Our Canada Magazine
1 Jan 2020
By Wiz Bryant, Penticton, B.C.
It was David Mainse, the host of Canada’s daily Christian television show 100 Huntley Street, who first called me “Canada’s Balladeer” and the moniker has stayed with me for 40 years. I sang original country gospel songs for a decade on that popular Global Network program, starting in 1979. I also took part in Salute to Canada, a daily 90-minute TV program featuring highlights from a month-long cross-country tour that included live performances and live telecasts in front of Canada’s provincial parliament buildings. The show was broadcast throughout Canada and the U.S.A. via satellite in June 1981. Its central theme was inspired by the “God keep our land…” lyric in our then newly adopted national anthem, “O Canada.” I happened to be in Saint John’s, Newfoundland, on the day Terry Fox died and I sang a tribute to him live on the show, which I had written at the beginning of his incredible journey. “Terry’s Song” seemed to strike a chord with people as the flags flew at half mast and the rain came down, along with our tears.
As all this was happening, I was also singing my “Ballads of Canada” everywhere I could find an audience, which included hundreds of Canadian schools and libraries from coast to coast, along with festivals, community concerts, folk clubs, shopping malls, bars and churches. The ballads I wrote and sang were based on people and events in Canadian history, in keeping with a long-held tradition in folk music. I often performed with Gene Maclellan who wrote “Snowbird” for Anne Murray and “Put Your Hand In The Hand” for the Canadian band, Ocean. Gene became another dear friend and was a wonderful singer and songwriter.
I recorded five LPS in all and released fourteen singles to radio. One day I was singing in the Simpson’s department store in downtown Toronto when John W. Fisher came to hear me. A pioneering CBC broadcaster and a descendant of one of the fathers of Confederation, John was also the former executive director of Tourism Canada and the commissioner and driving force behind “Canada’s Centennial Celebrations.” No wonder he was affectionately known as “Mr. Canada!” John got me my first exposure on CBC Radio on Bill Mcneil’s Fresh Air show and I never looked back. I would show up at the old CBC Radio building on Jarvis Street every morning, carrying my guitar and briefcase. The security guards thought I worked in the CBC Radio building, so they never asked me for a pass, which I did not have. I dropped in on all the producers regularly and ended up writing songs and singing for shows with Erika Ritter, Arthur Black, Clyde Gilmour, Bill Garrett, Don Cullen’s Bohemian Embassy and many others.
In 1986, I was recording for Boot Records, owned by Stompin’ Tom Connors, when we released a single titled “The Hinton Train Disaster.” It was the true tale of a head-on collision between a passenger train and a freight train just outside of Hinton, Alta., which had occurred only six months earlier. The song created quite a stir and was banned on a number of stations in Alberta. I did get an opportunity to defend my position on Peter Gzowski’s Morningside radio show, and on the CBC national news, referencing Canada’s folk history and the long tradition of documenting train crashes and other tragedies in the form of song.
As my name got around, I began opening live shows for Ronnie Hawkins, John Allan Cameron, the Good Brothers and other Canadian country and folk music stars, and I learned a great deal from them all.
I certainly had come a long way from my boyhood days in Penticton, located in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. As a kid growing up, I always loved to perform on stage—acting, singing, playing acoustic guitar, making audiences laugh. I also loved writing plays and songs, and it seems to me now that my path to becoming a singer, songwriter and performer was one I was meant to follow.
Later on in my career, when I took a particular interest in singing and telling stories about Canada’s folk heroes and heritage.
Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet and share many adventures with many extraordinary Canadians. At one point, I was W.O. Mitchell’s driver. Bill wrote the Canadian classics Who has Seen the Wind and Jake and The Kid. He did not drive when I met him, and gave me the gig! I attended his creative writing classes at York University in Toronto for free and knew I was learning from a master storyteller. I also had the good fortune to meet Manly and Jasper Miner, the sons of Jack Miner. Their dad, known as “Wild Goose Jack,” banded more than 90,000 Canada geese and ducks, one of the first conservationists to use the banding technique to track the habits of migratory birds. He inscribed “Have Faith In God” and other tidbits of scripture on every one of them. He called the birds his “winged missionaries!”
The TV industry introduced me to many memorable people. I appeared as a guest star on the CBC children’s television show Mr. Dressup with Ernie Coombs and the puppet characters Casey and Finnegan. They called the episode “The Mountain Man” and had me pop out from behind a fake tree dressed in my beads and buckskins.
I’ll never forget the moment Ernie appeared on set, stuck out his hand and stated clearly, “Hello, I’m the star!” It was great fun sharing a tune with Ernie and Casey and Finnegan! And I became friends with Mel Hurtig, the publisher of The Canadian Encyclopedia, and was named the official troubadour for The Council of Canadians, which Mel and Pierre Berton founded together.
George Ryga was another dear friend and mentor who lived near my hometown in Summerland, B.C. George wrote “The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe,” which was performed at the opening of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 1968 and starred Chief Dan George. I can also count among my friends Martha and Lou Del Grande, who produced the CBC hit sitcom The King Of Kensington, starring Al Waxman. Later they wrote and starred in their own CBC comedy series called Seeing Things. I appeared in an episode called “Bulls Eye,” along with
Ronnie Hawkins, playing a song-writing cowboy. Ronnie could never remember his lines, so he had cue cards for every scene—but boy, could he make the cast and crew laugh!
– Wiz Bryant
Used with permission Our Canada Magazine