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The Al Purdy Songbook celebrates the work of an iconic Canadian poet. Along with its sister project, the film “Al Purdy Was Here,” it was inspired by campaign to save and restore Purdy’s A-Frame home as a writing retreat for a new generation of artists.
The Music and the Artists
by Songbook Producer Brian D. Johnson
Jason Collett, who’s been combining literary and musical talent for years in Jason Collett’s Basement Revue, agreed to co-produce the Songbook without a moment’s hesitation. He also came up with a soulful track called Sensitive Man, named after an ironic boast from Purdy’s iconic tale of a barroom fight, At the Quinte Hotel. Featuring The Band’s Garth Hudson on organ and accordion, Jason’s vocal captures Al’s yearning spirit in a droll yet vulnerable portrait of an artist who was « born a middle aged man with belly and ballpoint pen” who “built a frame to fill with mythology/late night brawls and epiphanies/a northern nobility that we couldn’t quite conceive/where a country could imagine itself. »
Bruce Cockburn was one of several contributors already deeply familiar with Purdy, and he embraced the challenge as if it were something he’d been itching to do for years. In 3 Al Purdys, a rousing six-minute epic, Bruce lets Purdy’s words come tumbling through the verses as if poured from a pitcher of draft. A generous portion of his lyrics come straight from Transient, Al’s 1967 poem about hopping boxcars on the way to Vancouver as a teenager. The song’s refrain—I’ll give you 3 Al Purdys for a twenty-dollar bill—was inspired by Bruce’s distant memory of a poet selling books on a Toronto street corner. That’s not something Purdy was ever known to have done, but it evokes the scrappy persona of a poet who could connect with the street. Bruce is the only Songbook artist who tried to capture Al’s persona in his voice, adopting a gruff swagger quite unlike anything we’ve heard from him before. This was the first song Bruce had written in two-and-a-half years, ever since becoming a father, and it kindled a new burst of songwriting that led to his 33rd album, Bone on Bone and 13th Juno Award.
Doug Paisley was a teenager when he met Purdy at a poetry reading at the Red Dog Tavern in Peterborough, Ontario. He had him autograph a pack of rolling papers, and became a lifelong fan, amassing a personal collection of rare editions. Doug’s song, Transient, takes its title from the same poem that Bruce Cockburn draws on, and channels Purdy’s experience riding the rails. But it’s a more intimate ballad, capturing the romantic side of a young man who has his eye on the horizon while his heart pulls him home. Doug recorded the song twice, first for the cameras, as he sang it solo with his guitar in his living room, then in the studio with a band. In the film, we merged the two versions to forge a soundtrack for Al’s early years.
Felicity Williams, like Doug, encountered Purdy at a pivotal moment in her teens. Years before we approached her, she had already written and performed a suite of songs adapted from Al’s poems. It was her idea to record in the A-frame. She arrived with a back-up vocalist and a jazz trio. A vibraphone player laid out the wooden slats of his instrument under the A-frame rafters, which once had once covered the floor of a school gymnasium. Felicity recorded two songs that day, both adaptations of single poems « The Country North of Belleville » and — »Woman. » The latter session was featured in the film, and the « Woman » session can be found in the DVD’s special features.
Sarah Harmer recorded « Just Get Here » in the living room of her country home north of Kingston, as cameras captured the moment for the documentary. It was the first time she’d really performed it for anyone. There was just her, accompanying herself on piano, still getting the hang of the arrangement, and the tension was palpable. Although Sarah didn’t know Purdy, she knew his neck of the woods, and some of the writers who frequented the A-frame. Drawing on various Purdy poems, her song celebrates the casual romance of a hearth off the beaten track that would draw artists to its door. « That felt familiar for me, » she says, having lived in a house « that put up tons bands that came through—I know that feeling of a place where
people come and go and music and art is cultivated. » Sarah’s song, which became the serene centrepiece of Al Purdy Was Here, is about the « here. »
Greg Keelor, another Ontario troubadour with a rural home, takes a departure from the country rock sound of Blue Rodeo with Unprovable. It’s the one flat-out rocker among the original tracks commissioned for the Songbook. Curiously, out of Purdy’s entire oeuvre, both Greg and Felicity Williams alit on « Woman, » a delicate 11-line poem from his 1994 collection, Naked With Summer in Your Mouth. But Keelor’s sun-blasted anthem could not be more different from Felicity’s ethereal jazz number (a video of which can be found on the DVD special features).
Snowblink, aka Daniela Gesundheit and Dan Goldman, came to the Songbook as a singer-songwriting duo discovering Al Purdy for the first time. After sifting through the 591 pages of Purdy’s collected poetry, they plucked some sparse lines from Al’s poem Arctic Chrysanthemums to compose the haunting rhapsody of Outdoor Hotel. It unfolds with a childlike aura of pure revelation. In the film, the song plays under a scene in which Eurithe Purdy visits the A-frame to meet a young poet couple that has moved in with their baby. The melody, as innocent as a lullaby in that context, takes on eerie overtones when it’s stripped of its vocals, and used to underscore Margaret Atwood’s ominous reading of Purdy’s Wilderness Gothic.
Margaret Atwood found time between being a prolific author, an ambassador for the Handmaid’s Tale, and an unflagging activist, to serve as one of the A-Frame campaign’s most dedicated supporters. In Toronto’s Pilot Tavern, she reminisced about her old friend Al for the film then shot some pool. Later, in the book-lined basement office of her home, she recorded a reading of Wilderness Gothic. After the first take, which was flawless, I asked if she would do a second take just to see where it might go. She agreed, only after telling is us it would be no different. She was right. She’s always right. We used the first take.
Dave Bidini was turning Purdy’s poetry into music long before the Songbook was conceived. Among singer-songwriters, he may have been the first responder. As much author as musician, he became familiar with Purdy when he was working with McLelland & Stewart, Al’s publisher at the time. « His books were always around, » Dave recalls. « I couldn’t believe that Naked With Summer in Your Mouth wasn’t written by an 18-year-old. » (Purdy wrote it at 74). Dave slipped a sample of Al reading the last three lines of « Wilderness Gothic » into « Me and Stupid, » a track on the Rheostatics 1994 album, Introducing Happiness. And he recorded Say the Names with the angelic Billie Hollies, for his 2014 Bidiniband album, The Motherland. Opening with Purdy reading some lines from Necropsy of Love, it drifts into a choral incantation of him hailing Indigenous place names versus their colonial substitutes. Published a year before his death, « Say the Names » was one of Purdy’s last poems. Before « Voice of the Land » would be engraved on his tombstone, he reminds us that the real Voice of the Land belongs to Native Peoples, and flows directly from Nature— »you dreamed you were a river/and you were a river. »
Gord Downie, like Bidini, fell under Al’s influence early in the game. Next to Leonard Cohen, it’s hard to think of a major Canadian artist who moved so promiscuously between poetry and songwriting. In 2002 he starred in a short film dramatizing At The Quinte Hotel, Purdy’s bittersweet yarn about a moment of truth in a tavern brawl. He Songbook offers his live performance of it at The Purdy Show. Before his death, Downie also offered up « The East Wind, » a Purdy-influenced song he’d recorded with the Country of Miracles for their 2010 album The Grand Bounce—with a couple of lines from, once again, « Necropsy of Love. »
Neil Young was approached to write a Songbook number. For inspiration, we sent him Al’s « My ’48 Pontiac, » a noir chronicle from the viewpoint of a car in a junkyard. Neil liked the poem, and the project. He never got around to writing a
song, but graciously donated his 1971 Massey Hall performance of Journey Through the Past to the film’s soundtrack.
Leonard Cohen met Purdy in Montreal in the 1960s. They were never close, and as poets they were from different planets. But they shared a friend in poet Irving Layton, and Cohen’s enduring respect for Purdy was clear when he stepped up as one of the first luminaries to make a substantial donation to the A-frame campaign. I thought of asking him to read « Necropsy of Love, » for the film, but it seemed too obvious. This spare poem about love and death, which Al wrote in his early 40s, reads so much like a Leonard Cohen poem to begin with. So I sent him « The Country North of Belleville », hoping to create a canonical moment for Canadian literature. He declined, saying he would need help pronouncing all those Scottish names, and besides, he didn’t understand the poem. I finally sent him « Necropsy of Love, » and Leonard wrote back, « I’ll give it a shot. » Indeed. In early October 2014, while recording his final album, You Want It Darker, Leonard found a moment to make Al’s words his own with heartbreaking and gravity and grace.
Casey Johnson composed and produced the original score for Al Purdy Was Here. With performances by songwriters occupying so much of the movie’s musical real estate, the score had to play a constrained and specific role. Casey’s method was right in tune with Purdy’s desire for authenticity: he recorded the entire score in his home studio using vintage analog equipment. The Songbook’s final track, « Cowboy, » was created for a sequence early in the film that establishes Al’s character as a laconic outsider striding into the quiet saloon of CanLit and creating a stir. Sailing over the track is David Chan’s sublimely lazy, cantina-like trumpet. David prefers to play outdoors, so Casey set up a microphone on the sidewalk and wired him into the studio.
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