Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music . . . from Hank Snow to The Bandby Jason Schneider
Providing the first comprehensive history of Canada’s songwriting legacy, this guide traces a distinctly Canadian musical identity from the 1930s to the end of the 1970s. The discussion shows how Canadian musicians have always struggled to create work that reflects their own environment while simultaneously connecting with mass audiences in other countries,
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Providing the first comprehensive history of Canada’s songwriting legacy, this guide traces a distinctly Canadian musical identity from the 1930s to the end of the 1970s. The discussion shows how Canadian musicians have always struggled to create work that reflects their own environment while simultaneously connecting with mass audiences in other countries, particularly the United States. While nearly all songwriters who successfully crossed this divide did so by immersing themselves in the American and British forms of blues, folk, country, and rock 'n' roll, this guide reveals that Canadian sensibilities were never far beneath the surface. Canadian innovators featured include The Band, Ian & Sylvia, Hank Snow, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, and superstars Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Lively anecdotes and interviews round out the history, but the emphasis is always on the essential musichow and where it originated and its impact on the artists' subsequent work and the wider musical world.
Canadian musicians have played an important part in shaping American music. With Whispering Pines, Jason Schneider deftly explores this influence . . . An engrossing and enlightening read.
[Schneider's] study is sure to become a key piece in the survey of popular music history . . . Schneider beautifully weaves in the complicated relationships, both professional and personal, of the various artists who have come to define the sound of 20th-century American popular music (yes, American). Publishers Weekly
"The first comprehensive book, long overdue, on Canadians' impact on contemporary American pop music . . . This is a refreshing addition to pop-music literature as well as to the often neglected-by-Americans corpus of Canadiana." Booklist Online
"Whispering Pines is a busy, striving survey, a latticework of cultural history, microbiography and music journalism . . . Schneider's delivery is that kind of chatty, energetic rock journalism of the old-time variety." The Globe and Mail
"Schneider presents a thoughtfully researched history and analysis of Canadian songwriters, their geographical and social origins and their career paths."
"Whispering Pines works not just as approachable one-stop-shopping for those with a passing interest in the subject[s], but as a long overdue contextual framework for the tenants in this country's tower of song." Macleans.ca
"It is clear [Schneider] knows his subject, and the book is a treasure trove of trivia." Winnipeg Free Press
"Schneider's collection of stories puts a fresh spin on Canadian artists whose lives and accomplishments haven't lacked for media coverage and analysis." Edmonton Journal
"A fine piece of writing that condenses and contextualizes five decades of music into an entertaining and thoughtful document . . . Jason Schneider offers a concise, brilliantly organized and original take on Canadian cultural influence." Literary Review of Canada
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Read an Excerpt
The Northern Roots of American Music from Hank Snow to the Band
By Jason Schneider, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2009 Jason Schneider
All rights reserved.
Brand On My Heart
THERE'S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GROWING UP POOR in the north and growing up poor in the south. Whenever someone criticized Hank Snow for affecting a Tennessee drawl, what they were in fact hearing were traces of an accent particular to Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, where Snow was born. Hank was Clarence back then, Jack to his friends and family. He had holes in his shoes and the cold North Atlantic wind blew through the walls of the shack they called a house, where he slept on a mattress stuffed with old rags, endured regular beatings, and longed to escape. When he went to sea at age twelve, he spent the money he earned not on shoes, and not on a train ticket out. He laid it down on the T. Eaton mail order counter and bought himself a guitar.
The hardships Snow had overcome to get to Nashville and embark on a career "beyond his wildest dreams" would be told and retold, as is the lore of so many country music stars. His rags-to-riches story culminates during his first few months at the Grand Ole Opry when his future there was uncertain after the lukewarm reception of his one weak U.S. chart showing, "Marriage Vow," written by country song peddler Jenny Lou Carson and foisted on him by his record company, rca. Their initial goal was to pattern his sound after the enormously successful schmaltz of Eddy Arnold, before they switched tacks and instead targeted the massive audience that had been mesmerized by his Opry contemporary, Hank Williams. Having been refused once already, Snow was finally permitted by RCA's Artists and Repertoire (A & R) man, Steve Sholes, to record "I'm Movin' On." When it began to climb the charts, the 'Opry suits' that were ready to sack him suddenly suggested that Snow buy a house.
It's tempting to say that the woman Hank leaves behind in "I'm Movin' On" is Canada, or at least someone who lived there, since he'd found "a pretty mama in Tennessee." There certainly was no shortage of them in the audience at the fabled Ryman Auditorium each Saturday night when the Opry took to the airwaves. He had many friends there, too, like Ernest Tubb, The Carter Family, Hank Williams, and a young man who would soon take Sholes' attention away from producing hits for Snow — Elvis Presley.
Decades later, and it's difficult to conceive such a storyline: A scrawny thirty-six-year-old wearing a bad toupee, and with fifteen years of beating his head against the wall in Canada already behind him wouldn't have a hope in hell in Nashville, no matter who his friends were. It wasn't even "I'm Movin' On" that got Snow there, but it was the one that meant he could stay. It had been a long, long road, and he damn sure wasn't going to turn back. Becoming a U.S. citizen in 1958 was, he said, not to sell out Canada, but part of the basic practicality of being a citizen of the country in which you live. But even though Snow may have reached the proverbial end of the rainbow in Nashville, he never stopped being Canadian.
In spite of Snow's achievements, if you spend time with Nova Scotia country music fans today, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no middle ground when it comes to comparing him with the province's other significant contribution to the genre, Wilf Carter. Those who support Carter chiefly admire his common touch and family values, and chastise Hank Snow for his naked ambition and unspoken philandering. Conversely, Snow fans regard him as one of the most influential figures in all of country music and cite his triumph over personal adversity as inspiration to face their own struggles. To them, Wilf Carter is merely a charming relic.
The gap between the two singers was already ingrained in the rest of the country in 1971, as the pair embarked together on another Canadian tour, a semi-regular occurrence since the early sixties, when Snow's career was at its apex and Carter's was fading. For this reason, Snow could — and did — always insist on closing every show, even though each possessed a presence that illustrated their unique appeal to their audience, a segment of the population that still thought of rock and roll as a figment of society's collective imagination.
Backstage at Toronto's Massey Hall during that tour, Snow sported a glittering country music uniform as always. Made by his friend Nudie Cohn, it was covered in rhinestones and a grape motif inspired by Revelation 14 ("Anyone who worships the beast or its image, or accepts its mark on forehead or hand, will also drink the wine of God's fury ..."). He was swamped by the crowd after the show, signing a never-ending stream of programs and photographs as is the custom for country artists. An unexpected face jockeying for position near Snow was Ken Thomson, newspaper mogul, fine art connoisseur, and one of the wealthiest people in the world. Here was a unique glimpse of two men who chased their dreams in a country that, during their youth, had little to offer in terms of fulfilling them. Their shared experience, along with deep mutual respect for each other's success made Snow's earliest records Thomson's personal "Rosebud" — that is, if Orson Welles had based Citizen Kane on him instead of William Randolph Hearst. After a brief conversation, and likely an invitation to dine later, Thomson gracefully left Snow to the other waiting fans.
By contrast, Carter was every inch the robust working cowboy he set out to be back in the thirties, which, when combined with his early fascination with yodelling, had unexpectedly started earning him a more than respectable living. Not the drinker Snow was purported to be, he did allow himself at least enough luxury to imbibe his beverage of choice, pink champagne, from a refrigerator specially designed for his car. His stage dress bore no concessions to Nashville finery; Carter could be seen in his white Stetson, conservative western-cut suit, and boots on any given day. Moreover, as the man who at the start of the fifties had made more records than anyone else on the planet (it was claimed), Carter bore no grudge over Snow's desire to be the star of the show. Each had his own definition of stardom, and Carter's was still bound to a time when that word was not in the lexicon of Canadian musicians.
Popular music was a highbrow art form in the early twenties when Carter began performing out of an honest desire to amuse himself, and those close to him. Soon after that, "hillbilly music" became the latest craze and by the time Snow was ready to take up similar pursuits, there were real possibilities to make money, and chase the wild show business fantasies many kids of the era had about escaping dire poverty. All one needed for proof was to look at how in 1925 a light opera singer named Marion Slaughter adopted the names of two Texas towns, Vernon Dalhart, and had the first million-selling 78 rpm record in the new genre with "The Wreck of the Old 97" b/w "The Prisoner's Song," both seminal works that Snow and many others later recorded.
Yet, another artist would come to define hillbilly music: Jimmie Rodgers, a former railway worker from Meridian, Mississippi. Also known as "The Singing Brakeman," Rodgers' haunting "blue yodel" became the manifestation of the sadness and isolation felt by so many who allowed themselves the relatively cheap decadence of gramophone records. Rodgers had come close to perfecting his yodel when he got word of open auditions being held in Bristol, Tennessee, in late July 1927. Victor Records sponsored the auditions, hoping to find anyone capable of competing with rival labels that were just beginning to tap into this new-found market. Within a year, Rodgers' records were selling as much as Victor's top pop acts. Even with the 1929 stock market crash, his overall sales exceeded six million copies. Unfortunately, the prolific star could already see the fast-approaching end, having suffered throughout his career with tuberculosis. He kept up a strenuous touring and recording schedule in order to reap the benefits of his fame in the short time he knew he had left.
With each new release, the blue yodel slowly found its way to all corners of North America, although to some it was merely a twist on a sound that was already a part of their immediate surroundings. In fact, it was not Rodgers' yodel that had captivated Wilf Carter, but a more ancient version that directly stemmed from its origins as a method of alpine communication. Fewer things could have sounded as exotic to a young boy growing up in a tiny Nova Scotia town at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Carter had experienced several of these towns up until he discovered yodelling in his early teens, starting with Port Hilford, in the northeastern corner of the province, where he was born on December 18, 1904. Wilfred was the sixth of nine children conceived by the Reverend Henry Carter and his wife Rose (née Stone). Born in Sarnham, England, in 1864, the elder Carter had devoted his life to the service of God at an early age, and the need for his own congregation brought him and his young fiancée to Nova Scotia in 1889. Not long after their marriage, Henry heard of an opportunity to do missionary work in Australia, a further two-year commitment, but one that made him a fully ordained Baptist minister in 1893, upon completion of his formal training in Springfield, Prince Edward Island. Carter led several congregations in that smallest of provinces before being posted to Port Hilford. Still, every four months or so, his growing family was forced to move to other tiny locales around Nova Scotia that required a pastor, such as Clementsport, Pereau, and River Hebert, making education a challenge for all of the children. Young Wilf was forced to become more adept at fighting than the three Rs.
The family's survival was a matter of even greater importance, and all of the Carter children had to find work on neighbouring farms. Indeed, manpower was at a premium by the time Wilf turned ten and the First World War engulfed Europe. His oldest brother, Alva, had enlisted, not so much out of duty as for the soldier's pay. Those much-needed funds were abruptly cut off in 1917 when he was reported missing in action in France. Wilf continued working during those summers, driving a team of oxen, which earned him a healthy monthly wage. Such responsibility inevitably caused Wilf to begin questioning the relevance of his father's profession, and that rift deepened the moment Wilf witnessed the event that changed his life.
It happened during their stay in Pereau. Wilf was taking a load of apples to the nearby Annapolis Valley town of Canning when he noticed a poster for an upcoming performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin at the town hall. But it was the added attraction that caught his attention, someone simply known as "The Yodelling Fool," an apt moniker, in his father's estimation, when Wilf asked for permission to see the show. Predictably, he was denied, but using his own money Wilf defied his parents with the full knowledge of the painful consequences that would ensue. From that point on, Wilf became obsessive about mastering the yodel. He could be heard all day in the fields and at home when he was out of earshot of his father. He eventually began to miss his father's services, and soon after the family's last relocation, to Point de Bute, just over the New Brunswick border, in 1920, Reverend Carter banished his wayward son from the household.
Wilf had already found work in the area's prosperous logging industry, but the long days were tempered after he met a young church organist and was accepted into her family. Their bond was strong enough to allow him to join their move to Massachusetts in 1921, where he worked for her father's construction business. When that and a subsequent relationship with another young lady ended badly, Carter was forced back to the New Brunswick lumber mills in the winter of 1922. He sought any alternative, and found one the following summer when an opportunity arose to work in the vast Alberta wheat fields. Although the conditions weren't much of an improvement, Carter loved being around horses and learning the tricks of the cowboy trade. The friendship the men shared was something new for Carter as well, and they all enjoyed his yodelling. He sang at informal gatherings at first, but by 1925 he was the main attraction at the weekly dances held in the schoolhouses and church halls that served as meeting places for the farmhands. For Carter, Alberta was now home.
Yodelling had, in fact, been a popular singing style in North America for many decades before Carter first encountered it. It was heard in minstrel shows dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, as well as on some of the first Edison wax cylinder recordings. Yodelling records in the traditional "Tyrolean" style maintained their popularity through the first two decades of the twentieth century, and this was the sound that first captivated Carter, as it would many young, promising singers of the era, whose primary aim was often merely to push their vocal cords to the limit. The marriage between yodelling and the mythological Old West had yet to occur. Only in the years following Carter's arrival in Alberta would he have possibly heard, as Jimmie Rodgers did, the mournful sound of Riley Puckett's 1924 Columbia recording of "Sleep Baby Sleep," which Rodgers, in turn, recorded during the Bristol sessions.
Carter had not even started playing guitar to accompany his yodelling when cowboy singers began attaining widespread popularity. This came in the wake of Chicago radio station wls introducing its National Barn Dance, an all–"hillbilly music" program, in 1924, or Carl T. Sprague's "When the Work's All Done This Fall," the first in a series of hit songs the Texas ranch hand recorded the following year that effectively set off the "singing cowboy" craze. In any case, these factors suddenly brought Carter's future into sharp focus. All of the elements were suddenly there before him: a guitar, his voice, and the cowboy life.
Yet Carter was rejected at his initial radio audition, for Calgary station cfac, in 1926. This prompted him to try to make a living in the rodeo circuit. After a couple of harrowing seasons as a broncobuster and chuckwagon racer, he befriended Calgary Stampede champion Pete Knight. Born in Crossfield, Alberta, Knight began as a bronco rider during the war, and became one of the first widely celebrated rodeo stars after winning nearly every competition in North America. Carter was determined to learn Knight's techniques, but after several failed attempts, Knight persuaded Carter to stick to music before a likely injury prevented him from playing guitar. Nevertheless, the two remained admirers of each other's talents, and through their friendship Carter found the inspiration for two of his earliest songwriting attempts, "Sway Back Pinto Pete," and "Pete Knight, King of the Cowboys."
They were songs he thought he could record, but in 1928 there were few options to do so in Canada, even though the market for recorded music had developed concurrently with its American counterpart. The first Canadian demonstration of Thomas Edison's phonograph took place on May 17, 1878, for the benefit of the Governor General at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Edison had only just patented the invention, mere months ahead of Emile Berliner's prototype for the gramophone, which he had created through the patronage of Alexander Graham Bell. By the time Berliner got his first gramophone company established in 1893, patent lawsuits raged between Edison and other upstart phonograph companies (including what would become Columbia Records). Almost immediately, Berliner Gram-O-Phone Co. faced its own battles over licensing and manufacturing rights for its unique flat shellac discs, battles that were compounded when other companies marketing already obsolete wax cylinder technology jumped in with further patent challenges to the gramophone.
When the dust settled, Berliner was left with no choice but to sell his U.S. interests to his manufacturing partner, Eldridge Johnson, in 1899. Berliner then set up shop in the greener pastures of Montreal, where he still held the Canadian patents for his invention. The E. Berliner Co.'s retail outlet opened that year at 2315 Sainte-Catherine Street, and, along with gramophones, sold exclusive recordings produced in the United States by Johnson's company, Victor Talking Machine. It was also the year that Victor adopted its logo, derived from a painting Berliner had found, entitled "His Master's Voice," by French artist François Barraud. The painting depicted a dog named Nipper cocking its ear toward a gramophone horn.
As sales of gramophones and records increased in Canada, Berliner's company built its own recording studio on Peel Street in 1905 to keep up with the demand for discs. The first Canadian artist the company recorded was baritone Joseph Saucier, and other vocalists and instrumentalists were thereafter invited to use the facility. The market for homegrown folk music in Quebec proved particularly lucrative, as traditional fiddlers such as J.B. Roy had been recorded by 1918, four years before the first American fiddle record, Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland's "Sallie Goodin" b/w "Arkansas Traveler."
Excerpted from Whispering Pines by Jason Schneider, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2009 Jason Schneider. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jason Schneider is one of Canada’s most respected music journalists whose work regularly appears in Exclaim! magazine. He is the coauthor of Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985–1995 and the author of 3,000 Miles. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.
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