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In the beginning was the Word: Hootenanny. The Word was coined by a couple o’ hillbillies from the Appalachian Mountain region of the United States of America. It was a catch-all, used in place of those words that only make it as far as the tip of one’s tongue: synonymous with “whaddyacallit?” or “thingy”. Eventually, the word morphed and was used to describe a party and then, more specifically, a musical party. Pete Seeger first heard the word just across the water from us, in Seattle, at Hugh DeLacey’s New Deal Political Club, in reference to the monthly musical fundraisers they had over there.
Eventually, “Hootenanny” spread back across the continent to New York, where it was adopted by Greenwich Village folk musicians such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, both of whom were regulars at the Bitter End Club, which hosted hootenannies every Tuesday night. Baez aptly described Hootenannies as Folk music’s version of a jam session. The first time I ever heard the word was on Dylan’s live in ’64 bootleg; I had no idea what he was talking about.
Victoria’s Hootenanny has its own long and complex history; it too has criss-crossed the continent. It began here in Victoria as Miss Carolyn Mark’s brainchild though, at the time, it was not held at her beloved Logan’s Pub. While on tour, Mark met up with Luther Write and, over a veggie dog, they decided to give the hoot a go in Ontario– Kingston, more specifically. The Eastern incarnation of the Hootenanny featured N.Q. Arbuckle, Sarah Harmer, Oh! Susanna, Jenny Whitely, Luther Wright and, of course, Carolyn Mark. It was a smashing success, on land and on water.
One of the few constants in Mark’s Hootenanny’s varied history is the famous quilt, which provides a homey, warm backdrop for the many performers who take the stage. The quilt was designed by J. Mclaughlin, also from Victoria. If you survey the fabrics of the quilt closely, you can see the blood-red-brown evidence of her drunken needle.
Mclaughlin’s quilt is a perfect symbolical representation of the Hootenanny. It takes various styles, colours and textures of fabric; unifying them into a singular entity. Similarly, the Hootenanny went through many incarnations as it travelled through Ontario and Quebec, then back west, where it picked up future fixtures such as Shuyler Jansen and Hank and Lily. This is to say nothing, of course, of the various local talent from all over who were fortunate enough to sing in front of the quilt’s sacred thread.
On Sunday, Carolyn Mark was noticeably absent from the Hoot as she was busy playing at the SXSW in Texas (lucky lady). In her stead stood the venerable Grayson Walker, who played master of ceremonies at the first Hootenanny of spring. Walker started at the piano before picking up his accordion and leading the crowd through strange, haunting renditions of AC DC and Queen classics. He wore big, black boots, a striped shirt and black vest, as did the drummer, “Rad Julie” who, miraculously, stayed sober enough to sit in on drums throughout the afternoon and early evening. I wondered if their matching clothes were coincidental or not.
While Mark wasn’t there, her guitar was and it was soon caressed by “Hart” who, in a style many people at my table described as Cornellian, belted out a number of ballads before giving up his spot on the stage to Hoot-regular Wes.
According to urban legend, Wes used to live in a van. Recently, his mobile home burned to the asphalt which prompted a fundraiser in his honor, to get him back on wheels again. Hopefully everything turned out ok because, by the end of the set, it was apparent that Wes is one of the brightest of the many jewels in the Hootenanny Crown. He sang impassioned songs of hatred against Edmonton with a mysterious, side-burned guitar player at his side: “Get me the fuck out of Edmonton, before I lose my fuckin’ mind”. As a former resident of Alberta, alls I can say is amen, and amen.
Next up was James Bay’s own Timothy. Tim, as many call him, sang a number of sad ballads after struggling with Carolyn’s hoot-strap and procuring a pick from the crowd. The highlight of Tim’s set was his mournful rendition of a Big Star standard; fitting, in the wake of Alex Chilton’s death early this week. Tim is not a Hootenanny regular, but his performance rose to the high standard of those who played before him. Either that or I was just high on the Meat Poutine (a Logan’s specialty) I tackled for the entirety of his set.
Then things got a little bit Shitty (McGee). Clad in a toque, suitjacket, cords and a big black beard, Shitty turned up the heat. He began with a falsetto-style ballad reminiscent of Jack Johnson (though much, much better). Local talent scouts scratched their ears and knees as Shitty then proposed a fundraiser in which he would charge $45.00 at the door to watch him recite the entire New Testament (King James Version) to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm (in G#)”… I would pay to hear that for sure. I believe that Shitty is a regular at the Hoot; you all owe it to yourselves to see him in person. He doesn’t live up to his name.
After that, things started to get blurry for me (the Rainier Beer at Logan’s is less than $5.00 a pint). I heard Neil Young (as interpreted by Jacob) and I saw Joni Mitchell too (in Veronica-skin). Blue Rodeo and CCR started to echo off the mid-ranged, red walls and chalk boards of Logan’s Pub. It was then that I broke the seal and, much to my surprise, discovered that Logan had recently repainted the walls of the washrooms… I was happy to see that he painted around immortal inscriptions of vandals such as “If my dick was that small, I’d be lookin’ up here too”, that had been scrawled into the walls above the urinals several years prior.
Upon returning from the bathroom, I was blessed by the sounds of Pink Floyd (Ummagumma and Dark Side of the Moon era alike) which were played with such love and respect that I was forced to question as to whether or not they had been written by Dilan and Sasha… brilliant.
After Grayson played the last songs of the evening, the place emptied as quickly as the glass sleeves. We stuck around for a while before heading over to Pizza Zone and then to Big Bad John’s and then to James Bay, where we climbed (and fell out of) trees for a while before going home. We were all energized by the day of music we had enjoyed for absolutely free.
Unlike the Bleaker Street version of the Hootenanny, Mark’s Hoot happens on Sunday, the Lord’s day. It often came to mind as I saw the variety of folk come streaming in throughout the day. I saw a lot of wheelchairs there, and crutches too. Were people coming for a healing? Maybe not, in the physical sense, but we were all healed. We were all cured from the notion that Home Depot is the best place to spend a Sunday afternoon. We were all saved from the clutches of a tyrannical and oppressive capitalist worldview that suggests, no, screams, that to have fun, a guy, or girl’s, gotta spend some money. Did I mention that there is no cover at the Hoot?
All of this begs the question: why isn’t Logan’s packed every Sunday afternoon? Why is half the pub shrouded in a darkness as black and as terrifying as the eye sockets of the Satan skull above the bourbon at the bar? Why isn’t there a line-up to get in the faux-tree-flanked doors of the pub? Who knows: I would gladly spend $10 to see any of the musicians who performed there Sunday afternoon. But perhaps this is a Gnostic tradition. I hope that I am still welcomed back next Sunday, having spread the word a little bit with these scratchings and scrawlings.