Canadian music has been influenced by some amazing characters throughout its lifetime. People like Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, and Valdy have given Canadian music a world-wide recognition and a reputation for quality and excellence. Valdy is perhaps the most home grown, “folky” success story to come out of Canada this half of the century. Born in Ottawa to a photographer father and social worker/psychiatric nurse mother (famous for running condoms into Quebec as a family planning advocate), Valdy has become a legend in Canadian folk music, releasing around 14 solo albums so far as well as appearing on The Beachcombers television show. Valdy has garnered two Juno awards as well as seven nominations, has four gold records, and hosts “Valdy’s Radio Hour” at 8:00pm Western Standard Time (Vancouver) streamed live at http://cfsi-fm.com. He has toured around the world but remains true to his Canadian roots and currently lives on Saltspring Island, BC. In July, Valdy returned for his fifth appearance at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (he performed twice in the ‘70s and twice in the ‘80s) and TWOAB’s Ben Fast had the chance to sit down and chat with him.
The down-to-Earth, 64 year old Valdy, a man who keeps his performer’s pass tucked into his shorts, wears a tie-dye hat and knee high socks with his sandals, is a tall man with a welcoming smile and a booming chuckle. He loves chatting with audience members when he is on stage or off, and took some time after a set at VFMF’s Stage 1 to chat with me. Finding a spot far enough away from the generators to chat, Valdy told me stories of his life as a musician and a Canadian as well as a look into his future. Here are some highlights from our interview:
BF: So let’s talk folk festivals. You’ve played quite a few in your career, you’ve even written a song about them. Tell me about that.
Valdy: I have been playing them since…1973. Before that they were called Rock festivals, we didn’t use to call them folk festivals. Well, I played the Rock Festival at Aldergrove in 1967 or 68 and then Strawberry Mountain Rock Festival the next year when I was living in Victoria. We came across on the ferry to play that one once as a band called Hosanna and the next year for Strawberry Mountain with a group called The Pigling Bland Jug Band. It was marvellous fun!
BF: And the song “Play me a Rock and Roll Song” comes from that?
Valdy: Yes, that was about the Aldergrove Rock Festival of the late 60s and I was hired as a folk singer to go and play at a rock festival. I was out of place and I received the…the uh…I got the reception I deserved, let’s put it that way. They wanted rock, they gave me a hard time about it, and I got a great song out of it.
BF: How does this festival [VFMF] rate among those festivals and other festivals you’ve performed at over the years?
Valdy: This is one of the best organized. For its size it’s quite amazing it’s as organized as it is; but when you get to this size you need that kind of infrastructure. One of my favourites is the Stan Rogers’ Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia. We call it “Stan Fest,” and it is only 13 years old now but it’s a model for other festivals. This one is a model for bigger festivals. Weather has been glorious this year, but even in the mud I think this one would work because the infrastructure’s so good.
BF: Tell me about The Beachcombers.
Valdy: Well that was just a side gig thing, I tried acting and did a gig on the Beachcombers – it was fun to do – but…
BF: Tell me a story about that.
Valdy: They wanted me to play a lead character named Halibut Stu on an episode where I was to save the whales from the Russian’s harpoon gun by getting everyone drunk on my home made huckleberry wine! That was the script and we had a ball! [Valdy smiles and recounts some names of cast-mates and how much fun they had together] We had a lot of fun on set and off! Then they tried to make a movie – they did make a movie called The New Beachcombers and I had a bit of history with that. I asked if I could be part of that – not in the movie but if they were going to series – I thought this was the pilot. I thought “I could be part of a weekly series that could be marvellous.” He had a jug band written into the movie, but he didn’t have the jug band yet, so we put one together and we were the band in the movie. It was fun, a good little script.
BF: Where did your musical abilities come from? Was it a family thing or something picked up later in life?
Valdy: My father played by ear, my mother had a bunch of tunes in her head which she had learned, she could play by wrote, like party pieces. I took piano as a young man but only made it to grade three in six years, I wasn’t a great student. But I was learning how to play stride, boogie-woogie, and barrelhouse and the really high energy 1930’s type music. I became interested in the guitar at age 13, but I played bass just as a matter of staying alive in Victoria, in a bunch of nightclubs in my early 20s.
BF: Where’s the most interesting place you’ve played a concert?
Valdy: Poland. When it was still under Communist rule. It was a festival called The International Pop Song Festival and it was all the Communist countries from around the world as well as people from England and Canada and I was the rep from Canada. It was lovely.
BF: Did anyone know your music there?
Valdy: Nope. But probably the best international moment of my life happened there. I was backstage and a Cuban pianist sat down and started to play a bit, so I grabbed my guitar and started to play along with him. And then some others joined in and we had a mélange of about 15 or 20 people playing together that couldn’t talk to each other. But we could play together! And then the stage manager came in and said “shut up, you’re disturbing the show outside.” But that was a magic moment.
BF: Tell me about your work with literacy campaigns.
Valdy: I believe that literacy is the path to world peace because if we can understand each other we can get along and if we can communicate we can understand each other. So literacy, literacy skills are part of the infrastructure of that communication. So advocating for it is something that I started doing with [the late CBC reporter] Peter Gzowsky. He wanted to have a legacy of starting a campaign for literacy and he loved golf, so he had golf tournaments for literacy. [Since his passing] I continue to do the golf tournaments, I did two this year and two last year, and that’s about the only golf I play! I love the game, but I’m not a golfer.
BF: What’s your handicap?
Valdy: [Chuckles] I’m over 100. I’ve never broken 100 so my handicap is whatever they’ll give me!
BF: Now I don’t want to bring up age, so let’s say experience –
Valdy: Oh no, age is good!
BF: Well you have a birthday coming up [Valdy turns 65 September 1, 2010], what are your plans for the future? Most people plan on retirement around your age, are you planning that?
Valdy: No. Well you know Ben, when people are in this business…I rely on folks coming to see me play, that’s where my income comes from. When people stop coming to see me, that’s kind of determining my retirement. [I hope to] slide into the grave with a martini in one hand and…You know, a flag waving in the other – do a side slide into the grave. But the music is still new to me, I’m still learning and still studying pedal steel guitar and lap steel, and I’ve got a beautiful banjo that I’m learning to play bluegrass banjo on…I’m not good at it yet, but it’s an uphill battle. With all of this new stuff I figure if I keep learning my brain will keep going and I’ll be a useful citizen. One of my goals right now is to start the Rock and Roll Rest Home where we can teach each other whatever we know for the rest of our lives. It’s going to be a senior’s boarding school! [Smiles]
BF: And recordings?
Valdy: Yes, I’ve done between 14 and 20 albums and have four “Best Of’s” in the works. So I’ve probably done 15 or 16 full albums – and that includes cassettes, albums, 8-tracks, and of course CDs. And next I guess is going to be bio-soft, I don’t know. And I have two albums in the works, one of new songs I’ve written and the other is a Christmas record coming out this year. We’re also working on a “Standards,” I want to do some old love songs, cause I’m not getting to be a sloppy sentimental fool yet, but I want to have the music ready when I do!
BF: What’s your favourite part about Canada? [Valdy sings often about Canada, has spent the majority of his career in Canada, and lives on Saltspring Island, BC, considered one of the most beautiful places in Canada]
Valdy: Umm…That’s a big one. We’re ostensibly in a democracy and it is fast not a democracy any more. It’s being ruled by a bridge on a ship that does not access the workers in the hold, and is going entirely by the navigation plan they make up, that does not a democracy make. So we are in trouble right now and I think we need to pay attention to that. Canada…I like the multi-ethnic aspect to it, the fact that we get along with each other really well – we don’t need guns. Sometimes you need fisticuffs, but that’s ok – hockey fights! Oh, that’s another thing I like about Canada: you can push us, we can take a fair bit of flack and you can push us to a point, but if you push us too hard…the gloves come off!
BF: What’s some advice you’d give to a beginning artist?
Valdy: Get up in front of as many people as you can. The experience of playing for people – and entertaining them – will stand you in good stead to make a living at this. And it also gives you a true response to what’s going on. If I suck, I want to know it so I can fix it!
BF: If you could do a cover album of just one artist, who would you choose to cover?
Valdy: Wow…that’s a hard one! A full-length album with one artist? [slight pause, then with certainty] Hoagy Carmichael. Yah, I think so. His melodies and his music, yeah. There’s lots of close seconds [with a wink].
BF: Last time I saw you play, you were playing a summer concert at Government House [official residence of British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor, Victoria, BC]. That was a smaller crowd, people were chatting and dancing while you played – but you’ve also probably played concerts where the audience does nothing but listen. What’s your favourite type of venue to play?
Valdy: I enjoyed playing at Government House for His Honour [the Honourable Steven Pointe] and his wife. It was actually a good sized crowd [around 1,800 Valdy estimates] and it was my PA so I was barely able to reach the edges. I had it cranked, it must have been taking the skin of His Honour’s face he was only 20 feet away! [Laughs deeply and holds his hands to his face] That was a fun gig and the people were quietly talking but everyone could hear, so it was quite courteous. I don’t have a favourite type of venue. I can play to house concerts or to 6,000 like I did in Peterborough last week. I like it all, I just enjoy playing. I’m just honoured people still enjoy coming so I have the opportunity to do it!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
View Valdy’s Website.