Six String Nation guitar at the Alcuin Society awards night, Oct. 4, 2010

Like many Toronto-area book designers and publishing types, I attended the Alcuin Society’s annual awards night on Monday, October 4, 2010, held in the historic Arts & Letters Club in downtown Toronto. I had been looking forward to hearing one of the keynote speakers (and a friend of mine), Jowi Taylor, talking about his book Six String Nation, which won an award this year for its splendid design (by Naomi MacDougall, for publisher Douglas & McIntyre). As usual, Jowi brought along the subject of the book, the amazing Voyageur guitar, as the focus of his presentation. What I hadn’t been expecting was that Jowi would ask me to get up and play this incredible instrument at the conclusion of his speech. I managed to swallow my butterflies and sing a song to the assembled crowd – and someone in the audience shot a video on their digital camera. You can see the results by clicking on the link below, now that Jowi has posted the video to his YouTube channel:


Despite my nervousness, I was delighted to be given this opportunity. For me, the moment was not a little surreal: an unexpected but serendipitous mash-up of two important sections of my life, heretofore unconnected. My grateful thanks go to Jowi, as well as to artist James Gary Stark for shooting the video, and to the Alcuin Society’s organizer of the event, Linda Gustafson of Counterpunch, for cheerfully aiding and abetting.

For those not familiar with Voyageur and the Six String Nation project, I heartily encourage you to check out Jowi Taylor’s website at – it’s a marvelous, inspiring story. A rich and rewarding slice of Canadiana, engagingly told.

And for those who might be interested, I’ll say that the song is my interpretation of “When I First Came to Caledonia,” a grand old folk song of unrequited love from the coal mines of Cape Breton. First collected from the singing of Amby Thomas of Deep Cove, Cape Breton, this song is still kept in lively circulation through beautiful recordings by Waterson/Carthy, Chris Wood and Andy Cutting, the late Tony Cuffe, and Jamie Snider, among others. I was fortunate enough to include my own version of the song on the debut CD from my friend, the wonderful Irish piper Deborah Quigley. “Caledonia” in the lyrics is a reference to the Caledonia coal mine in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, and “number three” is the name of the particular mine where our narrator finds work.

I hope you enjoy the song.