The Folklorist and Henry Adam Svec

Article by Andrew Sisk with illustration by Kristian Bauthus 

London’s very own folklorist, Henry Adam Svec, has stepped off stage at the Home County Music and Art Festival. He’s just finished hosting a workshop on the Edith Fowke collections, the famous Canadian folklorist responsible for inspiring Henry’s work. She believed in the purity of folk music, in its power and importance, and was a stubborn critic of impostors.

An older man, who happened to be a close friend of Edith Fowke, approaches Henry after the show and says, “You know, she would have hated what you’re doing.”  Henry Adam Svec laughs and says, “Yeah, I suppose she would.”
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In this story there are two characters (Henry Adam Svec and the folklorist) and one dilemma (authenticity). The story will start with a lot of questions that fall away by the end, leaving only one question remaining: What is authenticity? First, we must venture into some fiction.

I have been waiting to meet the folklorist for 15 minutes in downtown Hamilton. I had asked by email if I could shadow him on one of his “collecting” missions and we arranged this meeting. As I scan the faces of the varied characters that congregate in Jackson Square I mumble to myself, “Plenty of authenticity here.”   I see a man across the street struggling with some rather old recording equipment and decide this must be the man I am supposed to meet.

We meet up and introduce ourselves, and before I know it, he has convinced me to carry his boom microphone and antiquated tape recorder up the stairs of a decrepit apartment building. “I don’t normally allow people to join me while I’m collecting,” he yells down the stairwell from the floor above. He is fast for a folklorist.

I am trying my best to catch up, but this man’s excitement lifts him up the flights of stairs at a speed reserved for wildlife and hyperactive children. With a wide-eyed grin he holds the door open as I reach the top floor. I have officially been swept up in this experience.

He bangs on a door that has no number on it, only a magazine cover photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (with Xs scratched over his eyes) thumbtacked over the peephole. I wonder to myself how he knows if we are in the right place…

While fumbling with the equipment in his hands he says, “This is why I do this. We are about to capture this young man’s spirit on tape.” He says this with so much enthusiasm I, at first, think he is joking.

The door partially opens and a girl no older than 16 with heavily shadowed eyes takes a look at us briefly before letting us in. The folklorist moves swiftly past her mumbling something about “utmost importance” while searching through the crowd of young people sprawled over the expanse of the apartment.

He finds his long-goateed subject in the corner and begins rushing to prepare his tape machine as if every second counts. The young man is palm-muting a gallop on the three remaining strings of his guitar and playing a song like none I’ve ever heard. Although it seems to be drawing from some dark heavy place, it is lofty with soul and appeal. He is like a punky Sam Cooke sitting cross-legged, singing about homelessness with a universality I had never considered possible. Who would have known something like this existed?  I look over at the folklorist as the song ends just in time to see him clicking the tape machine off and looking up with a knowing expression. The young man has lived a life I can’t really relate to, yet his music has made me feel like I know him and that our struggles parallels. We leave after a brief discussion on the merits of dumpster diving and the exchange of a pack of cigarettes. This was not what I had expected from this meeting.

With a newfound respect for the work of a folklorist, I follow him to his car while trying to jot down some of what he is telling me. He is steeped in Marxist philosophy and endless academic reading on the subject at hand. “Authenticity is to be or become that which one is or will become.” He says. “To become oneself is to commune with the source, to return like the first time it was. We become ourselves by moving forwards towards where we used to belong. History is capitalized in this place.”

My research on him before this meeting revealed the notorious claim that he discovered a box of tapes containing recordings of CFL players from the ‘70s singing folk songs which led him to do larger projects like a nation-wide, year-long project collecting modern-folk field recordings of the same titles that Edith Fowke had recorded decades earlier. He seems to be a man persevering past illusion and deprivation, stumbling upon crumbs of, what he calls, authenticity.

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On Authenticity

Sitting in a fruit stall on the side of the road, reading paperback mysteries while waiting for the occasional customer to stop by, a young Henry Adam Svec will soon be leaving for Sackville, New Brunswick. Even though the past year was filled with a high school football championship, backbreaking days in tobacco fields, and a burgeoning interest in theatre, it had not revealed a clear next step. A university football career would take him to the threshold of his first year but would leave him half-heartedly riding through the semesters. Only after abandoning the varsity team and indulging in the arts did he discover new talents and purposes. The remaining time at school was spent with a campus radio show, roles on stage, and a band, Peter Mansbridge and the CBCs. Henry was suddenly on his way, in what appeared to be, several separate directions.

In one of Henry’s earliest songs, called “Love in the Country,” he vividly captures a moment lyrically that you can adopt as one of your own memories. When he sings, it is part howl and part speech, shaking in truth as he pleads, “This house is not haunted yet. I know your dreams are bad but c’mon, I just want you to stay here.” Even with his first attempts at writing he comes across as wise and literate while blending art forms. He has said, “I love albums that play out like a novel,” which only demonstrates how his mind has shelved these art forms beside one another.

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More Fiction:

It is early morning, too early to be visiting someone, but here I am knocking loudly on the folklorist’s door. I wonder to myself if he knows that I have found him out. He invited me to his place, a basement apartment in London, Ontario, to show me his work. He was eager on the phone but lets me in showing none of the pleasant enthusiasm I witnessed at our previous meeting. The place is the typical cluttered mess of a preoccupied mind. Stacks of things, piles of books, and litters of paper flank my periphery. He says he starts his days early out of unity with the proletariat. The light coming in from the few windows makes the many bookshelves hard to browse, but the spines all have the appearance of dense and forgotten chapters of human thought. He says very little until we get to his collection of field recordings, which seems to bring him to life. He says he loves this work and treasures these tapes. The field recordings of Edith Fowke, the legendary folklorist, were what tipped the scales in his academic meanderings and led to his discovery of Staunton S. Livingston, whose work directs his life. Although I have suspiciously been unable to find any mention of Livingston in my research, Henry quotes him constantly. It will be a lifetime of work to continue their work but the folklorist has taken this on as his mission. The pressure is mounting and it can be seen on his brow.

Suddenly, he confides in me the recurring dream he has been having for the last year. A group of reporters are at his door early in the morning and they’re yelling questions like “Isn’t it true that you’re a fraud?  Isn’t it true that the folk songs are fakes? Sir!  The public wants the truth!”  They yell at him as he panics around the house looking for evidence to show them. The dream visibly troubles him and reveals the anxiety of his situation. He seems shaken and it is not lost on me that my arrival this morning mirrors his recurring dream.

I know this is my opportunity to ask him what I’ve been too scared to ask him all along. I muster to courage to say, “You never did find a box of tapes containing songs written by Canadian Football Players in the 1970s in the Canadian Archives, did you?” His eyes glaze over and he crumples away. “Henry,” I say, “your story is fictional. You made it up. I’ve checked; you’re a professor and a musician, you don’t actually collect folk songs.” His fictional shoulders slouch as he rests his pretend head on his imagined hand.

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Two are one.

I have not done this to confuse you. I needed to show you that this story is equal parts fiction and reality, the two being swept up together and becoming one homogenous pile. Henry Adam Svec’s invented story is a strange parable. The moral being: pretending to be something can sometimes make you become that very thing.

Henry invented the folklorist as a solution, combining his multiple interests into one persona. A passion for theatre, performance art, Canadian football, academics and music are synthesized through the songs and stories he tells on stage. Now, when he performs he is listed as a real “Folklorist” which has only cemented the transformation. A healthy dose of humour and intent fueled this experiment but the results continue to elevate the commentary that is derived from his performances.

This fiction is an honest pursuit of expression that challenges the understanding of authenticity. When a singer/songwriter is on stage we accept them as truth even if it’s rehearsed and contrived banter. By contrast, when Henry is on stage, the banter is the art form and the songs hold the intrinsic truth that make the audience believe in the stories. A cocktail of Canadian history and pop culture flips tables in the bar of possibility when he tells the audience the next song is about how his uncle, Stompin’ Tom Connors, had his girlfriend stolen by April Wine. Big ideas are behind the humorous and scheming nature of this project; it asks questions and illustrates parts of our culture that are usually left behind. It is an integrated form of art and entertainment that lands somewhere between Andy Kaufman, Kurt Vonnegut and Joan Baez.

Henry began this whole project pretending to be something that ultimately he has become. It is a caterpillar story with its most interesting changes hidden under the cocoon. Under the guise of being a folklorist he managed to actually document a modern period of work with his folk-radio, chart-topping compilation Folks Songs of Canada Now.

Once, a few years ago, while on stage, he said, “Authenticity is to be or become that which one is or will become.” I don’t think he knew that he was talking about himself at the time.

You can see his body of work and follow its progression by going here: http://www.henryadamsvec.ca

You can check out his most recent work as a folklorist here: www.folksongsofcanadanow.com


More of this artist:

HENRY ADAM SVEC

HENRY ADAM SVEC

Watch Henry perform ‘All Cats Are Grey In The Dark’ at the Sixth Gallery in Toronto, January 2012.