Singing for Change

Gil Levine speaking at “For Pete’s Sake” held at the National Library on May 3, 2009, to mark Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday.   Photo: Courtesy of T. Levine

By Tamara Levine

Folk music fed my dad’s soul. He would have heard his mother and maybe his grandmother singing Yiddish songs and lullabies when he was young, songs like “Tumbalalaika” and “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen.” I imagine them singing while they were sewing, cooking or hanging out the laundry in their flat above the store on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. My dad listened to popular songs of the day on the radio and later to Big Band; he adored Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie and the others. But it was his discovery of folk music that made his heart sing.

My dad wasn’t musically talented. He had a hard time carrying a tune. He tried the mandolin orchestra at the Peretz shule when he was a kid, but it didn’t go far. He was in his early 20s when he figured out that you could participate in music without having to perform. Collective singing fit well with my dad’s burgeoning political activism during the post-war years when Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were writing and collecting songs about ordinary working folks. There were spirituals, traditional songs and new songs that made you want to sing along. They had catchy tunes and choruses. They were often songs with a message about social justice, like “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer.” My dad belted out the songs with gusto as a camp counsellor, at hootenannies and on the picket line. It wasn’t about needing a beautiful voice; it was about how singing together could stir people to feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves and to believe that together they could change the world.

There was always music in our house as far back as I can remember. We’d listen to the Weavers singing “Goodnight Irene” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” My mom and I would sit together on the couch poring over The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, singing “Oh Susanna,” “Swanee River,” “Red River Valley.” My dad taught us his favourite union songs: “Solidarity Forever,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Union Maid.” One of my favourite records was Little Songs on Big Subjects for kids. Sometimes my dad would take me downtown to Sam the Record Man where we could sit in a booth and listen to a record on headphones to decide if we wanted to buy it. We went camping with a bag of songbooks for the road.

When my dad got a job in the union and we moved to Ottawa in 1957, he joined a folk music club. It was a time of McCarthyism and virulent anti-communism in the U.S. when Pete Seeger and thousands of other musicians, artists, Hollywood actors and directors and ordinary people were blacklisted and unable to get work. But Pete could work in Canada. My dad and a couple of his new folkie friends decided to bring Pete to Ottawa.

They put up $25 each to rent the hall, which “nearly broke the bank” my mom told me later. I was seven years old. I had loved Pete my whole life but had only ever heard him on records. Now I’d get to see him “live” at a concert my dad was helping to organize. My dad had a special job for me at the concert. Ever the organizer, my dad and the others would collect the names and addresses of the people in the audience as they were arriving “for future reference.” Right after intermission, I would go up on the stage and pull one of their names out of a hat to see who would win a Pete Seeger album. I’d get to wear my shiny black patent-leather party shoes!

Before the concert, Pete came to our apartment for an early supper. He brought along Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the celebrated blues duo and his opening act. I was brimming with excitement and could hardly eat. Sonny was blind and ate with his hands. My sister, age two and a half and just learning to use a fork and spoon, famously said, “But Mommy, that man eats like a pig!” Years later she was mortified, but no one seemed too fazed at the time.

The concert was spectacular. The hall was packed. I sat with my parents and sang along with the crowd. I was nervous about going up to the stage, but mustered my courage and drew the winning name, party shoes and all. I was so proud of my dad.

In the U.S., Pete Seeger was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he refused to answer the questions. Later, he was convicted and got a jail sentence for contempt of Congress, which was later overturned. He would become the folk hero of the century.

I saved up and bought a second-hand guitar when I was 13 and a sulking teenager. I’d sit in my room for hours singing and playing Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a-Changin,” especially the verse Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don’t criticize what you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / The old road is rapidly aging / So get out the new one if you can’t lend a hand / For the times they are a-changing. My dad would look puzzled and say, “But I thought we got out the new road”.

My family kept on singing. My parents held legendary hootenannies at their house every year. And every year since my dad died in 2009, I have helped organize Gil’s Hootenanny in his memory. Over 300 folks come out to experience the power of singing together to change the world. And feed our souls.

This year we are releasing a video retrospective of performances at previous Gil’s Hootenannies. The one-hour video is called “Gil’s Hootenanny 2021: Singing Together Apart.” It will be released on May 1 at 4 p.m. on our website at gilshootenanny.ca.

Tamara Levine, a participant in Anna Rumin’s memoir-writing course, wrote this memoir of her father, Gil Levine (1924-2009).

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