Radio program tracks the development of folk music in Canada

It’s summertime and the tuneful living sure is easy with folk festivals occurring nearly every week across the country. Once the domain of a few pockets of people playing at picnics churches campfires and front parlours folk music now draws 10000 or more people routinely to stages from coast to coast.

Festival Records founder Gary Cristall a self-described former “red-diaper baby” whose communist parents used to take him to folk shows in the ’50s has captured the essence of this history in the five one-hour radio shows that make up The People’s Music . “Going to see Pete Seeger was like a pilgrimage” he says of his upbringing speaking from his Vancouver home. Cristall former artistic director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival spent 10 years collecting approximately 160 interviews then interspersed them with snippets of recordings and songs that are the heart of the tale. He starts off at around 1910 and traces folk music’s history through the CanCon era before ending with two less linear episodes on the rise of the songwriter and the emergence of world music.

Cristall who started considering the genre’s roots while programming the Folklife Pavilion at Expo 86 is working on a book that will parallel the radio show — he chose not to frame his research within a university thesis as it would have restricted the freeflow of learning that led him through clubs living rooms and archives. As expansive as the series currently is Cristall seems almost apologetic that it doesn’t include more. “I regret all the things we couldn’t put in” he says adding “the book will be deeper” thanks to an additional 160 or so interviews he plans on conducting.

The biggest challenge for Cristall was in paring the radio portion down into a five-hour format. “It’s a bottom-up history” he says “but I wrestled with what to put where. I’m a historian by training but try to think somewhat dialectically.”

While The People’s Music is a stellar entry point for the casual listener of folk music Cristall’s passion shines as he includes interviews not just from household names like Sylvia Tyson and Bruce Cockburn but also influences like Syd Banks who created the 1960s TV show Let’s Sing Out and Sam Gesser who captured early recordings for Folkways Records. Thus no matter how well versed you are you’ll feel like you’ve completed a master’s degree after hearing this series.

The People’s Music: History and Development of Folk Music in English Canada airs every Sunday from July 6 through August 3 at 2 p.m. (CBC RADIO TWO) and 8 p.m. (CBC RADIO ONE).