Making it Local in Stratford @HPCDSB

Adam Boersen Between presentations today, I had a few tasks to accomplish: have a coffee, blog the school show, try to source my photo of John Till with Voyageur to add to the evening presentation (no luck there but I'll post separately), check out of the hotel, check off another on my list of good Ontario cheese shops to visit and get some dinner before returning to St. Mike's.
All accomplished (except as indicated).

At the risk of sounding like one of my favorite Portlandia sketches, the thread that linked all these tasks was their locality (or "localness", if you prefer). Good coffee was had at Revel Café (moved into a nicer, larger space across the main square since my last visit) where I tried in vain to find online a decent resolution copy of the photo I took of former Revol and Janice Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band member Till across the square in Allen's Alley where he is immortalized in mural form with Revol bandmates Richard Manuel (The Band) and Ken Kalmusky (Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks); Foster's Inn, where I've now stayed a couple of times while in Stratford, is old and creaky and wonderful and – above all – independent and locally owned; the cheeses I purchased from the well-curated Milky Whey Cheese Shop were from the Great Lakes Goat Dairy in nearby Wyoming ON (just east of Sarnia) and the Mountain Oak Cheese Co. about 20 minutes away in New Hamburg ON; and dinner was sourced at a humble place called Great Canadian Grub where Charlie Trotter's and Langdon Hall-trained owner/chef Robert Rose works almost exclusively with locally produced meats, vegetables, grains, wines and beers.

And fundamentally that is what Six String Nation is all about: a national object, a project of national scope that seeks to articulate a national identity by celebrating local identity. That lesson was not lost on the small audience in attendance for the final presentation of this run, where local musician and scientific researcher Adam Boersen (pictured) played Voyageur in the "performance pocket", HPCDSB Director of Education Vince Macdonald remarked repeatedly on what an honour it was to hold the guitar and a group of students attending the awards dinner in another part of the school (including sisters Mariah and Kerry - no kidding!) came down to make sure they didn't miss the opportunity to sing together with the guitar while Six String Nation was at their school.

Thanks again to Lori Lynn Stapleton and James Heal from the Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board, the two schools who hosted the presentations - St. Anne's in Clinton and St. Michael's in Stratford - and all the students, staff, musicians and parents who participated in the presentations.

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Day 2, Event 1 @HPCDSB

Myles N plays the Blues A busy day at St. Michael's Catholic Secondary School in Stratford today as they were hosting students from multiple feeder schools in the area and touting the virtues of St. Mike's programs. That meant soundcheck was a bit shorter than we might have liked but it turned out not too badly: enthusiasm and attention in equal measures from the students.

Visiting students Maddy, Julianna and Myles (pictured) provided the student performances and HPCDSB Learning Coordinator Lori Lynn Stapleton reprised last night's performance of Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird" to wrap things up.

I'll be back at St. Mike's tonight for a public presentation... but first: a trip to The Milky Whey cheese shop to sample the goods and bring home some cheesy souvenirs from Stratford.

Thanks again to James Heal for tech support!

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Clinton-Goderich-Clinton @HPCDSB

Clinton's evening performersAfter this afternoon's presentation, we decided to venture out to Goderich for an early dinner and to take a quick tour of the lakefront and the newly relocated train station set to open as a portside restaurant and bar. But not before stopping in on St. Anne's teacher Josh Geddis's music class. In truth, Josh was really looking for a private preview before tonight's performance in which he and two of his students were slated to play Voyageur. It was also a chance for him to make a quick video recording of a terrific song he'd written called "Thanks". The feeling is mutual, Josh - great song!

After dinner it was back to St. Anne's to get set up for the evening show. It was a small affair with some folks from the local community who came out to meet the guitar and see the presentation. A very talented group, I should add. The official players for the performance pocket were (as pictured L-R): HPCDSB Learning Coordinator Lori Lynn Stapleton (who did a great rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird", students Elliot Paugler and Veronica Rau and Josh (who did another beautifully crafted original reminiscent of the work of John K. Samson) but as we gathered to chat at the end of the show, all kinds of people stepped up to play and really bring the spirit of Voyageur into the fabric of the community.
Thank you all for the honour of that embrace!

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St. Anne’s, Clinton ON – Phase 1: Students

St. Anne's Student Players I've been looking forward to this series of engagements for months. And after a lovely Victoria Day weekend, I hit the road in cooler weather and headed out to Clinton ON - between Stratford and Goderich. I've got two presentations today here at St. Anne's Catholic Secondary School - the first for students and then later this evening for parents and the rest of the community. This pair and tomorrow's duo in Stratford are being presented by the Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board. Coordinator Lori Lynn Stapleton did what I encourage so many school districts to do, which is look at ways to involve more than a single school and to get the surrounding community involved at the same time.

And so, today's first show involved students from St. Anne's as well as students from several other area schools. That meant lots of players stepped up to fill the performance pocket. From left to right we had Frank, Mary-Paige, Dallas, Hunter and Jared. Special props to Mary Paige for such a beautifully sung and confident performance.

Thanks to all the players, students and teachers with special thanks to James Heal and Aidan Kale for the set up.

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Past, Present, Future

Christan Vegh Multiple generations of Canadians are rightly proud of the "golden age" of Canada's music legacy and its contribution to the international scene. I cannot tell you how many people – young and old, when presented with the opportunity to play Canada's most iconic guitar – have chosen to play Helpless or Hallelujah or The Canadian Railroad Trilogy or Closer to the Heart (or really anything by Neil or Gordon or Joni or Leonard or Stompin' Tom – I know there is even no need here to use last names for these iconic Canadian artists). And if only I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me: "Has (Neil, Gordon, Joni, Tom, Randy, Bruce) played this guitar?". In three out of those six, the answer is yes. And I'm damned proud to have put it the hands of such accomplished and beloved artists.

Bruce Cockburn played Voyageur in a very intimate performance backstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 2006;
Stompin' Tom Connors played Bud the Spud on it at a listening party for his final record at his house – his wife having pointed out to him that the fretboard was made from JR's Bar in Charlottetown, a venue they both knew well;
and Gordon Lightfoot strummed a few chords on the occasion of his 70th birthday party at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
I've come tantalizingly close to getting it into Joni's, Leonard's and Randy's hands too.
Shortly after Voyageur made its debut in 2006, I received word from Joni Mitchell's management that she had heard about the project and was intrigued to meet the guitar if I could possibly meet in Los Angeles in a brief window she had in her schedule. Having no money for such a trip myself, I figured I would try to organize something through the Canadian Consulate in L.A. and put together a proposal for a reception at the consulate where we might put Joni and Voyageur together, followed by a more public celebration of all the amazing Canadian talent in L.A. at a suitable venue where Voyageur might get passed from musician to musician. I was advised by the Canadian Consulate that I would be welcome to use their space for the reception, provided that I footed the bill for catering, decor, invitations, valet parking and so on. That was just way out of my league so the opportunity slipped away.
Through an intermediary, Leonard Cohen expressed a willingness to participate in a video I had proposed to be shot at the legendary Fairmont Bagel Bakery in his neighborhood in Montreal but we could not get a broadcaster to back the production.
I encountered Randy Bachman in the green room backstage at Winterlude in Ottawa in 2009, where we were both part of the evening program. I took the Voyageur over to where he was sitting and pointed out some of the significant materials (making special note of the abundance of spalted oak from Winnipeg that occupies the lion's share of the guitar's real estate) and mentioned that his personal guitar tech and luthier Nicole Alosinac had done some important work on Voyageur when it was having its first growing pains in the summer of 2006. For some reason, Randy seemed unimpressed and expressed no interest in holding or playing the guitar (though several of his bandmates did come by the Chateau Laurier to have their official portraits taken with great enthusiasm.
Neil Young has proved most elusive of all. I have never been able to get through to Neil's notoriously well-armoured management and – while I was honored that a group from Dawson City asked if they could include the opportunity to play Voyageur as just one part of a package of enticements meant to lure Neil to the Yukon – nothing ever came of that effort.

But here's the thing:
As proud and happy as I would be for any of those artists to take a turn with Voyageur – as have so many hundreds of Canadian musicians and so many thousands of other Canadians – I don't consider the fact that they haven't played the guitar to be any kind of serious omission to the project. And that's partly because I profoundly believe that we are presently in a Golden Age of Canadian songwriting. I almost cannot believe that I've had the extraordinary good fortune to have had Ron Sexsmith, Serena Ryder, Stephen Fearing, Ariana Gillis, John K. Samson, Selena Martin, Kevin Breit, Amelia Curran, Jim Bryson, Arianne Moffatt, Jimmy Bowskill, Carolyn Mark, Justin Lacroix, Kyrie Kristmanson, K'naan, Amy Millan, Justin Rutledge, Tanya Tagaq, Don Ross, Lorrie Matheson, Mae Moore, Wayne Lavallee, Laura Bird, Ron Hynes, August Suggitt, Marc Merilainen, Sandy Scofield, Tom Wilson, Aselin Debison, Paul O'Brien, Ndidi Onukwulu, Tony McManus, Cindy Doire, Lindy Vopnfjord, Kurt Swinghammer, Little Miss Higgins, Andy Stochansky, Leela Gilday, Charlie A'Court, Blair Packham, Lynn Miles, Donné Roberts, the Hidden Cameras, the Great Lake Swimmers, Digging Roots, Elliot Brood, La Volée de Castors, Genticorum, the African Guitar Summit, Eagle and Hawk and countless other musicians and composers from every part of the country bring their voice to this guitar. I confess that it frustrates me that during school presentations, student players no more than 16 years old still default to playing Helpless or The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It's nothing against those songs but I sometimes want to scream:
"Why are you not aching to play something by The Weakerthans or Christine Fellows?"

I'm writing this today, of course, because over the past few days I've received several messages spurred by concern for the health and well-being of Joni Mitchell. Honestly, I share that concern and hope that Joni has many more years of composing and playing ahead of her – and with any luck we'll finally have a chance to share with her this guitar that we'd be so honored to hear her play even in the most private of settings. But I'm also writing this today because in the midst of those messages, I got an email from Ken Vegh, who had his portrait taken with Voyageur and his wife and son during our photo sessions following our concert presentations with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago. His son, Christian Vegh (pictured, above), was already an accomplished guitarist when he stuck around for a few solo portraits and took the opportunity to play Voyageur a little. Ken wrote to tell me that Christian is now fronting his own band and will be touring the festival circuit starting in B.C. later this month and that he's also received a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. I wanted to share this because – as much as I love the musicians who defined Canada to the world 40 and 50 years ago – I'm perhaps even more in love with the current generation of musicians and songwriters working so hard (and under such challenging conditions in terms of support for the arts in Canada, governmentally, educationally and commercially) to tell our story as it exists today and those working so hard to be at the forefront of the next generation of music artists who will show the world the depth of talent in this country in the next 50 years. The Six String Nation project is for all of you because the pieces from which it is made not only reflect the past but offer an opportunity to define the future and that is the work of all artists. I salute you all. And get well Joni.

Portrait, as always, by Doug Nicholson.

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Federated Cooperatives: All Together Now

Christopher Robin BirdIt was a real thrill to be able to share the Six String Nation story at the 86th AGM of the Federated Co-operatives Ltd. tonight in Saskatoon. Apart from the fact that that famous CO-OP logo is a persistent feature of the Canadian prairie landscape, I feel the FCL and the 6SN share a commitment to the idea that – especially in the Canadian context – we accomplish so much more when we work together. In most parts of Canada, that's not simply an ideological choice; rather, it is borne out of necessity in a place characterized by big challenges and small markets. And I was proud to remind the audience that a couple of antecedents to the western co-ops are reflected in Voyageur's construction: the Doucet House on the grounds of the Farmer's Bank of Rustico PEI and the famed Hoito Finnish Restaurant in Thunder Bay ON - run as a co-op since its founding in 1918.

As a complete aside, this was the smoothest large dinner service at one of these kinds of events I've ever seen. Every conference that tries to sit down and have staff deliver massive trays of salads and entrees to every table needs to try this way more efficient system of sending people a few tables at a time to a special room with multiple rows of every course laid out for self service. Dinner was served in no time.

Anyway, amidst all this wonderful hospitality and fellow feeling, the presentation goes tremendously well. But the sweetest part of it is that one of the co-operative members from Uclulet BC, Christopher Robin Bird, is the person who will play Voyageur in the performance pocket at the end of the presentation. He has arrived in Saskatoon coming off a flu with a sore throat and all the rest of it. He had volunteered to be the player without knowing what guitar he'd be playing. When he found it would be Voyageur he applied all his energy to doing a great performance on that stage. He had known about the project and couldn't believe this was his chance to actually play it. To the assembly he gave the gift of a couple of songs: one of his own composition and one by Stan Rogers. Additionally, to me he gave some other gifts from Uclulet – including a local cook book and a lovely found object: a glass ball Japanese fishing net float that had washed onto his local shores. Thanks for the music and the presents, Chris!

It was a long line up for portraits following the presentation. As always, Doug Nicholson did an amazing job making everyone feel comfortable and getting some fantastic shots that I'll be posting just as soon as they're all processed. We especially need to thank our amazing portrait station volunteers Daniel Jungwirth and Alexandra Stang (from Macklin!) who really kept things ticking along and let me concentrate on signing books and talking to people.

Thanks so much to conference coordinator Donna Tetrault, the rest of my Federated Co-operatives Ltd. hosts and all the members in attendance. Thanks also to TCU Place technical director Richard Heineke and his team for making everything run so smoothly.

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Proactive Provost @CanaltaHotels

Cade, Karen, AlissaKelsie Valliere and I had firmed up details of my presentations at the Macklin School about a month ago and it was clear I'd need to come in the day before in order to be ready for the first class of the morning. So I asked for a recommendation of a place to stay and she recommended the Canalta Hotel just across the provincial border in Provost AB (also crossing a timezone, as I later discovered!). Fine. I looked it up online and made an e-booking. About half an our after getting my confirmation I got another email from Canalta – this one a personal message from GM Leila Grobel saying they'd seen my reservation come in and wondered if I might be free to do a presentation in Provost! How cool is that? Time was going to be tight as I had to get back to Saskatoon to get Doug from the airport and get checked in for tomorrow's presentation for the Federated Cooperatives AGM while accounting for that time change but we figured there'd be time to do a small gathering in a conference room on Saturday morning. If they provided robes at this hotel I could conceivably have wandered down and done it that way! Lucky for everyone involved there are no robes so I simply got dressed, went down and had a couple of complimentary hardboiled eggs and some coffee and got set up in the meeting room.

To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. I'd seen some colour photocopied posters around and they'd put 40 chairs in the small meeting room on the ground floor and were laying out some coffee and donuts in the lobby but there was no indication as to how many people might come out on a very cold and grey Saturday morning.

As I was setting up the projector and sound, a guy in coveralls wandered past and asked if I played golf. His name was James McCrimmon and he was on his way to a pipeline job in the area somewhere but quickly produced a little aluminum divot fixer and tee repair that he'd invented called the ReTee. We talked about his business strategy for a while (which includes a possible appearance on the Dragon's Den - he's already done the audition) and then (since he'd shown me his) I offered to show him my invention. He wanted a picture with Voyageur and he shed the coveralls in about 2 seconds for a more casual fleece look. As we were talking, my three musicians for the "performance pocket" came in: (pictured left to right) Cade Scheck, Karen Wagner and Alissa McLaren. We all ambled out to the lobby to greet people and by the time we all drifted back to the meeting room it was full. I can't say enough how much I love this experience of talking about this project to a room full of friendly and curious strangers and hearing (and having them hear) local folks bringing Voyageur to life. It was a perfect way to spend the morning.

Thanks again to Leila and her staff (hey Jimmy!) and to the Canalta Hotels group for welcoming this opportunity. A very special thanks also to the Bodo Archaeological Society who supported this event. Bodo is a community between Macklin and Provost and they host camps in the summer where young people both kids and adults can come and do a proper archaeological dig and get their hands dirty doing real science – check out the link!

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Generations of Talent in @MacklinArts

Katie & Kiera So, there were three presentations at the Macklin School today. The first you've read about – the new format I'm trying out on the K-6 students. In the afternoon it was the remainder of the school – grades 7-12. And the evening presentation – still in the school gym – was a small group of family members and friends from the school community.

The constant among the three was the appearance in the "performance pocket" of Katie Lauinger and Kiera Heintz. They sang together and traded off playing the guitar. They played versions of the same pop medley each time and what was really amazing was to see the way they grew into the performance over the course of the day. Although I tried to convince them to stand in the morning, they preferred to sit in chairs behind their music stand. That shyness extended to the microphones and they kept well back. Their voices got a bit lost in the mix – overpowered by the guitar and some of the occasional feedback that can creep in where you're too far off a hot mic and the room starts to articulate its own frequencies. For the second performance I tried to convince them to use a stool instead but they stuck to the chairs. However, they were on mic and they were much more sure of the vocals so it was a better performance. For the evening show, they trimmed their song a bit to accommodate the two other performers and I convinced them to stand instead of sit. We balanced the volume of the guitar a bit and the vocals were really strong and clear. And that improvement in performance all happened in one day. Imagine what they can do with some rehearsal time and a few more audiences!

The other performers were terrific as well: young Olivia Golden got things started. The guitar was about as big as her and yet she managed to hit her chords and not drop her guitar pick (I also hear she will get to brag at home that she pulled it off after her brother bowed out on the chance to play!); the more seasoned performer who closed things out was Don McIntyre – a very capable picking-style guitarist who performed an instrumental of his own composition. We ended up having a fascinating conversation before the show began. He's a guy who has got a lot of perspective and has scaled his work back a bit to spend more time with his family and his guitar – to the extent that he's been recording an album for eventual release. Until then, I'm glad we got to hear him in the Macklin school gym!

I thought my own performance hit a nice groove for this last show today as well but the most pleasing thing about the evening was the chance to just hang out and chat with people afterwards. I'm telling you, nothing would make me happier than to spend a whole lot more time visiting communities across the country and sharing this story. I'm certainly grateful for the times I do get these invitations and would welcome countless others.

For today, I'm especially grateful to Kelsie Valliere and her colleagues at the Macklin Arts Council who put in so much work to make this such a great day. It was a memorable one for me and I hope for the students and folks in the community who joined us for the presentations. I'm also grateful for the Caesar salad the school served me at lunch and the pizza that the Arts Council brought in for the evening show but I think the real plan is to do what Kelsie suggested and come back to Macklin when the World Bunnock Championships are on – that's when all the traditional German food that has deep roots in the community starts to come out of the woodwork. See you then, Macklin!

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New Blocks on the Kids in Macklin

Macklin Jr students Kelsie Valliere works for the local credit union in Macklin SK – west of Saskatoon a few minutes from the provincial border with Alberta. As a delegate for last May's Credit Union Central of Canada Conference in Charlottetown had seen my presentation there and thought it would be a good thing to bring to her community one day. When she heard I was coming to Saskatchewan she put on her other hat as a volunteer with the Macklin Arts Council and sprang into action galvanizing support from the Council and the local school so here I am sitting in the empty gymnasium having just completed my first presentation of the day with two more ahead.

Quite rightly, Kelsie wanted to include the whole school community. While I have presented to groups of very young kids on a few occasions, I always feel like my presentation is a bit lost on them and tend to steer principals to inviting students about grade 5 and up. But today's first presentation was to be for kids in grades K-6 and I took this as an opportunity to really think about how I might customize the presentation for the younger kids.

The presentation really is about how Voyageur is a living metaphor for a diverse and inclusive concept of nation building, culture and identity. Typically, I start with that abstract idea and make it manifest in an exploration of the guitar's construction and travels. Taking my cue from the idea of "building" culture and identity, for this younger group I started with a building material they're all familiar with: Lego (or insert generic studded plastic brick alternative here). That allowed me to talk about building representations out of something familiar and then transition into talking about Voyageur as a construction made out of individual "bricks" – each one with it's own story. It still needs some work, I think, but in general I felt way more comfortable for the first part of the presentation today using this metaphor so I think I'll continue down this track.

Senior students Kiera Heinz and Katie Lauinger sang and played in the performance pocket of the presentation this morning and will reprise that role this afternoon so you'll meet them properly then. In the meantime, the picture above is of some of the grade 6 students who hung around after the presentation to get a close up look at the guitar and case and ask a few questions.

Thanks again to Kelsie Valliere for her valiant efforts to bring us to her community, to principal Eldon Germann and all the staff and students at Macklin School who have been so welcoming.

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On the Air @CFCRSaskatoon

Jay and Peter It seems ages since we've been anything but over Saskatchewan (I believe Ness Creek was our last festival experience in SK) so when I was invited to speak this weekend to the 86th AGM of the Federated Cooperatives I decided to plan my travel a couple of days early and see some friends.

Gillian Snider was one of the first connections to the Canadian music scene I ever knew personally. She was one of my sister's best friends growing up on our street (Neil McQuade, whose dad was one half of Long & McQuade, lived half way between us and Gillian: he was the other). Her mother was one of the Allan Sisters, who sang on the Tommy Hunter Show. Though following a much more circuitous route through a Masters degree in Philosophy, Gillian did follow in her family footsteps and is an established singer and musician in Saskatoon's thriving scene. By coincidence, I arrived on the day of the CD release party for her one of her bands, The Whiskey Jerks. Gillian set up an interview for me at Saskatoon's super hip community station CFCR and sent her guitar player Peter Abonyi to play Voyageur during the session. That's Peter standing in the picture and CFCR station manager Jay Allan, who conducted the interview.

Gillian was still conducting soundcheck while we were doing the interview but came over to the station afterwards and we got caught up as we took a little trip to – where else – Long & McQuade to rent the D.I. I forgot to bring with me. I guess that really is full circle!

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