Poet and songwriter William Hawkins turned 76 this May. In admiration of this local legend, this very late review may be read as a belated birthday gift to Bill. Over a dozen artists lent their voices to this two-CD tribute to Hawkins, paying homage to an extraordinary man whose lyrics are poems filled with warmth and depth. Like the man, the lines are tenaciously honest: “I am old, I am fat / & I am poor & all of that. / But I remember the day. / I have pain to keep me / careful, in these constant, horrible times.”
At times humorous, the lightness of songs like “Christopher’s Movie Matinee,” “Frankly Stoned” or “Royal Boast” veil a complicated balance of optimism and pain. Hawkins’ sense of his troubled and troubling times, Ottawa in the 1960s in which he wrote these songs, are coupled by the energy and zest of the music scene which he inspired. The Children, Heavenly Blue, The Occasional Flash—these bands as well as the places they played in, including Le Hibou—were stimulated by and stimuli for Bill.
I did not think I would find myself dancing alone to folk, blues, jazz and country music frankly moved by Bill’s lyrics and the remarkable line-up of artists that have contributed their voices including, to name but a few of my personal favourites, Ana Miura, Sneezy Waters, Ian Tamblyn, Murray McLauchlan and Bill Stevenson.
Songs like “Gnostic Serenade,” for example, with Brent Titcomb on vocals on the first CD and Bill Stevenson on the second, will floor you. The two versions give a sense of how different sets of instruments and musicians, styles and voices can truly change the delivery of Hawkins’ lyrics. Bill Stevenson’s slow, sad and subtle interpretation renders this one of my favourite ballads in the entire set.
“Funny How People Get Old,” “Get Free” and “Misunderstanding” also stand out for the harmony between lyrics, vocals and instruments. Some of my favourite lines are found here, including, “He’d tell you the truth now,/ But I do believe he’s forgotten how /And in his sad smile his story’s plain told, / […] Funny how people get old,” and the agonizing and bittersweet, “Maybe I’ve traded futures with an unknown man. / And I will tell you for the last time, / That I burn for you all the time.”
In particular, I am touched by Ana Miura’s interpretation of “Stone Solid Blue,” a rock-folk-country song with Ian Tamblyn (producer of the majority of the tracks on the CD and coordinator of the project) accompanying a tender and trembling voice on organ, and Fred Guignion providing musical punctuation on his electric guitar. The opening lines, “What’cha going to do, old son, what are you going to do, /When the only feelings you have left are tearing holes in you?” thematically resonate with the CD’s overarching sense of love and longing. Heartbreak, it seems, is akin to withdrawal symptoms: one must go on in the face of loss, though there seems to be no hope of healing or consolation.
The tone and style of “Stone Solid Blue,” like that of many other of Hawkins’ songs, is comparable to that of Leonard Cohen’s. Take, for example, the lyrics to Cohen’s “Tower of Songs”: “Yeah my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play / And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on / I’m just paying my rent every day.” The resonance between the two men is clear. Hawkins and Cohen are both Canadian poets and songwriters; their work is concerned with relationships characterized by love and pain. Their lyrics are also, to a certain extent, confessional, sensitive and filled with dry humour. A final, though no less important link between the two men is their political concerns and sensibilities.
In the case of “Louis Riel,” a folk-rock song with Sneezy Waters on vocals, Hawkins takes a historical moment deeply rooted in Canadian consciousness—the execution of Louis Riel—and suggests this act was the start of an endless line of heroes who are punished by the machinery of the state and its myopic leaders:
We’ve had other heroes in peace and war
Their blood is running by my door.
I hear the children cry: O come look and see
Somebody’s hanging down from the hanging tree.
Well now it is all over and my song is sung.
Don’t you be a hero or you’ll be hung.
Wrapped in white linen they lowered him down.
John MacDonald’s face had lost the frown.
We’ll have other heroes in peace and war
Their blood is running by my door.
Hero upon hero stack ‘em up one by one.
The list grows longer and it’s just begun.
“Louis Riel”, published in 1965, is a long poem that celebrating the fascinating politician and resistance leader. In Part Two of the poem, Hawkins quotes Victor Hugo: “Poetry and History, it seems, must always be a little at variance.” As he recounts Riel’s tragic destiny, Hawkins is concerned with his mother. Riel’s visits to her; her feelings; a mother’s reaction to the loss of a child. It’s Hawkins’ imaginative capacity to see the human being within the discourse of the national hero that makes “Louis Riel” a remarkable poem as well as a powerful song.
In The Collected Poems by William Hawkins published last year by Chaudiere Books, editor Cameron Antsee writes, “Hawkins moved easily between poetry and music, refusing to acknowledge stable barriers between the two.” In this succinct yet rich introduction, Anstee informs us that Hawkins was dubbed “Canada’s own Bob Dylan” by the Ottawa Citizen in 1966. I think this continues to be true and I encourage you to buy a copy of his Collected Poems as well as Dancing Along and reacquaint yourself with this local talent.