PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 25, 2006

Tanglefoot Crosses the Border

by Jim Newsom

It’s International Azalea Festival week and this year’s theme is “Celebrating Canada.” So it’s entirely appropriate for Tidewater Friends of Folk Music to bring Tanglefoot to town Saturday night for a concert at the Virginia Beach Central Library. And even if the Queen’s Dinner and Ball wasn’t already sold out, an evening with this high energy quintet would still be a better way to become immersed in Canadian culture.

“In the early days,” guitarist Steve Ritchie told me two weeks ago as he drove south through Ontario, “it started off as an endeavor to popularize Canadian mythology and history. A lot of the music that we still write has its feet in Canadian mythology, folklore and historical anecdotes.”

The “early days” were the 1980s, when Joe Grant, a schoolteacher and fiddle player, got together with a couple of fellow teachers to play traditional Canadian music and share their country’s history and culture with schoolchildren. By the latter part of that decade, the original threesome had grown beyond school assemblies, begun writing original tunes, and was touring as a band with a following of its own. Ritchie joined in 1988.

“I was the first person to replace an original founding member of the band,” he said. “Joe Grant grew up in a part of Ontario where electricity came late and they still had the Saturday night barn dances when he was a teenager. He was legitimately steeped in that kind of music—his mom played the fiddle and his grandfather was a lumber camp fiddler. So he’s the real McCoy in that way, and it’s always been his vision that was central to the group even though he hasn’t been with us for three years now.

“None of [the current members] have a background in that kind of stuff. A couple of us have classical training, and I grew up in a family where choral music was the thing, church music. Sandra Swinnell, our new violinist, played in the National Youth Orchestra when she was a teenager.”

Tanglefoot has been a TFFM favorite for many years, and Ritchie remembers playing at Ramblin’ Conrad’s on their first American sojourn. But he still finds it difficult to classify his band’s music.

“That’s the dilemma,” he said. “I’m also the manager, so I’m trying to put tours together and sell us. To be honest, we describe ourselves slightly differently depending on who we think we’re talking to—a folk band, a Canadian roots band. But there are some times when you don’t want to use the world ‘folk’ because it can have a particular connotation. It has a particularly poisonous connotation in the UK, where ‘folk’ is marginalized even more than it is in North America.

“We were backstage at a festival over in Yorkshire a couple of years ago, and the venue we were playing was normally some kind of cabaret. We were out by the backstage door and a bunch of people came along who didn’t realize that the festival was in town. They saw us standing there with our instruments and came over and asked us, ‘So what’s going on here tonight? What kind of music is it?’ And we said, ‘Oh, we play Canadian folk music.’ They reacted as if I’d told them we were all a bunch of pedophiles. They just went white!”

Fortunately, the band has been embraced by American audiences as much as they have been in their homeland. Their sound is familiar enough for folkies, yet there’s something extra in the mix.

“Canadian folk music is very similar to American folk music in a lot of ways,” he explained, “though there are some differences. We’ve got more of the French tradition here because Canada was first of all a French colony. So there’s a pretty strong tradition of French musical stylings that you hear in Canadian folk music. A lot of our songs trade to some degree on French folklore even though we’re singing them in English. In some sense, I think that makes us seem a little exotic to audiences in the States.

“There’s very much a Celtic flavor to a lot of it. There was an eastern Ontario school of lumber camp fiddlers and they all played this very rhythmic, chunky style. That’s what Joe Grant grew up listening to, so a lot of our music has a foot planted in that kind of a musical treatment. I think that, to whatever extent we have a uniqueness, a great deal is owing to that.”

If your idea of Canadian folk music is Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson or Stan Rogers, you’re in for a bit of a jolt when you hear Tanglefoot. Their high energy sound has been called “Stan Rogers meets Van Halen,” and their live performances are anything but staid and reverent. But their lyrical inspiration remains firmly rooted in the folk tradition.

“Some of the songs are essential stories,” Ritchie said, “just good honest-to-goodness stories that we came across, historical anecdotes. Some of them are completely fictional. We have something on our new record called ‘When Dad and Uncle Archie Lost the Farm,’ about farm foreclosures, interest rates going really high and farmers not being able to keep up with their payments. It’s based on a time in history when that happened a lot up here, but it’s not based on a story, it’s kind of a composite story. That’s fairly typical. And then there are some songs like ‘Crashing Down’ about the Frank Slide in Alberta in 1903 where the historical incident is a platform where we tell a tangential story that is fiction.”

I couldn’t resist asking Steve Ritchie how Canadians felt about Americans and their government these days.

“Let me answer this way,” he said after carefully considering his words. “My reading is that mainstream America now sees things a lot more like people outside America saw things three and four years ago; there was perhaps a bit of a time lag there…As much as we may have issues with American foreign policy, that’s not the same thing as not liking Americans.”

I wondered how hard it is to make a living as a folksinger in Canada.

“You can make a living as a Canadian folksinger if you’re willing to travel,” he laughed. “Even if you played every night coast to coast, there’s only eight weeks of good gigs in Canada. There are only 30 million people and we’re really spread out---it’s just a fact of geography and the price of gas.

“But from my house, which you would think of as being in Nowheresville, Ontario, a whole lot of the most populous part of the States is within relatively easy driving distance. So that enables us to play a fair bit and also to stay home a fair bit. It enables us to take advantage of the undefended border!”

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.