Using folklore as his playground

There are times when Henry Adam Svec is, well, someone else.

It’s not that the Western PhD student (media studies) is trying to pull the wool over your eyes or, in this case, alter your musical senses; it’s more a question of folk music and what it means to be folk artist.

With a strong interest in folklore, Svec set out to explore the world of folk music – its history, beliefs, traditions and customs – which took him across the country to collect and produce an album, Folk Songs of Canada Now.

“Part of this folk songs project came out of a project I had been doing where I was playing with banter as a theatrical medium,” Svec says. “I’m interested in folklore. Part of my dissertation is exploring song-collecting, but I don’t know about the songs themselves.”

The 22 songs Svec recreated for this project will be known to those familiar with the work of Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke. In fact, they’re the same ones she gathered and recorded in the 1950s. This time around, however, Svec collaborated with the likes of Laura Barrett, Andrew Penner, Wax Mannequin and others, having them interpret traditional songs any way they liked, with new words and music.

It’s not the first time Svec has unleashed his folk-filled imagination.

Following the end of his first band – Peter Mansbridge and the CBCs – he expressed his creativity with the release of an album entitled, The Boy from E. T., in which he pretended to be actor Henry Thomas, if he were a songwriter.

“That was the first hoax, I guess you could say. With that one, people often believed I was actually Henry Thomas,” Svec says. “What was interesting at the time was I was singing honest songs, from his point of view, that really were not honest at all. The joke for that was what if that guy was a songwriter, what would he write about?”

Add to this another of his projects, The CFL Sessions, where he claimed to have found songs written by former CFL players, and you’ll see find the joy Svec sees in the ‘miscommunication’ between artist and audience.

“With folklore, even when people believe that it is real – which often happened with the CFL stuff – I’m still once removed from the song because I’m not claiming I wrote the song, I’m claiming that I found them. My folklorist character often doesn’t really understand the songs that he’s presenting but nonetheless they somehow make it to the audience.”

With Folk Songs of Canada Now, the sounds of rivers, babies cooing and, yes, sneezing become part of authentic sounds captured in this Svec’s latest project.

“When I do it live it’s a caricature of this folklorist; I’m playing a character,” he says. “I claim to be a performance artist who has found folklore and he’s doing his best, but he doesn’t really know the original songs he plays.

“All my favourite songwriters are storytellers and not necessarily confessional songs. There a real tradition in singer-songwriter culture to believe that it is a sincere effort. It’s so limited in as far as what stories you can tell. So having some kind of narrative device to write about anything, anything can be a folk song. It was kind of liberating to be playing someone who is not writing songs, but finding them.”

Listen up. Download the album, Folk Songs of Canada Now, at folksongsofcanadanow.com.