In honour of what would have been Al Purdy’s 100th birthday Borealis Records has released The Al Purdy Songbook. The combination CD/DVD/Blu-ray package is a celebration of the work and life of this great Canadian poet.
The CD, The Al Purdy Songbook, contains both readings of, and songs inspired by, Purdy’s poems. The readings are by two of Canadian literature’s most esteemed senior writers, Margaret Atwood (“Wilderness Gothic”), the late Leonard Cohen (“Necropsy of Love” – recorded during the sessions for his last album) and by the late pop singer Gord Downie (“At The Quinte Hotel”). While Cohen and Atwood give their assigned poems the dignity and gravitas they deserve, Downie captures the spirit of raucous energy required to bring his piece to life. After all poems about bar fights need that extra vigour for them to leap off the page.
What’s fascinating about the songs on the CD is that they are not simply attempts to set poems to music. Rather the musicians have allowed his poetry to inspire their creations and expanded upon the themes expressed in a poem, or in a idea suggested by Purdy’s life or body of work. Each song melds words from Purdy’s poetry with the individual musician’s lyrics.
Remarkably this has been done so effortlessly by each that without a intimate knowledge of Purdy’s extensive catalogue of poetry, the listener is hard pressed to separate the newly created from the original. Sarah Harmer’s “Just Get Here”, manages to summon up the spirit of community that Purdy and his wife created at their home in South Eastern Ontario which welcomed poets and writers from across Canada.
Young and old, poets would come to sit and talk, be inspired at the Purdy’s simple, A-Frame home. In her song, Harmer not only manages to capture that creative spirit, but also the desire many artists feel to know they are part of a community and not working in complete isolation.
On the other hand folksinger Bruce Cockburn manages to capture the more rambunctious spirit of Al Purdy and his poetry with his “3 Al Purdys”. The chorus of the song is an irreverent praising of Purdy’s role as the rogue poet: “Al Purdy’s poems are the name of my game/the winds of fate blow where they will/I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a twenty dollar bill”.
While Purdy was best known for the type of work that would inspire Cockburn’s song, there was more to him than just a rough and tumble Canadian version of Charles Bukowski. The DVD/Blu-ray parts of this package introduce us to the man behind the myth and the poems with the wonderful documentary Al Purdy Was Here.
Produced and directed by Brian D. Johnson, the documentary does the usual of telling us the history of Al Purdy, but also take viewers deeper into his life, the environment from which his poetry sprung, and his own myth making when it came to how he wanted to be perceived. For while he might have pushed the rough and tumble heavy drinking poet persona, there was far more to both him and his work than that facade presented to the world.
The movie does a great job of not only showing us his many artistic facets, it also reveals some of the more complicated aspects of the man’s character and life. We learn that he was one of the earliest advocates of a English Canadian culture distinct from American and British – there’s a wonderful clip of him being interviewed by William F. Buckley about the subject – and that he developed an incredible respect for the original people and the culture of the land.
Perhaps the best example of the latter is the poem “Say The Names” where Purdy entreats his readers to remember the original place names of locations throughout Canada. Who could be more fitting to bring this poem to life than Inuit singer Tanya Tagak, as she does in the film accompanied by Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden. The combination of Tagak’s emotionally provocative throat singing of the place names and Boyden’s reading is spellbinding.
Both the movie and music show us how wide ranging Al Purdy’s influence has been on Canadian culture. While names like Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje might have garnered international attention, Purdy was one of the true voices of Canadian literature.
Not only will the The Al Purdy Songbook package introduce you to the wonder of Purdy’s words, its a great way of helping preserve the poet’s legacy. For part of the proceeds from the set go towards the ongoing preservation of Purdy’s Eastern Ontario house as a retreat for a new generation of Canadian poets.
However, the real reason to buy the The Al Purdy Songbook is to enjoy the great music and wonderful poetry you’ll experience. It proves once and for all that poetry in the right hands is an important part of any country’s cultural fibre, and is relevant to everyone and anyone.
(Article originally posted at Blogcritics.org as Music/Spoken Word Review: The Al Purdy Songbook)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.