Tim Kitz

The Log Drive Café is a traditional music concert series, featuring folk singers and musicians in a coffee-house setting, in which the audience is welcome to sing along.

Traditional music you say? Sing alongs? Sounds boring, doesn’t it? That’s where you’re wrong, dear reader.

Traditional folk music is the original punk rock – the original do-it-yourself, participatory, anti-elitist music.

See, before the mass media changed everything, people created music communally – authoring, playing and transmitting songs anonymously and collectively. Folk music was by and for ordinary folk, where they played and sang for and with each other. Before mass media technology brought the music to you, you had to make it yourself, or at least hang out in the same room as someone who did.

And if old-time folk music makes you think of Pete Seeger, all cutesy and foursquare and sing-songy, think again. Try listening to the folks Pete Seeger learned all his songs from. Listen to the bible-black harmonies of the Carter Family or the feral roar of Blind Willie’s Johnson’s voice. Listen to Roscoe Holcomb’s lonesome keen, or the ethereal blues of Skip James’ guitar picking.

Now the market may have inevitably favoured the cutesy, accessible-to-everyone folk music of Seeger and the Kingston Trio over their feral progenitors. But further musical commodification and the gradual development of a star system only distorted folk culture more. The sixties definitively turned folk music from traditional, informal, communal music into mostly-acoustic music played by professional songwriters – music by stars (and wannabe stars) that was supposed to be consumed by passive audiences in unmoving and perfect silence.

Now fear not, gentle reader, for this article will not indulge in any further nostalgia or pseudo-Marxist musicological analysis. It’s time to talk about the here and now! It’s time to talk to a couple of young women who are ushering the Log Drive Café – and local traditional music, undoubtedly – into a bright and living future.

Chrissy Steinbock is the new organizer of the Log Drive Café.

Hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself. (It must be the excitement.)

The Log Drive Café was started in 2012, by Maura Volante and Ranald Thurgood. Maura had been performing traditional folk music since discovering it in coffeehouses and songcircles in Vancouver in the ’60s, and Ranald took the stuff so seriously he got a PhD in folklore from Memorial University.

Maura told The Leveller that in the spring of 2012, “[we had] been discussing the lack of an environment in Ottawa for people who sing traditional folk songs. There are many sessions in Ottawa for instrumentalists and singer-songwriters, but at that point there was no public event that provided a space for traditional singers.”

The couple found a venue at the Abbotsford House Recreation Centre – an old stone house across from Lansdowne Park – and decided to try leading a singalong concert of traditional Canadian folk songs. The concert went well, and they decided to make it a regular event, hosting dozens of performers singing hundreds of songs over the past six years.

“It has been a wonderful project,” Maura told The Leveller, “but over the years the promotional efforts became wearying,” and in 2018 the couple decided to let it go. They held a grand finale concert in May, featuring a panoply of past performers.

Fortunately, in stepped Chrissy Steinbock to save the day and keep the Log Drive Café running. A musician herself, Chrissy writes her own songs – delightful songs, I promise – but she’s also passionate about singing traditional songs, and making sure they’re passed on as living things.

Ensuring that you hear directly from Chrissy seemed worthwhile, and fortunately she consented to answer a couple of questions for The Leveller.

The Leveller: What made you want to take over organizing the Log Drive Café?

Chrissy: The Log Drive Café is a space for some of the things I most believe in and think there should be more of: singing, especially group singing, folk music, and stories.

Also, the Log Drive Café makes traditional music accessible and makes space to experience community. Singing with others is a pretty powerful thing but not everyone wants to join a choir and going to song circles or kitchen parties can be intimidating if you don’t know the songs or the people singing.

Anyone can come to the Log Drive whether it’s to listen, to sing or meet people or all of the above and I think you’ll be surprised by what you find.

The Leveller: Why do you think it’s important to have venues for traditional folk music performance?

Chrissy: Traditional music is about sharing songs in the purest sense.

Traditional music is everybody’s music so you can come out to a Log Drive show and even if you don’t know any of the songs you can find yourself singing along on the choruses. That song is now part of you and you’re part of it.

Sure, a singer-songwriter hopes that listeners will like their stuff enough to sing it while they’re making breakfast, but that song is still kind of the writer’s property. If you learn a traditional song you’re tapping into something bigger, a shared resource, a kind of waterway of culture rather than a private well.

That song was shaped by others before you and is now yours to shape in turn.

Now the first Log Drive Café of the new season will feature Daphne Volante. Daphne will be bringing their deep repertoire of traditional ballads to the Log Drive Café on Sept. 28. Daphne uses pronouns they/them and ze/hir, and consented to talk to The Leveller too. (That’s right, you get to hear from two young women who like old songs in one article!)

The Leveller: How did you get into traditional folk music?

Daphne: I was basically born into it. My mom was always singing traditional music around me, and I grew up going to folk events, both in Vancouver, where I was born, and here in Ottawa. Traditional music has always been a part of my life in some form or another.

The Leveller: How did you claim traditional folk music as our own rather than rebelling against it?

Daphne: It took me taking a step away from traditional music to find it in other ways. In my rebellion, I stumbled across artists like [“freak-folk” harpist] Joanna Newsom and Melora Creager [of “cello-rock” band Rasputina], who write their own music but also keep old songs alive – and who introduced me to Child Ballads [i.e., songs from a classic anthology of ballads by Francis James Child].

The Leveller: For anyone that doesn’t get traditional folk music yet, why should people care about these songs?

Daphne: I think there’s something very powerful about a story or an image that resonates with people enough for them to carry the songs through oral tradition. It’s a visceral link to the past, through emotion. However different people may have been 500 years ago, we know they loved, they celebrated, they mourned, and they sang about it, and we still do these things today.

Daphne Volante will play the Log Drive Cafe on Friday, Sept. 28 at 7:30. Tickets will be $10 at the door or pay what you can.

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