The Once missed out twice on gaining a Juno award, but that’s probably not surprising, given the minimal attention paid to genuine folk-roots music by that supposedly august institution. Just think: only two out of some 40 competitions covered in Juno presentations this year were devoted to “roots and traditional” music. Fortunately, the Canadian Folk Music Awards and East Coast Music Awards do take up the slack in recognizing a vital and richly talented segment of Canadian music.
We had the greatest pleasure of seeing The Once a week ago at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The near capacity audience at the NAC Theatre were treated to a sumptuous hour and a half performance by this magnificently talented trio. Geraldine Hollett’s incandescent voice, as one reviewer called it, thrilled listeners the entire evening , superbly backed by seamless harmonies and spirited acoustic instrumentals from Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale. Drawing upon an eclectic repertoire far different from other Newfoundland bands, the group did feature a haunting rendition of a sentimental favourite, By the Glow of the Kerosene Light, written by Newfoundlander Wince Coles.
“The once,” a Newfoundland expression from which they took their name, means “right away” or “in a short while.” Being city-bred, I first heard it from a Green Bay man hired as an axeman on a road survey party I worked on as a student. It caught my fancy then, and the music makers, The Once, have beguiled flocks of admirers everywhere they’ve played in Canada and around much of the globe. They’re now bound for a world tour backing up a British star with another enigmatic name, Passenger.
True folk music belongs in centre stage for its fundamental appeal to the human heart, yet is having a hard time thriving amid the clangour and screeching disharmonies emitted by so much of the so-called musical main stream. Tastes differ, of course, and every musical genre attracts its fans, but too little recognition is hampering quality folk music performers’ chances of winning their fair share of reward.
The folk music genre has solid roots in the Ottawa area, and seemed to be thriving after revival of the Ottawa Folk Festival in the mid-1990s. Richly talented performers from across Canada formed the backbone of a movement that generated frequent off-season concerts to supplement summer festivals. Concert series held at such venues as the Great Canadian Theatre Company were a popular outlet for the best of the singer-songwriters.
Where things went wrong was the gradual erosion of confidence in keeping the folk festival small, low cost and independent at a time when bigger makes better seemed all the rage. Ultimate absorption by the Bluesfest spelled ruination for the folkfest spirit so that today’s so-called Ottawa Folk Festival is a sorry parody of what it used to be. And more’s the pity.