An old radical fights back

'A chance to fight back — against mainstream culture; against the censorship of the marketplace; against a music industry that ignores folk music or bleaches it out or hypes it to death.'

Once upon a time, when you were very young, there was a monthly magazine in Canada called Maclean's, which styled itself “Canada's National Magazine.” Today's weekly newsmagazine by the same name is a direct descendant of that original magazine. Imagine.

At a certain time, Canada's National Magazine was edited by Peter Gzowski, who later became Canada's national radio voice and a national icon to boot. But in those days — around 1970 — Peter Gzowski was simply a brash and bumptious editor who published brash and bumptious writers. Like me. Like Bob Bossin.

Bossin was 24 then, and Gzowski hired him to write a column called Our Token Radical. Typical Gzowski — student radicalism was sweeping the world, and he thought his readers should be hearing directly from the young protesters, not from older journalists writing stories about them.

Those were the days of love beads and bell bottoms, shoulder-length hair and nickel bags of weed, sit-ins and love-ins, Trotskyites arguing with Maoists. Richard Nixon was President of the United States, and young Americans opposed to the Vietnam War were streaming into Canada. In Toronto, a radical experiment in education was underway; it was called Rochdale College, and Bossin was in the thick of that. For what it's worth — regrettably, not much — Bossin received a PhD from Rochdale.

The protest movement was also driven by folk-singers — Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Country Joe, Phil Ochs and dozens more. I had no notion that Our Token Radical was a folk-singer too. But he was, and one day he wandered by Peter Gzowski's summer cabin in the Toronto Islands with his banjo and played a new song called Daddy Was A Ballplayer. Gzowski grinned and said that he was going to start hosting a morning radio program, and maybe Bossin should come by and do the song on the air with his band — or at least with his collaborator, Marie-Lynn Hammond.

They did — and not just once, but numerous times. The new radio show was This Country in the Morning, and the band was Stringband, which ultimately performed for 15 years and recorded seven albums.

“They search relentlessly for a Canadian sound,” wrote poet Doug Fetherling. “Not hearing it, they have perhaps invented it.”

Some of Stringband's songs, like Lunenburg Concerto, were hauntingly beautiful. Some were breathtakingly quick and intricate, like Marie-Lynn's versions of traditional Quebecois tunes. And some were, well, brash and bumptious — like Dief will Be the Chief Again or Show Us the Length, Bossin's scathingly funny commentary on beauty contests, which is never played on the radio.

When Stringband dissolved, Bossin took up residence on Gabriola Island, B.C., got married, had children. He continued to sing, and one of his songs played a major role in preserving the virgin rain forest of Clayoquot Sound. But folk-singing and radicalism were no longer chic, and it was 1994 before he released his first solo album, Gabriola V0R1X0.

To survive, and to produce the album, he hit upon financial strategies which could be used by different people, and for a variety of projects. For example, at his “house concerts,” a Bossin fan invites 30 people over to the house, paying $10 to $20 each to participate in an intimate musical evening. On his Old Folksinger's Home Page he gives the recipe for such an evening — with an arch commentary ostensibly by Martha Stewart.

His website also includes an excellent primer on fundraising, which Bossin learned to do in order to finance Gabriola V0R1X0, and later to finance the two-CD set which contains the best of Stringband. As this is written, he is doing it again to finance The Roses on Annie's Table, his first new album in a dozen years.

Bossin begins fundraising by contacting everyone in his electronic rolodex and inviting them to participate in the project. He offers escalating rewards for different levels of involvement. For $50, you get a copy of the CD, your name on the cover, and an invitation to sing in the chorus when the album is recorded. For $1,000, you get all of the above, plus some additional perks, plus slow repayment of your investment — and Bossin will do a performance in your living room, or for your favourite charity.

Does it work? Oh, yes. For the Gabriola CD, Bossin needed to raise $5,000. He raised $25,000, which astonished him. But he doesn't take it personally.

“I think people pitched in,” Bossin says, “because they saw a chance to fight back — against mainstream culture; against the censorship of the marketplace; against a music industry that ignores folk music or bleaches it out or hypes it to death. Helping my project was a little (and sometimes not so little) contribution to the fight to recapture a corner of our culture.”

Spoken like a true Token Radical. Gzowski must be grinning.

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