Tamarack: The best Canadian Folk Group few have heard about!
As you know, recently as part of my mini-workouts which I do a couple of times each week in the room next to my study, I’ve been listening to my complete I-pod musical array. It hit home to me this morning that there is one group of musicians that really has been badly served by their agent(s) over the years. [editor’s note: one of the members is my younger brother]
With no disrespect to The Tragically Hip, Tamarack is a far better purveyor of Canadiana through songs of our land. And as great as Gordon Lightfoot is (and in my younger days I emcee’d a couple of his college shows) his portfolio of songs solely about the Canadian experience might fill at best a couple of CD’s. Tamarack on the other hand spent an entire lifetime meeting with Canadians and interpreting their lives and or experiences into a veritable panorama of topics and themes within the Canadian folk music genre. The song book goes from West Coast to East Coast to the Arctic to the USA/Canada border (and at times beyond). There are songs in English, French and variations of Newfy/PEI speak. There are hymns to the cowboy, the logger, the Aboriginal, geography, grain trains, river ferries, fur-trade, lottery-winning, small towns, Acadians, United Empire Loyalists, and on and on I could go.
I’m not sure how many albums the group has put out – I think I have a dozen different ones between my CD and LP collections. And that doesn’t include some solo efforts including a very good one that was put together in support of Tree Canada (the should be played for every provincial government’s cabinet), and others that were created as part of music for the CBC program The House back in the last century, and still others that were down that focused on interesting towns in Canada. One could put all this together for a social studies course in junior high and a student would have a very good sense of what this country is all about.
And that brings up another aspect of this group – its willingness to go out to schools. Sometimes this was done just to entertain the students with interesting excerpts from the songbook. But many times the group would spent upwards of a week with the various grades in a school, conducting workshops and sing-alongs that would result in the students not only singing Tamarack songs but also creating their own. At the end of the week, Tamarack and the students would then put on a concert for the local community showcasing the singing and the writing talent that evolved from the week. And usually these schools were not special arts education institutions but somewhat rural or remote places of learning – from the hinterlands of BC and Eastern Ontario to places along Hudson’s Bay.
There were two versions of Tamarack that I enjoyed the most – James, Gwen & Alex and then later – Molly, James & Alex. Gwen after retiring from Tamarack returned to performing by joining Quartet which is another great Canadian gem (but I’m biased – ever since I emcee’d a college concert of Ian & Sylvia I’ve had a crush on Sylvia). Molly had a voice that was pure smokey gravel at times and added so much to the authenticity of the Tamarack message. Sadly she passed away in a freak ice-boating accident a while back. James & Alex were an interesting pair; excellent musicians with dramatically different voices combining to create music and lyrics at times on a pair with that British pair from Liverpool. And their instrument playing was also quite different — but it all melded together in a dynamic and authentic fashion that made each song worthwhile listening to and many wonderful to sing along. Tamarack is now basically retired so I contemplated writing a book about the best Canadian folk group nobody’s heard of because at least James & Alex are alive, and certainly a couple of the educators who had the group to their schools are accessible as well. I even thought I might try to second one of Canada’s current excellent Canadian bio-history writers, Gordon Pitts to assist in the project. But alas, neither James nor Alex warmed to the idea – so I’ve parked it. It’s almost as if the reluctance now is reflective of the persona of the group when Tamarack was performing. Happy to entertain, happy to be able to compose and sing about the country, and ironically seemingly happy to keep the numbers of followers small and dedicated. Love the humility but it still means the vast majority of Canadians will miss out on learning about a real cultural gem that won’t win a Juno nor be awarded the Order of Canada. I guess that’s what makes them truly Canadian icons! Maybe someone doing a Masters degree in either music education or musicology or even contemporary Canadian history might consider focusing their thesis on Tamarack…now that would be cool…
If you want any of their CD’s, let me know — I may be able to pry some out of their vault!!