Pages Fest first night: Telling stories

Heard in the crowd “Susan, I didn’t know you’d be here,” a woman says to writer Susan Swan. Who says “Good to see you! This is my friend, Katherine Govier.”

Big names in Canadian culture. Then there was the rest of us at the opening night of the inaugural Pages Festival in Toronto. It’s running Thursday March 13 through Saturday March 15 and is billed as a multi-media kind of festival, looking at the future of the book and publishing but also at the nature of storytelling. And perhaps finding out something about the creative process along the way.

You can find out more about it here: www.pagesfestival.com

Folksinger and activist Bob Bossin – he of Stringband fame – opened. He’s out with a book about his dad, Dave Bossin. Bob says he took six years to write the book he’d been thinking about for 40. “I had to find the story first,” he says. He had the anecdotes, had the facts, had the family memories.

How was he inspired? Partly by Alex Haley who wrote Roots – who exhorted people in the 70s to take their tape recorders and get the stories down before the old people died. That’s what Bossin did. And that’s how he found out about Davy the Punk. His dad had a face he’d never seen before. And Davy the Punk? For a conservative guy, that sounded cool.

So Bossin took that initial oral history, preserved it and turned it into a story.

At the beginning of the night Bossin took the stage to tell us a bit about the book and a bit about his dad – he sang a few songs he’d written about him, about their relationship, told a few stories and then read a bit from the book. Stories both personal – about his dad and finding out that he’d been in the business of gambling, who knew big gangsters here and in the U.S., who was at the centre of the criminal world in Toronto – and about the wider city of Toronto from the 20s to the 50s: its anti-Semitism, its cronyism, its Maple Leafs baseball team, its ghettos. Each bit added a layer to the narrative, each in a different way. When former Federal Liberal Party Leader Bob Rae took stage to interview him, it became his story too.

With this crowd – a generation older than me – it was the nostalgia of the 60s and 70s. Rae, an old university friend, shared a few anecdotes. Former school mates from high school asked questions from the audience – Bossin had obviously been the cool guy, the radical who quit the student council in a fit of rebellion.

And then Stringband took the stage – a bit of a reunion, three of the original band members, 40 years or so later.

Stringband gained an underground reputation apparently in the 60s and 70s for songs such as “Dief Will Be The Chief Again” (inspired by Bob Rae after a Cassius Clay fight, we’re told) and “Show Us The Length” (of your cock, Mr. Mayor) – both of which they sang last night. They’re folk singers, so storytellers – singing about Canada, about the working person, about women’s liberation.

Bob Rae played piano too, singing a blues song all his own.

And the music played and the audience remembered and we heard different ways of telling stories and learned something about Toronto – then and now.

Bob Rae, far left, Marie-Lynn Hammond, with tambourine, Bob Bossin, centre, and Allan Soberman, on bass far right.

Bob Rae, far left, Marie-Lynn Hammond, with tambourine, Bob Bossin, centre, and Allan Soberman, on bass far right.

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