations of people singing and playing them.

There are a few other characteristics described by folklorists to distinguish fok music from other forms, but that is the gist of it. What has come to be called folk by the music industry is a much broader category that has more to do with sound (voice and guitar) than content, musical structure or social process.

There are quite a few songs by people of my generation that have now passed into oral tradition, and they have changed; they have sometimes had the harder bridges abandoned and the tricky bits rubbed off like old stones. Then there are some songs by newer singer-songwriters that are very singable and direct and may even become folk songs some day (time will tell). However, most songs found in the folk section of the record store are poetically obscure and complex in musical form. They do not invite participation and are too difficult to sing along with unless you have memorized the recording. Many are very good art songs or very good pop songs but they are not folk songs.

When folklorists began collecting folk songs they all thought this musical practice among the ordinary people was dying out and the songs needed to be preserved. They were right to a degree. Although some communities continued to pass on their songs and singing styles despite outside influences, and these collectors made sure that songs were available to successive generations, nothing could stop the combined consequences of technological and sociological change that have taken singing out of the home and into performance venues. At least we still have the old songs, and some of us are grateful for that.

Many so-called “folk,” “traditional” or “Celtic” music scenes are oriented around either professional or semi-professional performance to a consuming audience or gatherings of sophisticated and often formally-trained musicians for virtuoso jams, with little room for those who aren’t close to their level. In the past, people of different ages and abilities came together in homes across Canada to make music, both as solos and in groups, with skilled musicians both modelling for and encouraging others. These gatherings weren’t necessarily serious affairs, but involved conversation, humour, food, and friendship, and often songs, recitations, or stories as well as instrumental music. The Gaelic word ceilidh, which we associate with musical venues, simply means “visit,” and, in many countries, house visits on winter evenings were settings in which people shared varied traditional skills and arts. While these types of house sessions continue, they must be nurtured if we are to own our music and not hand it over to either professionals or a musical elite, especially if we want to pass our music to our children.

I was inspired to write this by the shift in the focus of the Ottawa Folk Festival, not because I want to request that the OFF be different from the way it has chosen to be, but because I believe there is now, more than ever, room for more folk music in this city.

Please contact me if you are interested in hearing and singing more folk music in Ottawa. We will establish a meeting if there is enough interest.


About Maura Volante

Maura Volante is a talented and experienced performer. Although she has written many songs over the years, her main focus these days is traditional folk songs. These are songs that have stood the test of time and have an enduring quality that speaks directly and clearly to the human experience. They also tell us about our history. Because these songs are not commonly sung in these post-folk-revival times in which folk music generally means singer-songwriter material, Maura has taken on the project of helping to keep this valuable material alive. Her specialty is Canadian folk songs, but she knows many songs from the British Isles and the USA as well. All her concerts and other programs are designed with group singing in mind. Whether in a concert, a tour, a social gathering, a classroom, a festival or a conference hall, Maura creates an encouraging atmosphere, relaxed and inclusive. She uses her strong voice and facilitation techniques to bring out the best possible music with these voices in this moment. Maura firmly believes that everyone can sing and, moreover, that everyone has a right to sing and be part of group singing activities, without judgement or criticism. No matter what the various skill levels of participants may be in any group singing activity, it always sounds good in a group, because the voices naturally attune with each other. Maura also teaches and calls contra dancing and simpler forms of traditional dancing suitable for all ages, often incorporating group singing into the dancing through the use of play party songs, which are sung by the whole group as they dance.
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7 Responses to A Call to Action for People Who Love Folk Music in Ottawa

  1. Jane Keeler says:

    Hi Maura– I love your thinking about folk music. A couple of comments which probably illustrate my famous tendency to move conversations in tangential directions! I find there is a common thread between the forms of basic human culture that are found in
    — song circles
    –contact improv roll-arounds
    –story swaps
    –“spins n needles” craft parties
    –women’s healing circles
    –playback theatre
    –seasonal dance celebrations
    –contra dance
    –international folk dancing
    –writer’s block ( songwriting) meetings
    –quaker meeting for worship
    –open mike nights
    –karoake even!
    –poetry slam?
    The common element is the ‘home-madeness’ of the artistic/cultural/musical event. There is no professional required. There is knowledge, custom, roles, and even rituals at times. There may be teaching and leading but there is not a big hierarchy. These forms of the arts are all related to ancient human activities. When I am in one of them, I sometimes can feel the human lineage that I am a part of reaching back through time, through places, even through changes in geography or climate– a commonalty that makes me feel connected to my own particular life as well as the broad deep lives of others through the ages…. Probably the electrified music feels a little more alienated from this broad stretch, but not entirely!

    The other thing I wanted to mention is a new Playback theatre form that we have adopted–
    a person tells their story– a singer Sings back a song that reflects the essence of the tale, while other actors act out the song– it’s called Singback.

    Finally, I heard of some Japanese tradition of walking in the woods– where
    the chemicals of the trees — their breath, so to speak — are exuded and bring health… I think it was called something like “forest bathing.”

    I’ll be interested to hear others’ contributions to your thoughts on folk music– as well as any of these other musings.

  2. David Goudie says:

    Hey Maura, my name’s David Goudie and I’m also a lover/player of folk music and am certainly interested in taking part in a movement thereof of any magnitude. If there are any future meetings I’d love to be a part of it.


    • Hello David, I hope you have noticed or will notice the date set for a meeting on February 6, in the post above. It would be helpful to have your email address. Please drop me a line at maura.volante at gmail, and I hope you can come to the first meeting.

  3. Ranald Thurgood says:

    As you know, I support your call for a revival of –– what those of us who can remember the ’fifties, ’sixties, or ’seventies call –– folk music. However, any discussion that includes the word “folk” involves complexities, and stimulates conflict. Bringing about a new “folk revival” will be no easy task. Perhaps we should look at the strengths and weaknesses of the last movement, before launching a new one.

    I came to the so-called “folk revival” late. As a boy, I had vague impressions of something called folk music, sung on radio by groups like the Kingston Trio, the Kingsmen, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, Americans singing in harmony enjoyable and easily-remembered songs. Teenagers strumming guitars led “sing alongs” of similar music, but without the harmonies, at Cub camps in the early ’sixties. By my own teenage years, the term folk music had expanded to include such singer-songwriters as Gord Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, and even Bob Dylan, who by this time played rock ’n’ roll. My peers, playing acoustic guitars while singing these people’s songs in church-basement coffee houses, were also called folk singers. Needless to say, my concept of folk music was vague and impressionistic.

    My proper initiation into the “folk scene” came after I moved to Toronto, where my new friends introduced me to the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1972. Throughout the decade, I continued to attend the festival both as an audience member and volunteer. Mariposa introduced me to a vast array of musicians, singers, storytellers, dancers, and craftspeople. The festival featured such well-known performers as Taj Mahal, Murray MacLauchlan, and David Amram, as well as others yet to achieve fame: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Stan Rogers, the McGarrigles, and David Wilcox, for instance. However, there were numerous people and forms of music unfamiliar not only to me but to most audience members: singers of old songs from Newfoundland, the Appalachians, and British Isles; fiddlers from the Ottawa Valley; bluesmen from American cities; bands from Africa and Asia; gospel singers from the Sea Islands of Georgia; Native Canadian storytellers and dancers; Cajun bands; Quebec accordionists; a protest singer from the streets of Vancouver; and Torontonians reviving such traditional arts as ballad singing, Morris dancing, and Mummers’ plays. Without YouTube to allow us to decide beforehand whom we liked and disliked, both word of mouth and serendipity played large roles in determining what performers we saw. At an early festival, I enjoyed Lonnie Young’s band from the Deep South playing their lively bluesy music on fifes and drums, something I’d never have imagined.


    Estelle Klein, the artistic director at the time, held strong views as to what defined folk music. Although folk revivalists and singer-songwriters performed at the festivals, Mariposa’s researchers sought true folk performers, i.e., those who performed the traditional music of and for their own communities. Some of these individuals had probably never been on stage before, let alone performed outside their own regions. A great many (such as the Young brothers in the above video) would not make it to today’s “folk festivals,” because they: are relatively obscure (not big audience draws); are not self-promoters; do not have high-quality videos to submit; and are not professionals who can schmooze or give slick, concise ten-minute performances at conferences for festival organizers. SADLY, SUCH PEOPLE DO NOT PERFORM AT TODAY’S FOLK FESTIVALS PRECISELY BECAUSE THEY ARE FOLK MUSICIANS PLAYING MUSIC OF AND FOR THEIR OWN COMMUNITIES, NOT GEARING IT TOWARD OUTSIDE AUDIENCES THAT DO NOT ALREADY UNDERSTAND AND ENJOY THE GENRES. An important component of the old Mariposa was workshops in which audiences learned about various forms of traditional music, and developed appreciation for differing folk aesthethics.

    However despite the virtues of folk festivals of the time, they also had detrimental effects. Traditional musicians were removed from their usual performance contexts. This, in itself, was a good thing, otherwise we’d never have heard them. But, to use McLuhan’s overused but astute saying, “The medium is the message.” To most audience members, folk music was not music transmitted informally among small groups of people, but was music performed on stage. You planked down cash, sat on the grass, and listened. True, many of us found folk festivals and coffee houses warmer and less formal and alienating than symphonic or rock concerts. Furthermore, there was some indefinable quality that made listening to folk music a particularly enjoyable experience to many. However, for most who wanted to get involved musically, the apparent goal was not to share music with one’s family or community, but to be the person with the microphone. I came away from my first Mariposa Festival not even associating folk music with the singing, fiddling, piano playing, and storytelling that was part of everyday life among my relatives and neighbours, both in my family home and in the communities in which I have roots.

    The growing professionalization of folk music during my lifetime is part of both the trend toward commodifying everything and the handing over of our lives to experts. In 1980, one would simply compliment friends for making a good meal. Today, we’re inclined to say, “You should be a professional cook,” then think we’ve praised and not cursed them. And who wants to sing when we have trained experts to sing for us at any hour, at the push of a button? I enjoy many types of music and sometimes pay to hear chamber music, rock bands, or graying folkies singing British ballads. However, I feel that these people don’t own music per se, and I don’t rent it from them. I’d like to see more venues for older styles of music that once dominated the folk music scene. But even more, I’d like people to take steps to reclaim folk music, storytelling, and other traditional arts, moving them offstage and back into our homes and gathering places, where we’re active participants and the particular folk art becomes our own (as at our Ottawa and Almonte Song Circles).

    There will always be tension between supporters of these types of informal gatherings and supporters of professional and semi-professional performances of folk music, though we are often the same people. At best, professional performances provide us with examples of outstanding practitioners of folk arts, who may lead some listeners to sing folk songs, make music, dance, or tell stories with family and friends. However, professional performance, by its nature, encourages a division between active performers and passive listeners. This problem does not have a solution, but it is something to be aware of if we want to keep a new “folk revival” from following the path of the old. Clearly, retracing the old pattern will, once again, lead primarily to our performance venues becoming showcases for professional entertainers who gradually stop playing folk music.

  4. Reading Ranald’s comment I had an idea. A small, big idea. If what we, the people who agree with Maura and Jane and Ranald really, really want is more of “that”, I propose a real grassroots solution to a real grassroots problem. On the first Saturday night of every month, invite people to your place. Tell them to bring guitars, and ukes and fiddles and their voices. Tell them it doesn’t matter if they’re “good” or if they remember all the words. Then, listen. Stand in your kitchen making tea and listen to the walls of your house echo with the vibrations of a thousand songs over a thousand years. Then, encourage them to have people over to their house on the first Saturday night of the next month. This way, it will grow and grow. Soon, on the first Saturday night of the month, you won’t be able to walk down the street without hearing a song. It could be called the First Saturday Night Folk Movement.
    Or if not, something like it. Folk is small. Small spaces, small groups of people, small piles of guitar cases competing with small piles of boots in small hallways, small kitchens crammed with laughter. In this Big Box world, we need more small.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Selina. I like the idea of growing this with small gatherings. For me, however, the first Saturday won’t work because I am contra dancing. I know you are not saying it has to be the first Saturday, and I know there are many ways to go about this. It just points out to me that there are always snags and scheduling difficulties when busy city people try to organize anything. But the idea of growing a big movement through small gatherings is exactly the way to go and is exactly why a festival is not necessarily what is needed. We need to keep growing the small things and eventually they will fill up and spill over. Talk to you soon!

  5. I’m so glad that you see the Small is Big vision. I’m also really glad that you’re getting this dialogue going. There has to be a way to fill kitchens, and church basements, and front porches with music, which IS what folk is about. It has turned into a “genre” of performance art, which is cool too, but without it’s roots, what is it really? I’m going to take my own advice. What are you doing on the 15th? I’ll see what Chris White is doing, and maybe Jane, and Ranald (who I’ve never met, but I like already) a couple of others, and we can sit around my kitchen table and start something Small.

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