Sing Out!, Matt Watroba, Vol 52, No 1
“I didn’t go to University, I went to folk festivals.” Ken Whiteley proudly admits from his home in Toronto, Ontario. “So through the ’60s I was soaking it all in like a sponge: whether it was hip, traditional British music like the Young Tradition, or the old Appalachian singers like Almeda Riddle and Frank Proffit, or the old blues singers and revivalists like Mike Seeger and later, David Bromberg – it was all exciting, it was all great, and I just wanted to learn it all.”
And learn it all he did. Known throughout the United States and Canada as a multi-instrumentalist roots performer, award winning producer, and performer of songs for kids, Ken Whiteley has been spreading the gospel of roots music for more than 40 years. Born in Pennsylvania to Canadian parents, Ken’s father taught architecture at Penn State and then at Kansas State University. In 1956, the family moved back to Toronto. Ken was five years old. A few years after that, his grandparents came to live in their house.
“Both my grandparent’s were involved in music,” Ken remembers. “My grandfather was from an era where you would always expect everybody to have a song or a story to tell at a family gathering. My father’s father had been a band leader in Northern Ontario in the 1920s. He had a group called the Whiteley Orchestra, and my Uncle Eric played drums in that. So on both sides there was music. My father had wide ranging musical tastes. One of his favorite things to do while he was watching sports on Saturday was to have the sound off and the Metropolitan Opera on. So it would be a football game or a baseball game and opera.”
Ken, along with his older brother and musical partner Chris, had lots of instruments around the house to pluck on and experiment with. This made them ripe for that brief time in the early sixties where folk music ruled the popular music world. Ken recalls, “In 1962 I was 11 and Chris was 14. Hootenanny was on TV and so our taste and ears were sort of drawn to that. In a period of about a year-and-a-half we went from the folk music that was on A.M. radio to discovering Pete Seeger and then Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. By 1964, we were making weekly treks to Sam the Record Man and buying all the blues re-issues by players like Son House and all those singers.” Along with the blues influence, Ken recalls being struck by both the music and the philosophy of Pete Seeger.
“There was a big difference between Pete Seeger and the A.M. folk music. Pete Seeger spoke to your conscience. He talked about real people. It was not about slick guys in matching outfits, it was about the real concerns of people and making a better world and talking about real feelings.”
Ken and Chris Whiteley continued to soak up the recorded music, but it was the opportunity to see some of their heroes in person that inspired them as future performers. In 1964, the Mariposa Folk Festival was forced to move from Orillia, Ontario, to the Toronto Maple Leaf Ball Club at the last minute. This made it possible for the Whiteley brothers to convince their parents to let them take a subway ride to an event that would change their lives. Ken remembers it like this: “The stuff coming up from the States was a big influence, but it played out in a particularly Canadian context. The 1964 Mariposa Folk Festival was, in many ways, a life-changing event. I saw Mississippi John Hurt meet the Reverend Gary Davis for the first time … sitting in this ballpark and just trading songs. And then, that same afternoon, I saw Skip James do his very first performance for a white audience as he talked about being rescued from the hospital by Dick Waterman because people wanted to hear him play. I was just blown away. It was so great.”
The following winter the brothers began seriously collecting and playing this old music – especially American jug band music – and by the summer of ’65 The Whiteley brothers started Tubby Fats Original All-Star Downtown Syncopated Big Rock Jug Band and began performing. By the mid-’60s, Ken and the jug band entered the music business. They booked gigs, had people booking gigs for them, and joined the musician’s union. They also started volunteering for the Mariposa Folk Festival, often assuming the role of taking care of the same old blues musicians who originally captured their imagination.
It was at this time that the jug band morphed into The Original Sloth Band. They recorded three albums and became sought after live performers. The music combined the blues and jazz from the jug band tradition. Ken described them like this: “The way the New Lost City Ramblers took this broad range of country music, which went all the way from the old ballads and the old-timey music, to strains of bluegrass. They covered the whole range of country music. In a sense, we were doing that with a whole range of black music. By the early 1970s we were into Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, as well as other classic men and women blues singers.”
The Sloth band performed and recorded steadily from 1972 until around 1980. Along the way they sat in and jammed with all kinds of legendary musicians covering a wide span of musical ground. Ken met and played with many of these folks at the festivals and at the coffeehouse he ran for about three years starting in 1974.
“The biggest single difference with me was developing a friendship with Blind John Davis – the great Chicago piano player who played blues and jazz – he was the house piano player for Bluebird Records in the 1930s and ’40s and knew everybody. We first met him in Mariposa around 1974. He began staying with me when he came to Toronto. I began playing with him in different places. In 1978 we recorded with him.” The influence of a man like Blind John Davis can be a hard thing to describe with words. At this point in the conversation, Ken launched into a musical demonstration that involved about a dozen different ways to approach the playing and phrasing of five, simple notes – but mostly it came down to this; “He wouldn’t accept any bullshit from us.” Ken recalled with reverent laughter. “He would make sure we were getting the right feeling – he heard us get that feeling, which was why he used to play with us – if we got nervous, or whatever, he’d say, ‘no, no, no … give me the real thing … give it to me like you mean it.’ Playing with John, you learn what’s really involved … how to make that music speak to whomever it is you’re playing to. It’s an artistry, but it’s the artistry of conveying those real feelings.”
This is an artistry that Ken Whiteley continued to perfect over the next three decades. Live performing, however, is just one aspect of Ken Whiteley’s life in music. He is also an award winning and sought-after producer.
“I’ve always been interested in the whole recording process – making records and what records were. We made our first recording in 1973, and then through the 1970s we helped friends make their records. In 1975 there were two brothers near Hamilton, Ontario, Bob and Dan Lanois, who started a studio in their parent’s basement, so we started going out there to make records. That’s where we made the first Sloth Band record and the first Raffi record.”
Ken knew Raffi as a friend and fellow singer-songwriter in the area, so when the idea for a children’s recording surfaced, the partnership began.
“He had just started doing music for kids.” Ken remembered. “His wife was a Kindergarten teacher, and his mother-in-law ran a nursery school, so he had this idea to make a record for children and he approached me to help him make it. I came up with all these different ideas on how we should treat these songs. That first record, which sold somewhere over 2,000,000 copies was made in the Lanois basement for $10/hour studio time.”
Being the co-producer and arranger for that first Raffi record led to others asking Ken for the same services and to a decade of touring with one of the most popular children’s entertainers of all time.
“I was his bandleader and we were flying all over playing major concert halls. It was a really fun gig. When we started out it was very fresh and I had a lot of musical input. I was bringing all these elements of roots music to Raffi’s music – like playing a dozen instruments. I was doing gospel piano and old-time banjo, some ragtime guitar and bluegrass mandolin – that was all really fun.”
They worked together for eleven years. Ken went on to produce dozens of records for a wide variety of artists including Tom Paxton. All together, Ken’s productions have sold over 6,000,000 copies.
“In the last 30 years or so of producing records, I’ve learned more and more about what really is involved. It’s so different from performing because performing is about the immediacy of the moment – being there with the people you’re performing with. A bad note is gone the second after it’s played and the next note’s played. Recording is something that has to be listened to repeatedly and it uses different parts of my brain.”
Ken Whiteley took a shot at the mainstream music business with the recording Here I Am in 1983. After spending, what he called, “a ton of money” on this mostly electric R&B/blues/gospel/folk mix he figured out that his audience was really the acoustic folk/ roots community. Brightside came out in 1986, and centered Ken in his acoustic roots. He stopped working with Raffi in 1987 and began concentrating on writing and recording his own songs. It was a recording project for his own label, Pyramid Records, that led to his partnering with two staples in the Canadian folk scene, Mose Scarlett and Jackie Washington.
“It began as a recording project that we sort of worked on for about five years, and then came out in 1992. When it came out, it was immediately picked up by the CBC and started getting all kinds of people wanting us to play, and it started creating a momentum of it’s own. So we started performing together. We had been friends for years. It began more like a festival sing-a-round sort of thing – we wouldn’t have a planned set list – but the more we did it, the bigger the repertoire got with all three of us. It took on a life of its own.”
Anyone who has experienced the trio perform live will tell you of the charm, reverence for each other’s songs and stories, and the pure love of the music that exudes from the stage.
“We all loved this old music, but we all approached it from a slightly different place musically – but always a place of mutual respect and enjoyment. We all get a kick out of Jackie’s old stories or Mose’s rambling tales. We were enjoying it as much as the audience.”
Ken continues to do shows with the trio, play solo, back others, produce recordings and sing for children. It is also common now for his son Ben to join him on bass. He also continues to hone the craft of writing.
“The best songs happen as moments of inspiration – where the idea comes to you … and, whomp!, it’s there. Then you apply the craft to bring the whole thing to fruition, but there is some kind of impetus – it’s almost like you’re just channeling it. But they don’t all come like that,” Ken laughs.
“I naturally draw from the folk traditions because that’s the music I am most familar with. Whether it’s gospel music or swing or blues, I’m drawing from a repertoire of hunders of these songs as a kind of template or musical vocabulary.”
After forty years of making music for folks, Ken Whiteley shows no sign of stopping. In fact, a lifetime of experience has lead to the wisdom and philosophy that drives him to share this music rooted so deeply in his soul.
“Playing for any audience is about communicating – whether it’s 40 people at a house concert or 5,000 people at a folk festival – you are still looking them in the eye and putting it out there for them. It’s in the tension and release of notes, and it’s in what you say and how you say it. I think the more you do it, the more you develop your own voice.”
But is this old music still relevant? Is it essential to the continuing education of both children and adults? As you might imagine, Ken had some final thoughts on this. “It’s so important to give people a sense of the history of this music. All contemporary music has come out of what’s come before. There is a tendency within our contemporary society that wants everything instant – that wants everything in sound bytes – that sees only what’s happening now as being relevant, and has a very short memory. To counter that we need to show people connections. It’s about real stuff that happens in real time. It’s about music as a vehicle to convey our real feelings and our real thoughts, to create our connection to each other. When you get a room full of people singing together, that has a powerful effect at a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual level that is not shared by people who are only listening to pre-recorded tracks. Music can inspire change in the world. It can help us through our own challenges as people. Just the act of a song that can make you cry is powerful because it touches something that is so deep.”
All the Seasons, 1993, Alcazar #1010
Acoustic Eclectic, 1995. Pyramid #015
Musical Mystery Machines, 1998, Pyramid #010
Listening, 2000, Borealis #127 Gospel Music Makes Me Feel Alright, 2004, Borealis #159
Join the Band, 2006, Merriweather #06
One World Dance, 2007, Borealis #187
• with Mose Scarlett and Jackie Washington:
Where Old Friends Meet, 1991, Pyramid #06
We’ll Meet Again, 1999, Borealis #120
Sitting On A Rainbow, 2003, Borealis #153
• with Raffi:
Singable Songs for the Very Young, 1976, MCA #10037
Corner Grocery Store and Other Singable Songs, 1979, MCA #10041
Raffi’s Christmas Album, 1983, MCA #10043
• with Chris Whiteley:
Sixteen Shades of Blue, 1996, Borealis #002
Taking Our Time, 2001, Borealis #135