Sunday, March 17, 2013

Remembering Tam Kearney and Chopper McKinnon

It’s been a sad couple of weeks with the passing of Tam Kearney (1940-2013) and A. L. “Chopper” McKinnon (1946-2013), two unique, iconic and essential leadership figures in the Canadian folk music scene. I knew both of them for about 40 years.

Tam Kearney
Tam was the driving force behind the Fiddler’s Green folk club in Toronto, the focal point for traditional folk music, and also traditionally-oriented singer-songwriters, in Toronto. He was also the leader (as if there ever could be one) of the Friends of Fiddler’s Green, the club’s house band of singers and musicians – all of whom but Grit Laskin were British Isles ex-pats – who were fixtures at folk festivals and folk clubs in other cities, including at the Golem, the club that I ran in Montreal. Almost every trip I took to Toronto in those years included an evening at Fiddler’s Green.

Tam was a prankster of much renown, a fine singer and a hilarious on-stage host, whether introducing performers at the club or during a Friends of Fiddler’s Green performance, and the influence he exerted by nurturing and developing Fiddler’s Green was incalculable. My friend Stan Rogers was inspired by Tam and the Friends of Fiddler’s Green to write “Barrett’s Privateers.”

Ian Robb, a member of the Friends of Fiddler’s Green, wrote an excellent obituary about Tam for Sing Out, which can be seen at this link.

Chopper McKinnon
Chopper is one of those guys on the Canadian folk scene that I knew seemingly forever. I’m not exactly sure when we first met, but I have memories of hanging out with him at folk festivals, at the Toronto Folklore Centre where he worked for several years, and of his showing up at the Golem on a few occasions in the 1970s, and on more than a few occasions in the ‘80s.

Chopper was the personification of the folk music scene in Ottawa. He organized and hosted concerts, worked at the Ottawa Folklore Centre for many years, did some artist management, edited some songbooks, including Songs from Fogarty’s Cove by Stan Rogers, but, most notably, he was the host – for 33 years! – of Canadian Spaces, Canada’s longest-running folk radio program.

Canadian Spaces was Chopper’s platform to champion Canadian folk music, particularly Canadian singer-songwriters, and he did it so well for so very long. There was never a stronger advocate for Canadian singer-songwriters.

The folk music scene in Ottawa over the past three decades-plus revolved around Canadian Spaces. In fact, Chris White, the founding artistic director of the Ottawa Folk Festival, said the festival was launched in response to the popularity of the radio show. Chopper, of course, was a familiar figure as a main-stage MC at the Ottawa Folk Festival for many years.

Yesterday morning, Chris White, Lynn Miles and Ian Tamblyn hosted a poignant, moving tribute to Chopper on Canadian Spaces on CKCU. Their memories and by several studio and telephone guests were lovely and some of the songs that were sung were so perfectly heartbreaking. You can stream the program at this link.

Update March 23: A second excellent tribute to Chopper was hosted by Chris White and Matthew Crosier on today's edition of Canadian Spaces on CKCU. A multitude of studio and telephone guests including, among others, Tannis Slimmon, Garnet Rogers, Ann Downey, Laura Smith, Terry Eagen, Karen Flanagan-McCarthy, Gene Swimmer, Joyce McPhee, Ferron and myself shared memories of Chopper. I was greatly honoured to be asked to be part of the program. You can stream the program at this link.

Both Tam Kearney and Chopper McKinnon were builders of the Canadian folk music community. Both will be remembered for many years to come.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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