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The Ottawa Citizen

December 18, 1995

Songwriter Hemsworth releases first CD at 79


Before Gordon Lightfoot gave Canadian introspection an international voice with songs like the Canadian Railroad Trilogy and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, there was Wade Hemsworth.

He made history come alive in the '50s with his saga of the I'm Alone, a Canadian rumrunner that was sunk in the Gulf of Mexico by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1929.

Other songs, such as The Wild Goose and The Land of the Muskeg and The Shining Birch Tree, celebrated Canada's wilderness. Pete Seeger sang Hemsworth's Blackfly so often that people thought it was an authentic folk tune, handed down for generations.

Now, at age 79, Hemsworth has released his first CD, The Songs of Wade Hemsworth. Why did it taken so long?

"The songs are a hobby," Hemsworth says. "I worked for a living as a draftsman. I've made money from songs from time to time, but not much. Songwriting is definitely an avocation."

Born in Brantford, Ont., he graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1939, just in time to go to war. He enlisted in the air force and was sent to Newfoundland, where he first heard home-grown folk songs. At the same time, he discovered American singer Burl Ives.

"Unless you grow up with the folk tradition, you don't know that there is such a thing. I talked to Newfoundlanders, and then I discovered French-Canadian songs. Until then, the only French song I knew was Alouette," he recalls. "Burl Ives was certainly an important influence. When I heard him, I knew we had songs in Canada just as good."

After the war, Hemsworth worked briefly in Toronto and spent time as a surveyor in the Canadian wilderness, an experience that affected his material. He moved to Montreal in the '50s and worked for CN as a design draftsman until he retired 18 years ago.

The few songs that Hemsworth turned out were admired whenever he performed them, but he rarely performed.

Academy Award-winning film animator John Weldon used Hemsworth's Log Driver's Waltz, sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, for a National Film Board cartoon in the '80s. And Christopher Hinton's NFB film based on Blackfly was nominated for an Oscar in 1992 ("'Twas Blackfly, Blackfly, everywhere, A crawlin' on your whiskers, a crawlin' in your hair").

But it wasn't until 1990, when lawyer Hugh Verrier edited a handsome book of Hemsworth's songs, that they caught the public's attention. Adrienne Clarkson profiled Hemsworth on her national TV show, an episode that has aired three times.

"Because of the television show, there was an interest in my work and a demand for a CD," he says. "My wife said, 'Get on with it,' so I did."

The Canada Council helped finance the CD, produced by fan Penny Rose.

The Songs of Wade Hemsworth is available, in CD format only, for $ 17.95 (including shipping) from P.O. Box 385, Morin Heights, Que. J0R 1H0.

The Montreal Gazette