Canadian folk legend Whiteley at the Dream Café
At 13-years-old, Ken Whiteley met one of the most influential people in his music career, and one whose legend he continues to strive to live up to.
Whiteley had just purchased an issue of Broadside Magazine, an often controversial publication influential in the folk-revival, and ran into Pete Seeger who had just been skating and was headed for a gig at Massey Hall in Toronto. Little did the young Whiteley know at the time he would go on to play alongside Seeger (Where Have All The Flowers Gone? If I Had A Hammer).
“He just loved to sing and was such an unpretentious person. You didn’t feel intimidated around him. Yet at the same time he was so smart and committed and positive. Just so many wonderful qualities” said Whiteley of his friend who died Jan. 27 at 94. “I certainly aspire to bring those qualities. I love to see music as an inclusive event not just something you watch, but something we participate in together.”
Whiteley said he performed with Seeger when the American folk singer was 90 years old and admired the man because he remained active right up until his death. At the last gig the two performed together, Seeger shared a song called Take It From Dr. King. Whiteley went on to sing part of the song during the phone interview with the Western News which talks about the young preacher who led a bus boycott but didn’t resort to violence to prove his point. It was lessons like Seeger taught of the importance of honouring those who came before him and passing it on to the next generation that Whiteley also holds dearly.
“That is just it,” agrees Whiteley. “I think today it is a lot harder for musicians because there are so many people out there trying to do this. I am still out there trying to make a living. There are so many young musicians out there who appreciate the connection to the past but at the same time are trying to forge their own sound and vision. That is what we really are all about, so I am happy to share my experiences and time. The music I play is inherently co-operative.”
Whiteley discovered his passion of folk music as a formative young teen when the Mariposa Folk Festival had to change venues at the last minute to Toronto. It is where he saw Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James perform. The same festival where a virtual unknown, Gordon Lightfoot, was the opening act and described simply as a young songwriter from Orillia, Ont.
“It was amazing,” said Whiteley. “I saw these legends of blues and gospel. Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend had never met each other and there they were sitting together in one of the dugouts trading songs and having a great time. I was sitting there thinking how cool this is and that is what I want to be, an old blues singer. It formed this very strong impression in me.”
Whiteley has been awarded a Canadian Music Award, Genie Award for Best Original Song in a Canadian film, Lifetime Achievement recognition from the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals and Mariposa Folk Festival, nominated for seven Juno Awards, and 14 Maple Blues Awards. He is also a producer of over 125 recording projects which have garnered 10 Canadian Gold and Platinum records, four American Gold records, 22 Juno and two Grammy nominations. He formed a large circle of musical friends and one of those being Raffi.
“Ten million records later, that was a long fruitful collaboration we had. It was a lot of fun for me to bring lots of my musical experiences to the work Raffi was doing,” said Whiteley, joking that he also learned some lessons performing live for children. “Adults tend to be a little more forgiving, they are not likely to walk away in the middle of a performance.”
The Canadian roots music legend will be helping the Dream Café celebrate their 13th birthday, which falls on Saturday. Whiteley will be performing with bassist Dinah D. at the Dream Café on Friday at 8 p.m. He said he also expects to see a few friends join him on stage including Parachute Club singer Julie Masi (Rise Up) and drummer Gord Osland. Tickets are $20. Reservations and tickets sales can be made by calling 250-490-9012.