Friday, January 31, 2014

Six Hit Songs From 1960s Yorkville


During this week in 1967, there were six songs with ties to the Yorkville music scene sitting in the Top 50 of the CHUM Chart. From the folk of Gordon Lightfoot to the psychedelic garage rock of The Ugly Ducklings to the summertime pop of The Mamas & The Papas. I wrote about them in my column for the Canadian Music Hall of Fame this week. And since I promised to start sharing links to my Toronto history-related writing over there, you can check it out and listen to the songs right here. I also talk a bit about the very start of Neil Young's career, which began during his time in Winnipeg: between going to high school in Pickering and playing the coffeehouses of Yorkville in a band with Rick "Super Freak" James.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger & Toronto

Peter Seeger at Camp Naivelt, 1955

Pete Seeger, one of the biggest legends in the history of folk music, died last night at the age of 94. So I thought I'd take a moment to write a brief post about a couple of his connections to our city.

Once upon a time, Pete Seeger used to visit Camp Naivelt in Brampton just outside Toronto. It first opened in 1925 as a camp for young socialist Jewish kids — nearly 100 years later, it's still dedicated to that very same purpose. During the upheavals of the 1950s and '60s, Naivelt was a strong supporter of the peace movement, along with labour rights and social justice. That helped to make it a magnet for folk musicians. Some of the biggest names in folk music came to play songs for the kids who spent their summers there. Meanwhile, the anti-Communist RCMP would hang out at the front gate, taking down license plate numbers.

Phil Ochs (who wrote the famous protest song "I Ain't Marching Anymore") came to play at Camp Naivelt. So did Paul Robeson (who sang the seminal version of "Ol' Man River" in Show Boat — before he was blacklisted and targeted by Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities). But the most famous visitor of all was Pete Seeger.

Seeger, who made a special effort to play at children's camps, was a frequent visitor to Naivelt. He stayed for days at time over a period that lasted all the way from the 1940s to the '80s. Even as recently as 2008, he said that he remembered Camp Naivelt fondly. "A wonderful place," he called it. By playing his songs there, he helped to inspire generations of Torontonian kids to become folk musicians. The children who went to Camp Naivelt have gone on to become some of the greatest Canadian musicians of all-time: they include people like Zal Yanovsky of The Lovin' Spoonful, Yorkville folk star Bonnie Dobson, The Travellers (who wrote the Canadian version of "This Land Is Your Land"), one of the founders of the Mariposa Folk Festival, even the guy who wrote "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" for Pat Benatar and Sharon Hampson from Sharon, Lois & Bram. She tells a story about watching Seeger sing a chain-gang song at Camp Naivelt while he chopped wood, swinging his axe as percussion. Seeger had an unfathomably deep impact on the history of music everywhere — but he had a particularly powerful influence on the history of music in Toronto.

And it wasn't his only connection to our city: Seeger's love of reading, his love of the outdoors and even his politics were inspired in part by another Torontonian: Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton had grown up exploring the wilderness of the Don Valley as a kid and went on to co-found the Boy Scouts and write children's books about animals. Seeger was given one of those books as a seven year-old boy; it sparked his passion. "I read every single book by nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton when I was a kid," he once said. More than 80 years after he was given that first book, he was still crediting Seton for the influence he had on him. Like, for instance, in this 2008 interview with Pitchfork. Or in this excerpt from an interview with David Kupfer:

"[Seton] boosted the idea of learning about the North American Indians. I learned that they shared everything that they had... There was no such thing as one person in the tribe going hungry and others having full bellies... That seemed to me to be a sensible way to live. Now today I know that anthropologists call that tribal communism. So I say that I was a Communist ever since I was age seven, when I first started reading about Seton."

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The photo of Pete Seeger comes from a Brampton Draft Heritage Report (PDF here) and is credited to Barbara Blaser.

Alex Ballingall has another story about Seeger's connection to Camp Naivelt here. You can watch the entire documentary episode of PBS' American Masters about Pete Seeger on YouTube here.

I wrote about the story of Zal Yanovksy and how he fell in love with Road To Avonlea's Aunt Hetty, Jackie Burroughs, while he was living in a dyer in a Yorkville laundromat here. I wrote about Ernest Thomspon Seton and his clash with American President Teddy Roosevelt here. Sir David Attenborough, the greatest of all nature documentary-filmmakers recently did a Reddit AMA in which he also credited Ernest Thompson Seton as one of his earliest influences.

Rest in peace, Mr. Seeger.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Lovelorn Soldier during the First World War



This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. More than 600,000 Canadians would serve during the most terrible conflict the world had ever seen — that was almost 10% of our total population back then. Nearly 70,000 of them would die. And Canadians formed just a small percentage of the total deaths: there were more than 9 million people killed around the world. It was, of course, an incredibly important and deeply tragic event for Toronto along with the rest of the planet.

It's likely that over the course of 2014, we'll see a massive effort by the Conservative government to glorify the war, arguing that it's the moment Canada became a real country, much as they did with the War of 1812. I'm planning on writing more about that in the days ahead — I was lucky enough to have attended the National History Forum in 2012, which dealt with the question of how to remember the war — but for now I wanted to post one of my favourite WWI-related images before we descend down that dubiously patriotic rabbit hole.

This photo was taken in 1916. I found it thanks to the Toronto Archives. A note with the photo says, "Tip top lady for soldiers, picture of girl on step."

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I've already written a few posts about Toronto and the First World War. You can learn about William Faulkner drunk in the cockpit of a biplane at U of T here. Or A.Y. Jackson and the Group of Seven on the Western Front here. Or the story behind the Torontonian who wrote "In Flanders Fields" here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Islands In Winter

The Toronto Islands are, of course, one of our city's most popular attractions. But not so much during the winter, when the cold and snow and ice and lack of ferry service tend to keep most people away. So, as the polar vortex loosened its grip last week, a friend and I decided to head out across the harbour for the first time in the winter. It was a pretty remarkable experience. In the fresh snow and ice, the Islands were absolutely gorgeous. And while the ferry folk did warn us that the boat might get stuck in the ice — the Ward's Island ferry is the only one in service during the off-season — we didn't run into any trouble. We even got a private tour of the barn at Far Enough Farm (next to the deserted Centreville) and had a close encounter with some remarkably friendly mallards. I've uploaded a gallery of my photos from our excursion, along with a few archival pics, to Facebook, which you can check out here (whether you have a Facebook account or not):

FULL GALLERY

I've also got a little video of those ducks, which you can watch here. And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram at @todreamsproject.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Me & The Canadian Music Hall of Fame

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you probably already know about this, but I figured I should post something about it here, too: a few months ago, I starting a weekly column for the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. It's a "This Week in Canadian Music History" series, which means I get to write a bit about the history of music in Toronto — as well as the history of music in the rest of the country. So far I've posted about everything from Canada's first gun-running opera composer to the birth of the Horseshoe Tavern (it started out as a blacksmith's shop in the 1860s) to a vaudeville troupe performing on the front lines of the First World War.

For last week's Hall of Fame column, I wrote about "The First Lady of Canadian Song": Gisèle MacKenzie. She studied at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and had her own show on the CBC in the 1940s before heading south to become a star on American television. She's even got her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You can check out my post about her here. And watch a great little comedy bit she used to do with Jack Benny here.

To keep an eye on my column — as well as James Sandham's more eclectic and contemporary contributions — you can follow the Canadian Music Hall of Fame blog here. And I'll try to post links to some of the more Toronto-related on this blog whenever I remember to actually do that.

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I've actually been writing about music for a lot longer than I've been writing about the history of Toronto: as the old Editor-in-Chief of SoundProof Magazine and a contributor to PopMatters, Crawdaddy!, 24 Hours, AUX and a few other places. I'm lucky enough to be on the jury for the Polaris Music Prize. And I still write about my favourite Toronto bands on regular basis over at The Little Red Umbrella.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Elizabeth Simcoe's 1794 Nightmare — The Story Behind One of Toronto's First Recorded Dreams

Toronto was founded in a troubled time. It was the summer of 1793 when the first British soldiers showed up to clear the forest and make way for our brand new town. Just ten years earlier, some of those same men had been fighting in the American Revolution. Their commander, John Graves Simcoe, was a hero of that bloody war; no stranger to danger and death. In fact, he seems lucky to have survived the Revolution at all. He was wounded three times — once very seriously. At one point, he was captured and spent six months in an American prison. But by the end of the Revolution, he had earned a reputation as one of the bright and rising stars of the British military. He did so well that when the British created a brand new province in what's now southern Ontario — a home for Loyalists driven out of the United States by the rebels — they chose Simcoe to run it: the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.

The Revolution was over, but there was still plenty of anger on both sides. Another war with the Americans seemed inevitable. Imminent, even. As Lieutenant Governor, Simcoe spent much of his time preparing for it. One of the first things he did was to move the capital of Upper Canada (originally at Niagara) away from the American border where it was vulnerable to attack. He sent a hundred of his men to a spot in the woods on the northern shore of Lake Ontario — a place called Toronto — to build a new capital: York. It had a natural harbour which would be easy to defend. And the very first thing his men did when they got here was to start building a military base: Fort York. Soon, they'd carve new highways through the ancient forests — roads like Dundas and Yonge — so that Simcoe's army would be able to move quickly through the province in response to any American invasion.

About a week after those first soldiers arrived in Toronto that July, Simcoe joined them in person. He brought his family with him: his wife Elizabeth, some of their children, a house cat and a pet dog. At first, they lived in a fancy tent on the beach at the mouth of Garrison Creek, near where the soldiers were building Fort York.

While Simcoe set to work planning his new capital, Elizabeth was charged with the task of bringing aristocratic British culture to this remote outpost tucked between the primordial Canadian forest and the vast waters of Lake Ontario. As the fledgling town began to take shape and the families of other government officials arrived, Elizabeth Simcoe was at the centre of social life in the new settlement. She paid visits to the other families, entertained, held dances and dos. Meanwhile, she painted watercolours and kept a detailed diary, providing an invaluable historical record of Toronto's earliest days.

But it was also a worrying time. The Simcoes were among King George's highest ranking representatives on the entire continent — living in a tent on the very edge of the Empire just across the lake from a powerful new nation that loathed the monarchy and might declare war at any time. The sails of American warships could appear above the horizon at any moment, without warning, there to seize the new capital — and the Simcoes with it.

And it wasn't just the Americans. The Revolution in the United States had inspired an even bloodier uprising in France. The French Revolution was in full swing during the summer Toronto was founded. The Reign of Terror began that same fall. While the Simcoes were bringing aristocracy to their tent on the beach in Toronto, aristocrats in Paris were losing their heads to the guillotine. A few months earlier, the new French Republic had officially declared war on the British Empire.

During their time in Toronto, the Simcoes received a slow trickle of news from France. In August, they were visited by a pair of French aristocrats who hoped to settle in Upper Canada. The men told a morbid anecdote about King Louis XVI's famously botched attempt to escape his captors. In fact, just a few months before the Simcoes arrived in Toronto, the French king had been executed. A few months after they arrived, Marie Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine.

The news of her death took several months to travel across the Atlantic and up the St. Lawrence to Toronto. It was on the first day of March in 1794 that the first lady of Upper Canada learned of the fate of the first lady of France. Elizabeth Simcoe recorded the event in her diary: "The News received of the death of the Queen of France." Despite the British war with the French, the rulers of Upper Canada marked the occasion with solemn respect. "Orders given out for Mourning in which everybody appeared this Evening & the dance was postponed."

Pages from Simcoe's diary
Just four days later, Elizabeth Simcoe wrote another diary entry about her growing fears. "There have been apprehensions that the french Republicans at New York would attack Lower Canada [Québec] from Albany this winter, but a mutiny on board some of their Ships carried them to France. If the Americans were to attack this Province I should go to Quebec [City]."

All of this helps to explain the nightmare Elizabeth Simcoe recorded in her diary the following week. It was, of course, far from the first dream in the history of Toronto. People have been having nightmares in this place for twelve thousand years, stretching back to a time long before the founding of our city: to the First Nations and their ancestors, and more recently to the first French explorers and missionaries. As far as I know, there may even have been dreams recorded in those few months between the first arrival of Simcoe's soldiers and his wife's nightmare; you'd have to check all the diaries and all the letters of all the soldiers and all the settlers and all the others who passed through town in order to be sure. But this brief mention in Elizabeth Simcoe's diary is, at the very least, among the very first recorded dreams in the history of our city:

"I dreamt some time since that the Gov. [Simcoe], Mr. Talbot [Simcoe's personal secretary] & I were passing a wood, possessed by an Enemy who fired ball at us as fast as possible. I was so frightened, that I have never since liked to hear a musquet fired & I am quite nervous when I hear of the probability of this Country being attacked."

It's just a brief mention, and it's unclear on exactly which night she had the dream, but those few lines give a remarkable insight into the emotional life of our city's earliest days. It's a reminder that Toronto didn't start out as a completely safe haven. It was born at a time of war and upheaval on a dangerous frontier thousands of kilometers away from the heart of the British Empire. It was a beautiful and serene place, but for those first few inexperienced settlers, it was also remote and frightening. The fear was so strong that it haunted even the dreams of the most powerful woman in the province.

The Simcoes only spent two more years in Canada before the Lieutenant Governor fell ill and the family was forced to return home to England. But the spectre of war continued to haunt them for the rest of their trip. The situation with the Americans was deteriorating. Simcoe was convinced that war was about to break out; he was already hard at work trying to secure First Nations allies. That winter, the Simcoes decided it was too dangerous for the family to remain at York. The Lieutenant Governor headed to a British military fort on the border at Detroit, while Elizabeth Simcoe took the children to the relative safety of Québec City.

A peace treaty did finally manage to avert an immediate war with the Americans, but the British were still at war with the French. It was in 1796 that the Simcoes finally sailed down the St. Lawrence toward the ocean and home. But when they reached the mouth of the St. Lawrence, French warships were waiting for them. They were chased out into the Atlantic. The French seized some other English vessels sailing nearby. Guns were heard in the distance as they dodged icebergs off the coast of Labrador.

Elizabeth Simcoe and the children hid themselves in the cramped quarters below deck. They were stuck there for days on end. She wrote in her diary that she was "in perfect misery every moment expecting to hear the Guns fire, as I had no Idea what it was to be so frightened. Some refreshment was sent me but I could not eat... I played at Backgammon & Cards which tranquilizes my mind but it will be a great while before I recover my fight."

It took weeks to sail across the open ocean before the Simcoes finally reached the safety of home.

Elizabeth Simcoe never did get fired upon from the cover of a Canadian forest. But her nightmare did prove to be at least a bit prophetic. Twenty years after the Simcoes founded Toronto, the Americans did invade Upper Canada. The capital was attacked and occupied by American soldiers during the War of 1812. They looted homes and burned public buildings, including the very same Parliament Buildings commissioned by John Graves Simcoe. Muskets were fired from the cover of the forest. Many other women and their families had to face the same terror that had disturbed Elizabeth Simcoe's sleep all those years before. Today, two hundred years later, Toronto is one of the most peaceful cities in the world — a place for people to escape those kinds of nightmares — but in our early days, the fear of invasion must have inspired countless bad dreams.

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You can read about John Graves Simcoe's vision for Toronto — a city so awesome it would undo the American Revolution — here. You can read about Toronto's first house cat here. Or about how the turmoil caused by the French Revolution indirectly led to the creation of one of our city's most beautiful walking trails here. I've also got a little about one of Elizabeth Simcoe's paitings, from when Toronto was ten days old, here.

The top image is a portrait of Elizabeth Simcoe and one of her paintings of the Don Valley. That painting and the image of her diary are both via the Archives of Ontario.

You can read Elizabeth Simcoe's diary online here. You can borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here. Or buy it from Amazon here.

The always excellent Dictionary of Canadian Biography has a full bio for Elizabeth Simcoe here. And John Graves Simcoe here. Google Book has excerpts from another Elizabeth Simcoe biography, by Mary Beacock Fryer, here. You can read Bathsheba Susannah Wesley's fascinating Master's thesis about her habit of setting small fires during her time in Canada here [PDF]. You can learn more about the soldiers who built Toronto, the Queen's Rangers, here. And learn more about the fancy tent in which the Simcoes lived here (it used to belong to the legendary explorer James Cook).

Sadly, war wasn't the only thing the Simcoes had to fear. While they were living in Toronto, their infant daugther Katherine died of malaria or a similar disease. She was buried somewhere in the old cemetery that is now Victoria Square, a couple of blocks south-east of King & Bathurst.



A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead

Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now
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01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793