Recorded History: How CBC Northern Service Created a Unique Treasure of Canadian Music
The North has always been home to a vibrant culture, but sharing it with the rest of the country has been a challenge.
In the early 1970s, CBC North, then called CBC Northern Service, decided that creating a record company was the way to go.
CBC producer Les McLaughlin first floated the idea in 1968, while working in Montreal.
“The head of the Montreal service was a certain Sheldon O’Connell,” the late McLaughlin said in a documentary about the North service. “He thought one of the ways to promote northern broadcasting and help northerners gain some recognition was to produce recordings in their language.”
CBC producers began looking for musicians in the area. Initially the recordings were only made for local radio, but once it became clear that there was real talent in the North, McLaughlin decided to transfer the music to vinyl records which were distributed across the country.
“We did a number of recordings,” said former CBC technician Tim Kinvig. “The Canucks, Hank Karr, but they were more direct on the broadcast. The first recording we did [for the record label] was Gary Averill. He was a teacher from Mayo…we took him to Whitehorse and recorded him, just him and his guitar. »
Manfred Janssen came to the Yukon in the mid-1970s as a veteran of the Toronto music scene and was blown away by the Whitehorse music scene. He started a band called Two Rivers with Jim Vautour, and they started writing and performing original music.
It wasn’t long before the CBC called us. A session at CBC Studios in Whitehorse produced a four-song EP, which included the classic land of gold.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of these recordings to northern musicians. Streaming services didn’t exist and it was difficult to get your music out to a wider audience.
“That little record set a whole bunch of different wheels in motion,” Janssen said. “We have to travel on it, people want to hear the band, we started going to festivals.”
Recordings were even more important to native artists like Willy Thrasher.
Thrasher grew up in Aklavik, Northwest Territories. He heard native fiddlers, drummers and storytellers from across the North on the CBC. It inspired him to join a band, The Cordells, and continued to inspire him when he began performing across the country as a busker.
Word spread and in the late 1970s, Thrasher was invited to record at the CBC studios in Montreal.
“CBC was looking for Indigenous artists across Canada,” he said. “They had Crees from James Bay, they had people from Nova Scotia, they had me from Inuvik…it was an honor to be chosen by the CBC to record an album. is what really launched my musical career.”
Thrasher’s Album spirit child also helped spark a renaissance in Indigenous music. It was one of the records Toronto collector Kevin Howes found during his crate-digging days, and it inspired him to learn more about Northern Service recordings and Indigenous music.
Eventually, Howes put together two compilations: 2014’s Native North America Volume 1: Native Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985and 2021 Creation never sleeps, creation never dies which brings together the songs of folk singer Willy Dunn. Both have been nominated for Grammy Awards.
“As recordings of moments in time, they are invaluable,” Howes said of the Northern Service recordings. “They are part of our greater cultural fabric and they should be celebrated as such. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to exploit these archives.”
Eventually, as record buyers and radio programmers moved away from the vinyl format, so did CBC North.
But there was more to CBC Northern Services recordings than just releasing records. A series of concerts also took place in church halls and school gymnasiums in the area, bringing together musicians for an evening of music. The True North Concerts were recorded and broadcast on CBC.
“Northern music, especially as practiced by Indigenous peoples, has always been a synthesis,” said former CBC producer Peter Skinner, who has produced a number of True North Concerts. “It was always a synthesis of traditional rhythms, traditional styles and traditional subjects, with all the contemporary forms of music and instrumentation brought in by whalers or settlers.”
Skinner cited a performance by Tanya Tagaq at a True North Concert in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, when she combined traditional throat singing with modern electronic music as an example of the meeting of two worlds.
Howes cited a Sugluk band record as one of his favorite discoveries. The aboriginal band from northern Quebec chose electric guitars and hard rock as their medium. Howes found the record at a vinyl show in Vancouver years ago, and over time he was able to track down the band members and bring their music to new audiences on the native north america compilation.
“It was just awesome,” he said. “The music itself, but then to connect with the players who made that music. And once you hear it, you have to share it.”
Unfortunately, it became difficult. CBC Northern Services recordings were never intended to be commercially available, and although some have been reissued over the years, the recordings are difficult to find.
The recordings are there, preserved in CBC archives across the country. They are important archives of an era, historical documents that must be preserved. But Howes said it was good music too, and more people should hear it.
“It would be nice to see some real progressive thinking with this catalog of music,” he said.
“It serves people much more by having it there and available, whether to have it online or via recording or even being released on the radio, rather than sitting in an archive or basement. , under key.”