Mister Versatility

Penguin Eggs, Issue #35, Autumn 2007

Ken Whiteley’s various musical achievements are already the stuff of legend. And now the Toronto-based, multi-instrumentalist has just released the rather good, One World Dance. Pat Langston waltzes into this interview.

Maybe if we start a petition, he’ll do it. Ken Whiteley – whose sprawling musical knowledge of folk, blues, gospel, you name it, once earned him the label of “a playing encyclopedia” – really needs to shoehorn his memories into a book. Sort of a “the story so far” because, despite his trademark bush of whitening hair and beard, Whiteley’s still only 56.

The idea of a Whiteley book isn’t mine. It was Chris White, artistic director of the Ottawa Folk Festival where Ken Whiteley has played several times, who threw out the idea recently. As White noted, “If you think about Canadian folk and roots music, he’s got an incredible perspective.”

White is bang on about this restless and accomplished performer (his latest, excellent solo release is One World Dance), songwriter (300-plus tunes), collaborator (the Whiteley Brothers, with bro Chris; one-third of the beloved Scarlett, Washington and Whiteley), recording artist (six Juno nominations; credits on albums by Leon Redbone, Willie P. Bennett and many others), award-winning producer (Raffi, Fred Penner), multi-instrumentalist (20 including mandolin and guitar), and all-round folk-roots guy (former artistic director of the Mariposa Folk Festival; co-founder of Borealis Records). Oh yeah, he’s also the dad of bassist Ben Whiteley, who plays on the new album, and uncle of singer-songwriter Jenny Whiteley.

Does the word engaged spring to mind?

Sounding far younger than his age, Whiteley, speaking by phone from his home in Toronto, brims with posterity-worthy memories, stories and humour. Pennsylvania-born of Canadian parents but raised in Toronto, he still recalls the minutiae of his own early musical encounters.

“When I was five, we stayed for a summer with our great-uncle Dave. He would sing Stephen Foster songs holding his cello like a guitar. Chris and I would sit up in the attic and play these records on this wind-up 78.”

His paternal grandfather, he adds, headed up Northern Ontario’s Whiteley Orchestra during the 1920s and ’30s. His maternal grandfather, meanwhile, “came from the tradition where everyone should always be ready to give a song or story, and he was always asking us to perform, even when we were little kids, at special gatherings.”

As an elementary school student, Whiteley says with a chuckle, he was the only boy in the class who would sing out loud. By the time he was 12, he was so into folk and blues that he stopped listening to AM radio. Then, in 1965, he heard Keith Richards’s slide guitar on a Rolling Stones tune and “I realized it was all a continuum and that the Stones were listening to the same things I was.”

A couple of years later, Ken, older brother Chris and Tom Evans formed The Original Sloth Band, still fondly remembered by many for its folk, blues, jazz and jug-band eclecticism. The group recorded three albums in the 1970s. During that same decade, Whiteley launched and ran Shire’s Coffee House in Toronto’s North York area.

“We bought all these chairs from a divey hotel on Jarvis Street and mounted lights in juice cans,” he remembers, earning $35 a week for his efforts. He hired, and sometimes sat in with, Brent Titcomb, Stan Rogers and other budding folk heavyweights.

Another multi-Whiteley project, the Junior Jug Band, played kids’ concerts during the 1980s. Ken’s own R&B outfit, the Paradise Revue, also carved out a niche.

Since then, well, you’ve already read the Reader’s Digest version of Whiteley’s current musical CV.

In fact, on One World Dance he pays tribute to his consuming passion. That’s When I Need a Song is about exactly that.

“Songs in so many ways enrich our lives, when you feel good, when you feel bad, when you are protesting, when you’re celebrating, when you’re whatever,” he says. Whiteley wrote the tune, one of several featuring Amos Garrett on guitar, with fellow Toronto musician Eve Goldberg. He and Goldberg also teamed up for the swing blues Lunch Counter Encounter. “I can get melodic, harmonic ideas perpetually but don’t always have something to write,” Whiteley says.

Co-writing is one way that music helps people connect. And connecting is, for Whiteley, of bedrock importance.

“All of us on this planet have a responsibility and the opportunity to connect,” he says. “I’ve made connections with people that I couldn’t speak the same language with and we’ve been able to play music together.

“At the most profound level, I feel in performing it’s possible to create a situation where I’m a conduit for energy that’s coming from beyond me and we create a big circle with the audience. Essentially, it’s a spiritual pursuit for me.”

All this talk of spirituality prompts the question of whether Whiteley is a religious man. Careful to underline that he’s “not hung up on the forms and names of religious belief,” he does say he’s a Christian, pointing to his gospel albums. “But Christianity in and of itself is a vehicle, as all religions are, for us to experience the divine in our lives and to experience it between each other.”

Quoting the New Testament, Whiteley adds, “Jesus said, ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.’ And he didn’t say, ‘Accept me as your personal saviour,’ He said, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ And who’s your neighbour? He gave an example and it’s not the guy in your tribe. It’s whoever you encounter.”

Speaking of tribes, the Whiteley clan does make music together (“Ken and Chris are the kind of people you could organize a whole folk festival around,” says White). This past winter saw Ken and seven other family members converge on Ottawa for a show, a rousing event which apparently took close to a year to organize because of the performers’ conflicting schedules.

And with his own busy days and nights – he’s in the midst of promoting his new album, don’t forget – it looks as though it’ll take more than just a petition to get Whiteley working on that book. On the other hand, he says, “I have a good idea for a cookbook.”