He’s sung about skating the square down by the Henry Moore, of the veteran who left his leg in France, and of the dusty old farmer out working the field.
Listening to Murray McLauchlan’s songbook today is not only a trip through this country’s history, but it speaks to the Canadian identity at a time when a lot of us are confused of what that actually means.
With the federal election on the horizon, it’s fitting that McLauchlan, who is in the same lexicon as Gordon Lightfoot, Stompin’ Tom Connors, and Buffy Saint-Marie, is returning to the stage.
About to embark on his first solo tour in quite some time, McLauchlan, 67, plans to mark his ballot early before he hits the road next week for the tour that takes him to smaller, intimate theatre venues across the county.
He arrives at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre three days after the election, Oct. 22, and is looking forward to having that face-to-face contact with his fellow Canadians again.
“I love playing in theatres. The cheap practical reason is because I have the ability to control the theatrics – the lights, sound, piano and the environment where I can do my absolute best for people who honour you by coming to the show,” he said. “A festival is a scramble – you’re not sure what you’re going to get. Principally, why I love the theatre is it’s a more intimate connection. You want people to come in and get a slightly different feeling.”
McLauchlan hasn’t toured since his last album, 2011’s Human Writes, although he’s kept busy recording and performing with the band Lunch at Allen’s, which he formed in 2004 with fellow musicians Cindy Church, Marc Jordan and Ian Thomas. He has also been writing a musical, which is currently under development.
“It’s been a while since I played at all, except for Lunch at Allen’s,” said McLauchlan. “I thought I better go out to play some music or what else am I going to do? I love playing guitar and making music but getting places to do that was becoming a challenge.”
Born in Scotland, McLauchlan immigrated to Canada with his family when he was just a child, and says he has embraced the cultural fabric that wraps this land, so present in his songs.
“I was a small child when we immigrated. I was five years old. As soon as I was old enough to do so, I became a Canadian citizen. It was a slam dunk for a British subject then to become a citizen.
“Like most Canadians, except our aboriginals, we all came from somewhere else, and I hope it continues. My best friend and best man at my wedding, his family came from Pakistan. He grew up playing hockey, eating hamburgers and going to movies, same as myself.”
Always akin to music and its message, McLauchlan started playing on small café stages in Toronto 50 years ago.
“I cut my teeth at the Village Corner Club on (Toronto’s) Avenue Road. When I started playing as a career, I was doing open sing nights at the Riverboat in Yorkville and at the Mariposa (Folk Festival).”
Those days are encapsulated on McLauchlan’s famed song Down by the Henry Moore, which references the famed sculpture, The Archer, by British sculptor Moore located in Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto’s City Hall.
Although the sculpture still exists, Toronto is a very different place than when McLauchlan wrote the song.
“They’ve swept the city clean and put up a condo,” he said. “I’ve seen three different areas that were once colonized by artists that have been taken over by developers – the Gerrard Village and Yorkville got wrecked, and now the King Street east area is being developed.
“Artists are a huge force for social change but are never recognized by governments,” he added.
One thing that has lasted is the place where McLauchlan made his first major appearance in 1966 – the Mariposa Folk Festival.
Founded in 1960 in the Ontario city of Orillia, Mariposa was passed from community to community before it settled on Toronto Island in the ‘70s and later at Ontario Place in the ‘90s. It returned to its Orillia origins in 2000 and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010. McLauchlan was invited to headline the event, which also paid tribute to one of Orillia’s most famed sons.
“The nicest Mariposa moment I had was when I was headlining at the festival and Gordon Lightfoot showed up. He’s a lovely guy and he’s had his brush with death and is a changed man. When I finished my show, there was supposed to be a group to go up and do a tribute to Gordon, so Gordon walks up to me and asks, ‘do you think it will all right if I go up and play a tune?’ …He hadn’t performed since his aneurism, and there was maybe 6,000 to 7,000 in the audience, and pardon the language, but they went fuckin’ nuts when he went up there.”
Selecting the songs from such a well of material for a two-hour show has had its challenges.
McLauchlan plans to perform songs people are familiar with – Whispering Rain, Farmer’s Song, Down by the Henry Moore, On the Boulevard, and will also play his material from Human Writes.
“It’s an album that people in Canada don’t know much about as we don’t have the same Americana radio format here,” said McLauchlan. “It was in the top 100 folk roots music charts in the U.S., was played all over Europe and on the ABC in Australia.
“Many folk artists in the Americana genre do what I do and play live and that’s how you keep your connection. Interestingly enough, I am still making music and people want to see and hear it.”
Even bands such as Georgia’s Widespread Panic – a modern-day cross between the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers – have added McLauchlan’s song Honky Red to their repertoire.
“The bass player in the band got the song from his father, a producer of Warren Zevon’s first tour,” said McLauchlan, adding he traded Honky Red to The Werewolves of London singer for Zevon’s song Carmelita when he was playing piano in the Everly Brothers.
There’s a line in Honky Red that references the Second World War:
“An’ I left my leg in France
All that remains is a ghostly pain
When the mornings get too damp.”
Although Zevon would never record that version, the line eventually would be changed to “left my leg in ‘Nam,” while Widespread Panic changed it to “left my leg in Iraq.”
“It’s a song that now references three wars,” said McLauchlan, adding he is tickled to death that anyone would sing his music.
“Blackie and the Rodeo Kings also did a great version of Down by the Henry Moore. I performed it with Tom Wilson and the guys at Massey Hall and Winspear Centre in Edmonton.”
Some of McLauchlan’s out-of-print catalogue on vinyl can now be heard as remastered digital releases put out by his label True North Records.
“Geoff Kulawick (president of True North) asked me what I would like to do about re-releasing my records…. I’ve made a bunch of records, most of them are probably ground up and on a highway somewhere. They needed cooking and to be remastered,” said McLauchlan. “I gave them the safety master for Swinging on a Star to re-release, and now they have everything and it’s available on streaming and download.”
Tickets for An Evening with Murray McLauchlan, Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m., are $46.75 at the Ticket Seller box office, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.