Folk music, like home cooking and regional accents, is one of those cultural traditions that has a way of taking on the flavor of where its makers settled.
In North America, our traditional music is a derivative of the Scottish and Irish fiddle folk tunes that immigrants brought with them hundreds of years ago. But as these populations settled on this side of the Atlantic, how that music grew and morphed as songs were handed down to successive generations depended largely upon where the players settled.
For that reason, though the language of North American traditional music shares the same cultural identity, what we hear as audience members depends on whether we’re listening to music from the Canadian maritime provinces or the hills of Tennessee.
Alastair Whitehead, bass player for the Slocan Ramblers, understands both traditions. On Saturday, this Canadian bluegrass band based in Toronto will perform two shows at Sylvester Manor, bringing a unique take on the genre with original tunes as well as roots music inspired largely by good old Appalachian hill music.
“The folk music’s different even in Canada whether it’s from the east, west, or central,” he said. “The music we play is more Appalachian — from West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Up here, people think of folk music as Ottawa Valley fiddle music, which is a very different genre and tradition, as are the dances that go with it.
“If you really went way back, it’s all the same stuff, but it took a different journey on the way,” he said.
As a native of Newfoundland, Mr. Whitehead’s love for and knowledge of traditional music, especially that which references the maritime tradition, runs deep and he notes that making it is a popular pastime on the remote island.
“It’s a lonely island. There is not a whole lot to do other than playing music,” Mr. Whitehead said. “It’s not necessarily professional. There are a lot of kitchen parties where people get together and there’s a rich tradition of music that is passed on to younger generations.”
Though Mr. Whitehead described his grandfather as a semi-professional classical pianist, he said his father was more of an “at home guitar-picker” with a keen interest in folk music. Mr. Whitehead’s sister and brother played music as well.
“Growing up, I played a lot of music with my dad. He’d get out the old songbooks and jam with me and my brother,” he said. “But I think my dad was not too keen on performing.”
Mr. Whitehead, on the other hand, found his calling in music. He started out as a youngster in a Suzuki violin program and even played the trumpet for a while. Then, in junior high school he discovered the electric bass, which led to the stand-up bass, his instrument of choice these days. Despite the lively music scene to be found on Newfoundland, at some point, Mr. Whitehead notes that aspiring musicians need to leave if they plan to make a career of it.
“That’s the unfortunate thing,” he said. “A lot of people in Newfoundland struggle with it. The scene is so vibrant and the support is so good, there are wonderful people creating word class music, but it’s a very small community and hard to make a living with music full time.
“It’s an island, so even if you want to tour, it’s a feat within itself to get off it,” he said. “A lot of people end up moving to the mainland.”