Ten years ahead of Woodstock, and fifteen years before Bob Dylan “went electric,” the Vancouver Folk Song Society was created by a group of friends and acquaintances bound together by their interest in politics and activism, as well as by their love of singing and sharing traditional songs and music.
It began in a house, where a dozen friends decided to get together on a regular basis to sing folk songs. The emphasis would be on participation and not on performance, although performance would still make up part of it.
In the years previous to 1959, there was a small group of us who met at each other’s homes as much as possible to enjoy both singing and listening to folk songs. Our numbers increased very rapidly. We then decided that if so many people were interested in folk music, we could perhaps have a meeting place where many more could participate.
We approached the Alma YMCA and asked permission to use their downstairs hall on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. This arrangement was agreed to, and we held our first Folk Circle meeting on the first Wednesday of July, 1959. The five people who were responsible for founding the FSC were Albert Cox, Jeannie Moss, Phil and Hilda Thomas, and Rolf Ingelsrud.Jeannie Moss, “Looking Back,” Come All Ye, July, 1972
For years, the group was affectionately known as the Alma Y Folk Circle, attracting all ages of singers. It changed venues a few times, calling the ANZA Club home for many years, and settled on its current home at the Friends (Quaker) Meeting house at 70th and Osler in 1991.
The VFSS grew up during a broader revival of folk music, and their songs reached back to the traditional ballad collections of Canada, the U.S.A., Ireland, England, and Scotland, as well as embracing folk songs from Germany, France, and other countries. They accompanied themselves or one another with banjos, guitars, Appalachian dulcimers, bodhrans, flutes, fiddles, and the warm sound of harmonizing voices. And most importantly, they encouraged beginners, and shared songs, musical expertise, and knowledge.
As well as hosting musical evenings, VFSS members have roused participants into song at countless peace rallies and political events. By adapting traditional lyrics to the political issues of the day and singing them to old and familiar tunes, they created a binding force between activists and the historical root of contemporary issues.
In 1979, VFSS founding member Phil Thomas’s collection, Songs of the Pacific Northwest was published, giving us our own stories to sing alongside the old ballads from across the ocean. A second edition was recently released, edited by Jon Bartlett, the society’s archivist, and includes additional historical details and photographs to anchor the songs at points in our local history.
The Shanty Crew was an offshoot of the VFSS for 20 years. They performed the lively call-and-response sailor’s working songs at the Maritime Museum, welcomed crowds at Richmond Tall Ships Festival, and performed at Vancouver’s Cityfest and Seattle’s Folklife Festival. Before going into hiatus in 2004, The Crew recorded a CD called “Blow the Man Down: Tall Ships in the Fraser,” complete with detailed historical notes on our local maritime history. The shanty tradition continues today with The Lazy Jacks, who have guested at the Princeton Traditional Music Festival, Steveston’s Ships to Shore Festival, and the Port Townsend Shanty Sing.
Summer and winter retreats, beginning in the mid-1970s, gave more opportunities to learn songs, sing together, and share extended time with musical friends. This tradition continues each autumn in Crescent Beach at Camp Alexandra, where friends from across the Pacific Northwest, gather for workshops and presentations, as well as late-night informal jams and circles.
The society has even more to show for its sixty-plus years: from its heart, singers and musicians have developed and grown—some into professional music careers. Their enthusiasm and ability has spread to create and nurture other local musical events and organizations, including the Pacific Bluegrass and Heritage Society, the Georgia Strait Guitar Workshop, the Jericho Folk Club, Music on Main, and the Princeton Traditional Music Festival, now in its third year.
Alongside of these achievements, the core purpose of the society remains the same: sharing of folk music. Twice-monthly meetings bring people together for open stage nights, song circles, and evenings with a special feature guest. After over 60 years, some of the learning techniques have changed, as “old” (and new) folkies look up lyrics and conduct research and debates on-line, practise with mp3 files, track down songs on Youtube and check the society’s next event on its website. But it’s all for learning and improving what we bring to share at the next musical gathering—in person.
—Donna Jean MacKinnon and Allison Campbell, 2009
(Additional text & edits added September, 2015)