We are about a month away from the centenary birthday of the Canadian poet Al Purdy, which is reason enough to celebrate that free-verse maestro and self-described sensitive man. But at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto on Tuesday, it was the launch of a new album of Purdy-inspired music that drew musicians, literary luminaries, snack gobblers and red-wine enthusiasts.
The album, The Al Purdy Songbook, arose from 2015′s Al Purdy Was Here, the vital and eloquent documentary from Brian D. Johnson (the long-time film critic at Maclean’s). Big names contributed songs and readings to the project: Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer, Greg Keelor and Margaret Atwood, among others. The album was long in the making; two participants (Gord Downie and Leonard Cohen) are no longer alive.
The launch’s mood made it clear the album was worth the wait. Harmer’s performance – she was the fourth and final performer at a warm gathering on a cold night – held that mood to the end. Strumming a guitar, she offered Just Get Here. “Oh, we’ve held a party or two, slept a million dreamers who woke to find the coffee on,” Harmer sang, in her breezy, pleasing way. “Though the smoke is gone, the poetry lingers.”
The song is the serene centerpiece of the album, put out by Borealis Records. It salutes the famous goings-on at a modest A-frame cabin on the shores of Roblin Lake in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, built by Purdy and his wife, Eurithe, in 1957. The cabin is now a cultural landmark, but for a time it was a place of beer, bonhomie and late-night holding forth by young CanLit lions Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and others. If the walls could talk they would use five-dollar words. (A share of the proceeds from a three disc set, which includes the album as well as DVD and Blu-ray discs of the documentary, will go to The Al Purdy A-Frame Association, a registered charity that restored the cabin to its current use as a writers retreat.)
Before and after music performances and a short clip from the documentary, refreshments flowed and so did the stories. Among the crowd were authors Don Gillmor, Ian Brown, Greg Hollingshead, Katherine Ashenburg and Marni Jackson (co-writer of the film, wife of director Johnson and a key figure in this Purdy passion project).
During the sound check, Johnson spoke to The Globe and Mail about the struggle to get Cohen on board for the film and album. “It was an amazing e-mail exchange I had with Leonard,” Johnson said. “I wanted him to read The Country North of Belleville, but Leonard said he couldn’t pronounce all the Scottish names. He also said, ‘This whole enterprise of poetry, I don’t understand much of it anymore, this poem included.’ “
Cohen, of course, was in the very last years of his life. Instead of The Country North of Belleville, he read Necropsy of Love, Purdy’s 1965 poem about sex and mortality. Totally Cohen’s speed.
Jason Collett, the singer, songwriter and co-producer of The Al Purdy Songbook, was the first of the night’s performers. Before his two-song set, he sipped an Irish stout and talked about getting the Band’s legendary keyboardist Garth Hudson to play on his Purdy-inspired song, Sensitive Man. “He was great,” Collett told The Globe and Mail. “I sent him the files and he sent back his parts, but with a note about our guitars being out of tune.”
Was he right about the tuning being a little off?
“Of course he was,” Collett replied, laughing. “He’s Garth Hudson. And it was an honour to be scolded by him.”
Collett’s friend and fellow musician Doug Paisley also performed. Speaking after his set he told The Globe a story about how he literally woke up to Purdy while in university in Peterborough, Ont. “I first saw him read at the Red Dog Tavern,” Paisley said. “I didn’t know much about him at the time, but he had a plastic bag full of books and he was just bellowing out.”
The next morning, Paisley’s alarm clock went off. On the radio was Peter Gzowski, interviewing Purdy on CBC Radio’s Morningside. “That sealed the deal for me,” said Paisley, who still has a pack of rolling papers signed by the poet.
Closing the night’s entertainment was a film clip of Bruce Cockburn singing 3 Al Purdys, a song that recalls the days when prose was sold on the street. “The winds of fate blow where they will,” the chorus goes, “I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a twenty-dollar bill.”
The Al Purdy Songbook itself is going for $29 on the Borealis Records website. Purdy, the hard-boiled romantic who believed in great art, loud blazers and the brotherhood of people, once suggested that a poem “oughta be worth some beer.” The rates are negotiable, then. And the bartenders were busy at the Arts and Letters Club on Tuesday.