Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Bushel Basket, Folk Music, and an October Evening

The other day I took some audio equipment to a repair shop run by a guy named Ted Syperek. Of all the people I know, excepting my Sister, he’s my longest acquaintance. I met him at the Bushel Basket Coffee House.

In 1965 some friends and I decided to have a coffee house in our church basement in Whitby, Ontario. We named it the Bushel Basket, I designed a logo, and we put out the word. We arranged tables, stuck candles in Brio bottles, and on the first night, John McKibban and I got up and sang a Beatles song to my three guitar chords. At this level how long this might have gone on before boredom would have ended it, is anyone’s guess.

But just a few weeks later the door opened and in walked about a dozen strangers from nearby Oshawa, friends from a folk spot called the Green Door. Mostly musicians, these people proceeded to entertain us with some amazingly good music, and become regular additions to the basement event.

I soon knew...
Dennis Delorme (aka Reverend Orval Rutabaga), a multi-instrumentalist who later became pedal steel guitar player for the award-winning country-rock band Prairie Oyster. Paul Grady wrote songs that were recorded by three national acts and had his own career. Macbeth Swackhammer, a man as eccentric and wonderful as his name, proved to be a consummate blues harmonica player. Chris Cuddy (aka Jeremy Dormouse) is still active in the music scene. T.R. Gleecoff became a local radio DJ. Of the three Shaw siblings, Karen became my first serious girlfriend. Then there were the Aiken brothers, John Gurney, Ellen Hunter, Penny Sidor, Kathy Reid, Rick Gullison, Zeke Mazurek (aka Fiddlin Zeke Zilch) and many more. And Ted Syperek.

This was the era of tremendous interest in folk music, both the traditional music reaching into the past of America and Britain, and new offerings with personal or protest themes from astounding songwriters. This was the era of Bob Dylan, Eric Anderson, Richie Havens, Phil Ochs, Donovan, Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Hamilton Camp, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot, Tim Buckley, and a Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, who much to our surprise came out with some music, singing his songs in a rough voice.

There are certain sweet qualities to folk music. When someone sings a personal song or a cover of something like Cohen's Suzanne, using an acoustic guitar played with a gentle finger-picking style, a pensive spell hangs in the air. On the other hand a number of people on stage with several guitars, a fiddle and mouth harp, performing some blues or jug band tune, creates awesome manic energy.

I was not the happiest teenager in those days, convinced that I was an academic, social and athletic failure at high school. The folk crowd was almost the only place outside of my family where I felt accepted and affirmed. This group helped fan the flames of my life-long love affair with music. And I'll never forget Dennis, who I idolized, surprising me one day by saying he thought I was cool.

In 2001 I got a call from Paul Grady, who wanted to do a Bushel Basket reunion. Using the new function of email, the two of us contacted almost all the people from thirty-five years before. The response showed me I was not the only one for whom the Bushel Basket had been important. 

The event took place in the original church basement on October 13th, with a crowd of original members, augmented with spouses and offspring. People flew in from the States and the West Coast. There was a meal, an impressive evening of performance, and great joy in reunion. It was a real pleasure to see my son playing guitar in an ensemble for one number. And Paul recorded the event on CD for us as “An October Evening”.

I am far from upset these days when an audio component needs attention; it’s an excuse to go and see Ted, another Bushel Basket alumnus.