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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Tuesday, 04 August 2009 00:00|
In the 1970s, Canadian folklorist Staunton R. Livingston recorded Canadian football players performing both original and traditional songs about life on and off the football field. The tapes collected dust in the Library and Archives of Canada for almost two decades until they were discovered by resident folklorist Henry Adam Svec in the summer of 2008.
With the help of ethnomusicologist and composer WL Altman, Svec has transposed the rough, deteriorating recordings into lush and contemporary orchestrations on his recently released album, The CFL Sessions - available for free download on the project's website.
It is a fascinating story, and it becomes even more fascinating when The CFL Sessions is revealed to be a hoax. Folk musician and mastermind behind the project Henry Adam Svec chatted with (Cult)ure about music, hoaxes, and, of course, Canadian football.
What are the origins of The CFL Sesions?
I was doing a project called The Boy From E.T., and I liked the idea of playing a character on stage, so I tried to think of another way to keep doing it. The whole confessional singer/songwriter thing is great, but I thought it would be fun to play a character during the banter, and liberating to write songs from different points of view.
In a nation obsessed with hockey, what is it that interests you about the CFL?
I played football myself, so I've always loved the game. In a way, in relation to hockey, the CFL is more "indie." Not that hockey is all about celebrity, but, at least in comparison to the NFL, the CFL is more about the game itself, and less about fame or money. The fans love the game more than they love any one player, it seems. I wrote The CFL Sessions in a library. I didn't really do research, but I was kind of poking around and I learned that, when the league started up, the players were paid extremely small amounts of money, and a lot of them worked on the side. To call it a 'professional sport' was a bit of a stretch, at least back then.
There is a real melancholy to the album. It could have been called The CFL Blues. Was that always the intention?
It was more something I discovered along the way. Some of the songs had been written before I had the "CFL Sessions" idea. Part of the fun, and it was similar with The Boy From E.T., was fitting all of the songs into the larger context. It's been a happy accident that they have a similar tone. The one thing that keeps them all connected is the game itself. The athletes are artists, in a sense. A songwriter may not be able to function in the real world and might just feel comfortable writing songs. Similarly, these football players can't love, they can't have relationships, but they are good at their craft. I guess that's the through line.
Why present the project as a hoax and not just a concept album?
I have abandoned the hoax, in a way, by claiming it as a work of my own, but at the beginning I was curious about writing something and then anonymously sharing it with people. It wasn't entirely anonymous because I was playing the folklorist who found the songs. I wasn't hiding myself completely, but it was an interesting test, to play these songs in front of people and to have them come up to me afterwards and say, "I really love these songs, I can't believe you found them." They really thought it was all genuine, which I wasn't expecting. But that happened with The Boy from E.T. as well.
Were you worried that listeners were going to feel betrayed when they discovered the truth?
I'm aware that's how some people have responded. I was playing a show once where it was almost divided pretty evenly, half the people knew and half seemed to think it was sincere, and a friend asked me if I thought I was alienating the half that didn't know. But it's almost like they were experiencing it in the best way because they were accepting the world I was trying to build, whereas the others were too cynical. Part of the charm is that the songs could have been written by athletes. Who knows if CFL players were writing songs or not in the '70s and what they would have sounded like?
What role did some of the other musicians play on the album?CFL fans . . . can get really self righteous. It becomes a symbol of how good Canada is.
WL Altman is the other half of this. He's been in other bands with me, and, other than me on guitar and vocals, he plays most of the instruments on the album. In a way, WL added authenticity to the project because he really is a composer, and he did teach at Mount Allison, as it says on the website. And I wanted a woman to sing "Madonna with No Divinity," so I got Laura Barrett on there as well. Andy Magoffin, from Two Minute Miracles, is also on the album. Andy runs a studio, House of Miracles. I asked him to play the drum solo on "Life is Like Canadian Football." I played the rest of the drums on the album, but I'm not good enough to do solos.
The website notes that the Livingston character's commitment to the idea of folk led him to cast aside conventional notions of authorship. Is that a reflection of your own beliefs?
It's a bit of a joke because the Livingston character is so extreme, but he's perhaps a caricature of how I really feel about art. I love the idea in folk music that a song or a work should belong to the community rather than to any one person. Livingston is a fanatic, and I don't think I'm as strong as he is. I thought it would be part of the hoax to claim that he never published anything because then when people started to look for him they wouldn't find anything. That's why I say that he only shared his work orally. Anyways, I'm Livingston in a way, but I'm not as strong as he is because here I am claiming that this is a work I made myself!
You are coming from the folk tradition of stealing songs and altering traditionals. Is that why the AC/DC lyrics suddenly appear in "Linebacker Passing Through"?
In the banter I say how another folklorist would have trashed that song because it has an obvious pop cultural influence but that I kept it because, from my character's point of view, pop culture is also part of folk music. To be honest, that's an inconsistency in the whole story because "You Shook Me All Night Long" wasn't written until the 1980s. It' a moment where the logic of the world crumbles, but no one has called me on it!
Would you agree there is something going on here in terms of explorations of masculinity?
A few of the characters are working hard at being what they think is masculine. And a lot of the songs are about the poetics of violence, which isn't to say that violence is actually masculine. But the characters seem to see it that way -- a couple songs even talk about semen! So much of rock music celebrates hedonism and excess. I thought it would be funny to write songs celebrating discipline, self-sacrifice, and that sort of thing -- virtues that some of the characters see as masculine, somehow. The song "Madonna with No Divinity" pulls that thread apart, though, because it's about how all their strength actually comes from the team trainer. She scores the touchdowns. My friend Jeseka Hickey wrote the lyrics for that one.
The first song sets the tone, in terms of humour. Did you want to establish early on that this shouldn't be taken too seriously?
In a way, those are the lyrics that seem the most absurd for a football player to have written. To start with it is to test the audience. From that point on, the audience is either sitting on one side of the fence or the other, in relation to its hoaxiness. I really have to do it straight-faced. But yeah, I see it as a cue that the whole thing's a joke.A lot of the songs are about the poetics of violence.
The cover, "CFL Seasons in the Sun," is an interesting demonstration of the way you can alter the meaning of something just by adding the "CFL" to the beginning.
Yes! I wouldn't know how to get permission to record a song like that -- that's another reason that I altered the name. I didn't register it with SOCAN or anything. WL and I used to be in this band, Peter Mansbridge and the CBCs, and we used to cover that song back then. It's just another funny, "Why would a CFL player cover that song?" moment.
In regards to "On Getting Cut by the Argos," was it important to have a Toronto song on the album?
That song is about my own experiences trying to live in that city. It came from a place of being broke in Toronto. I almost wish that we could have put in more signposts for different places and references to particular teams. I think that is what people want when they first hear the idea. "Where's the Roughrider song?", you know? But really, that song could have been about any city where there is a CFL team.
For the majority of album, most obviously on "Life is like Canadian Football," the sport serves as a metaphor for life . . .
Yeah. Playing sports all through high school and in university, I always had to laugh. I don't think any competitive sport works as a very healthy metaphor for life, but that's the first thing a coach will tell a team: "You know guys, football is like life." The song is a play on that. If you grow up having coaches tell you life is like the sport you are playing, even if it isn't, you'll start to see and experience life through the rules of the game.
Does the idea of approaching the shows as performance art come from your theatre background?It's a stage we sing on. Why not take advantage of that & do something interesting?
I think so. I'm not a trained theatre actor, but I did some plays at Mount Allison University. I love the whole confessional songwriter tradition. It can be interesting. When it's done well, we really feel like we are drawn into the singer's life. When it's done badly, though, it's obnoxious. It is a stage we sing on. Why not take advantage of that and do something interesting?
Did you have concepts regarding Canadian culture in mind while developing the songs?
I wouldn't say that I did while I was writing them, but definitely when I'm sending the project out to the press I am aware of the Can-Con fetish. CFL fans -- and I'm one of them -- can get really self-righteous. It becomes a symbol of how good Canada is: three downs are better than four, the ball is bigger, therefore we live in a more authentic society! I don't disagree exactly, but I'm trying to manipulate that sentiment, I suppose. I think that's partly why people are interested in the project. At least, there aren't any albums out there about the CFL.
There is now!
Yeah, there is now.
Henry Adam Svec is on tour with The CFL Sessions in Ontario throughout August. He plays at the Raw Sugar Cafe in Ottawa Aug. 12.