WUMB January Program Guide

Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music

With my interest in all things Canadian I don’t know how I missed this one, but I did. Published in 2009, Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music . . . from Hank Snow to The Band purports to be “the first comprehensive history of Canada’s immense songwriting legacy, from Gordon Lightfoot to Joni Mitchell.” That imposing title could well be translated as the Canadian influence on popular music in the United States.


As the title indicates it starts with Hank Snow but contrasts his story with that of Wilf Carter, who, though he recorded in the States using the name Montana Slim, remains relatively unknown to US music fans. Both were born in small towns in Nova Scotia but when Snow chose, eventually, to head to Nashville, Carter remained in his native Canada where, even there, his star faded as the passion for Cowboy and Western music abated. Both stories are well, if briefly, told. There are several glossy bios of Hank Snow available, but the best information on Wilf Carter is contained in the booklets that accompany Bear Family reissues of his music.


From there it jumps to the story of The Band, which is the heart of the book. For long time Band Fans, there is really nothing new here. It starts with their days with Ronnie Hawkins, playing in Toronto, to their time with Dylan, the Big Pink house and, eventually, the Last Waltz. Like most of the existing books on the group, (and certainly the Last Waltz movie), the narrative is a little too Robertson-centric for me. There are other books that cover The Band in greater depth, too many, in fact for me to suggest one. I’m still hoping for the definitive biography of Ronnie Hawkins.


The story of The Band’s evolution is split, going from being in Toronto with Hawkins to being on the road with Dylan. And then from their time in Woodstock to their final days in California. This, to me, is one  of the major weaknesses of the book. The author leaves the story of The Band in 1968 or so, to move on to other figures, like Cohen, Mitchell and Lightfoot. He details their histories from the start of their careers to the 1970s or beyond, and then jumps back to the band in 1968 again. It made it hard for me to keep the timeline straight. There is an interesting tidbit about Garth Hudson being hired to write basic charts of Leonard Cohen’s early songs. The jumping timeline meant I had to go digging to figure out where Hudson and The Band were in their careers at this time.


As I’ve already pointed out, the other major weakness of the book is that there is little new here, no original research and no new interviews. That said, the stories are concise, well told, and highlight some lesser known aspects of the various lives and careers.  For example, Joni Mitchell’s childhood polio is put into prospective, including its impact on her adult life. Leonard Cohen’s career as a poet may surprise some. If you are one of those, look for a documentary film from 1965 called “Ladies and Gentlemen, Leonard Cohen.”


Here are some quick comments on other artists who are covered:


Gordon Lightfoot is given a slightly less than flattering appraisal as a person while praising his importance as a songwriter and singer.


I was surprised, and pleased, to see Anne Murray included, but then again, it was mostly because of her early association with Brian Aherne, who later produced and was married to Emmylou Harris. Her mention made me wish that the author had included even a paragraph or two on Prince Edward Island’s Gene McLellan who wrote some of her most important recordings.


Bruce Cockburn is briefly mentioned and mainly in connection with his manager, Bernie Finklestein, who in turn, should have been given more ink. Finklestein was the founder and guiding light of True North Records which did so much to solidify the Canadian identity in the music business. Once again, I think a full biography would not be amiss. Cockburn, meanwhile, has recently published an autobiography which is on my reading list for the near future.


The careers of David Wilcox (not to be confused with the “Eye of the Hurricane” guy) and David Wiffen are intertwined in the narrative of better known artists. Hopefully you’ll be interested enough to chase down obscure, at least in the US, recordings by both. They are worth your time.


Ian and Sylvia are given short shrift. Especially considering their impact in the US market. Little is made of their post duo, individual carriers. This is odd because simply from the point of view of good story telling, it would seem that Ian’s turn to Cowboy songs, citing Wilf Carter as a major influence, would have brought the narrative full circle nicely.


The Discography included at the end of the book is practically worth the price of admission alone. In addition to listening suggestions for all the artists even mentioned in the text, it includes selected discographies, and brief write-ups for other performers who while not important influences on the course of music in the US, were incredibly influential in their native Canada, like Stan Rogers and Stompin’ Tom Connors.


The bad news is that there is no paperback edition. You’re either going to have to spring for a hardback copy, or an E-Book. I went the electronic route and purchased it from Amazon. If you do the same, please visit WUMB.ORG first and click on the Amazon logo you’ll find there. That way a portion of the proceeds of your purchase will be donated to WUMB. Best of all, it doesn’t cost you anything extra…….


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