Sometimes I Wonder Why the World
A little history: I’ve known Bruce Murdoch for a very long time – more than 40 years. His music – I’ve always thought he was a great singer and songwriter – and his friendship, have both been very important to me over the years.
I was just 15 or 16, early in my involvement in the Montreal folk scene, circa 1969 or ’70, when I first met him. Bruce, who would still only have been 21 or 22 then, was back in town after five years or so of making an important mark on the U.S. folk world.
In 1965, at 17 (as Janis Ian would say), Bruce was one of four then-unknown artists – Richard Fariña, Patrick Sky and David Cohen (later David Blue) were the others – who made their debuts on The Singer-Songwriter Project LP. He later recorded 33 1/3 Revolutions per Minute, a full-length LP with producer Richie Havens that whose great songs were marred by some bad production, played major clubs, concert halls and folk festivals, and toured in support of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s failed bid for the U.S. presidency on a peace platform.
I was instantly captivated when I began to hear Bruce play at places like the Back Door, the Yellow Door and the Montreal Folk Workshop. When I started my first concert series at Dawson College in 1972, Bruce was the first artist I invited to play. Then, in 1974, when I took over the Golem Coffee House, Bruce was the first artist I invited to play there, too.
By the end of the 1970s, after recording one final LP, the eponymously titled Bruce Murdoch, and for reasons that I fully understood, Bruce was done with the music scene. He needed to get away from it, to go somewhere where he had no history and start over. So he moved out west, went back to school, and became a high school teacher in small town Alberta. His Martin D-28 sat unplayed in its case for 25 years,
I always hoped that, when he was ready, Bruce would come back to singing and songwriting – on his own terms. I asked him a couple of times in the 1980s to see if he was ready to come back to Montreal and play the Golem again. He wasn’t and I understood.
I spoke to him again, probably in 1994, after I started the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show on CKUT and told him there was a guest spot for him on the show as soon as he was ready to make music again. Ten or 11 years later, Bruce let me know that the guitar was starting to come out of the case again, that songs were starting to come again. Bruce promised that as soon as he was ready, mine would be the first radio show he’d play his songs on. As fate would have it, he made it just under the wire. He was on Folk Roots/Folk Branches with me on July 26, 2007, just five weeks before I signed off the radio show after a run of almost 14 years.
Bruce’s new songs were different than the ones he was writing in the 1960s and ‘70s. They were generally more personal and less obviously political, but, they were every bit as compelling. In 2008, Bruce released a great album, Matters of the Heart; it was great to have him back as a recording and performing artist. I loved the album, I’ve loved the concerts I’ve seen Bruce do, and it’s been a personal treat to spend bits of time with him again.
A couple of years ago, Bruce came home to Quebec and has been living and writing in Ormstown, a town about 45 minutes south of Montreal that has a folk scene way out of proportion to its small size. Working there, Bruce wrote the songs he’s recorded, with a little help from some great musical friends, on his new album, Sometimes I Wonder Why the World.
The songs on the new album are intimate and intense and reveal more every time I listen to them. I often find I lose myself in Bruce’s words and melodies. Listening to them consecutively, one song seems to flow into the next like 13 movements in a suite. Mature love and human courage are the dominant themes.
While I could easily shout the praises of almost every track on the album, I’ll call attention to a few of the most special songs.
Bruce sings “The Rookie” from the perspective of the veteran volunteer firefighter that he was in Hinton, Alberta giving some advice to new, younger colleague. It’s an inspiring song about ordinary, everyday people who summon the inner strength needed to do extraordinary deeds under trying, difficult circumstances. While the song may have been specifically inspired by volunteer firefighters, it’s also a metaphorical song about anyone from any walk of life who rises to the occasion when necessary.
Every time I listen to the intense, eight-minute opus “In the Simplest of Ways” I’m tempted to reinterpret the impressionistic lyrics in a new way. What I most lean toward, though, is Bruce thinking about his return to expressing himself in song again after so many years of silence from that creative side of his being.
“I Intend to be the Last Man Standing” is a love song born of separation. Perhaps, but not necessarily a song for a lover; it could also be a song of separation of friend from friend or of parent from child.
“I’m at the Mercy of Your Smile” is a love a song of the moment, a declaration to the object of the narrator’s deep affection in the here and now. There are actually two versions of the song on the album, Bruce’s English-language original and a French-language version translated by Pierre Lachance, “Je suis envoûtée par ton sourire,” five tracks later sung by Caroline Allatt whose harmonies grace the first version.
Writing on a different night, I might just as well have picked four different songs to highlight.
In addition to Bruce’s lead vocals and rhythm guitar, there are fine contributions from a variety of other musicians including guitarists Bill Garrett, Ron Bankley, Luc Larocque, David Valentine Taylor and David Whyte; violinist Chris Crilly; and bassist Eric Bernard.
New songs from Bruce Murdoch are always to be treasured.
Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and Bruce Murdoch (wearing a Hinton Fire Department T-shirt) at the 2007 Branches & Roots Festival.