I first talked to James Keelaghan more than a quarter century ago, when he was an emerging singer/songwriter. At 56 he’s one of Canada’s not-so-old elder songwriting statesmen. He’s also artistic director of Summerfolk, the annual summer roots festival based in Owen Sound, celebrating its 41st anniversary.
At the time Keelaghan was based in his hometown of Calgary. He was one of a handful of Prairie-bred artists who would subsequently make a deep imprint on Canadian acoustic roots music including Eileen McGann, Heather Bishop and Connie Kaldor.
Keelaghan was coming to Waterloo Region to perform. If memory serves, the concert was being presented by Mary Joy Aitken, a sharp-eared promoter at the time who brought many outstanding artists to the area including Stephen Fearing, Ferron, Garnet Rogers, Holly Near, Tom Paxton, Bishop, Kaldor and others. Aitken was the first person I knew who predicted big things for a new fandangle called the internet. A computer illiterate then — and now — I was sceptical of her claim. Silly me!
It’s been some time since Keelaghan last appeared in the region, but he’s returning Jan. 30 to make a long-overdue Folk Night at the Registry debut.
Winner of a pair of Junos, Keelaghan has retained a Prairie sensibility and aesthetic, confirming that while you can take the songwriter out of the Prairies, you can’t take the Prairies out of the songwriter. When I interviewed him in 1994 for Listen Up, a locally produced TV program celebrating Canadian songwriters, he referred to Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner’s classic memoir inspired by his childhood years in southern Saskatchewan.
Keelaghan’s reputation was founded on eloquent narrative songs drawn from mostly, but not exclusively, Canadian history — a byproduct of a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Calgary. Such early songs as Cold Missouri Waters (about Montana’s 1949 Mann Gulch fire as reported in Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire), Fires of Calais (about the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation of Allied forces during the Second World War), Boom Gone to Bust (a Depression era yarn that traces a recurring economic pattern), Hillcrest Mine (about a 1914 mining disaster in southern Alberta) and Kiri’s Piano remain fan favourites.
During the Listen Up interview Keelaghan voiced disenchantment with historical subject matter. Instead of making ‘exclamatory statements,’ he became more interested in asking ‘deeper questions.’ He came to realize that his developing songbook lacked material that ‘reflected my own viewpoints.’ He performed My Skies, the title track of his third album, to demonstrate his point.
In hindsight I think Keelaghan was being too hard on himself. Or perhaps he was preoccupied with justifying a change in artistic direction. Although he made the transition to more personal songs that penetrated the heart and soul of life and living, his best narrative songs filtered historical incident through the kind of universal personal experience with which we all identify.
Sadly Kiri’s Piano, a story about Japanese internment camps in British Columbia during the Second War, remains relevant in light of the politics of fear and paranoia promoted by former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and bombastic U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump in the midst of the international Syrian refugee crisis.
During the Listen Up interview Keelaghan confided that the song ‘ruined writing about history for me.’ Describing it as the ‘best song’ he had written up to that time, he acknowledged ‘it will be hard to top.’ While he might be correct in his assessment, the constant and continuing horrors of history make it imperative that artists of all disciplines never abandon history as a subject or theme.
Keelaghan seems well aware of the need for this artistic imperative, as reflected in House of Cards, the title track of his 2009 release, which deals with the illusion of capitalist investment and its devastating impact on personal savings.
Keelaghan is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to songwriting and performing. In addition to historical narratives and melodic expressions of matters of the heart and soul, his repertoire encompasses traditional folk (his classic Jenny Bryce) and covers (as reflected in A Few Simple Verses). He generally performs solo, but has recorded and toured in a duo setting (as reflected the pair of Compadre recordings with Oscar Lopez). Occasionally he’s accompanied by such accomplished musicians as David Woodhead, a celebrated bassist who has played with just about every Canadian roots artist you could name, or multi-instrumentalist Hugh McMillan, for years an anchor of Spirit of the West.
Early on Keelaghan attracted comparisons to the legendary Stan Rogers. While he now charts comparable imaginative landscape with Garnet Rogers, Stan’s brother, Keelaghan remains very much his own artist. His popularity around the world is testament enough.
Here’s Keelaghan performing Cold Missouri Waters.
Folk Night at the Registry
8 pm Jan 30
Info at www.folknight.ca