Julie Druker | Jan 23, 2013
Cloyne and District Historical Society members and guests were treated to an uncommon slice of history at this month’s regular meeting. Musical history, that is.
Joe Grant of Denbigh, who has dedicated much of his musical talents to both the preservation and creation of historical music, performed a number of traditional and original pieces that harkened back to the lumber camp days in the area. Grant, a former French teacher, gained notoriety in the group Tanglefoot, which he formed with two other teachers in the 1970s as a means of “turning Canadian history and folklore into musical entertainment”.
He explained that the name Tanglefoot came from a song about the Don Jail in Toronto, which includes the line “If you want to get into that palace so neat, drink Tanglefoot whiskey and get drunk on the street.”
Grant has long had a passion for the historical music of Canada and was influenced by his parents, who were both musicians, and also by his grandfather, who worked in lumber camps. It was due to an injury on the job that Grant’s grandfather ended up in the cook tent at a camp, where the French cook taught him to play the fiddle.
Joe Grant not only sings but also plays harmonica, guitar and fiddle and he began his presentation with an a capella song, an Iroquois lullaby. He said that though it is not a physical artifact that one can hold in their hands, it still qualifies as a musical artifact since it was made by man. Next he strapped on a fléchée, a woven waist sash commonly worn by French Voyageurs and sang a typical Voyageur song, which he explained was sung “as a way for the paddlers to keep time with each other”. He sang a number of lumber camp songs that described the very difficult work days and conditions there. One song in particular contained a chorus with one of Grant’s favorite lines: “Give the shanty boy whiskey, there's nothing goes wrong.”
Next he played a Hohner harmonica, a common instrument used after the 1850s, and he spoke of a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to the Hohner company saying that one of his (Abe's) greatest pleasures was sitting on his front porch playing his harmonica and smoking sweet hemp.
Joe Grant's grandfather told him how the harmonica would be used to play dance tunes at the camp and Grant demonstrated playing a double reed harmonica, which he learned to play from old timers in the Denbigh area who themselves either played in the lumber camps or learned from their relatives who worked and played them there. Grant played and sang a few of the more racy and comical songs from that time, one called “The Booty Boo”, which tells of a woman making the moves on a lumber jack and another called “Oh No, John No”, which tells of a wife whose husband banishes her to hell. But by the end of the song she comes back to him since she proves more of a hellion that even the inhabitants of that particular place could tolerate.
One member of the audience, Graydon MacCrimmon of Northbrook, joined Grant onstage playing both the harmonica and a very old concertina that had been in his wife's family for years. The two played three songs together, and another member of the audience was so moved that she got up on the floor to perform a step dance. Grant said following his performance that it is the authenticity, the spontaneity of the music that continues to inspire him. “I have always been interested in how things were done in the past. As society continues to evolve and change there is a lot that has been gained but I have always been more intrigued by what exactly it is that we have lost. One thing I think that we have lost is this huge knowledge of world history both in song and poetry.”
Though the group Tanglefoot has officially disbanded, Joe Grant continues to bring his own unique historical music to listeners in three other bands that he is currently playing with: The Pickled Chicken String Band, Highway 41 and Gopher Barocque.