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Alberta Worker History Through Folk Music: Interview with Maria Dunn | By Navneet Khinda

Local Edmonton musician Maria Dunn may be petite but her passion for storytelling is loud and large. According to her biography, she is a “true preserver of the spirit of folk music” and is “often compared to Woody Guthrie for her keen social awareness and her unvarnished songs about the lives of working men and women.”

Her latest album from 2012, Piece by Piece, is quite an original compilation. Maria was part of a team that interviewed immigrant women from Edmonton’s Great Western Garment (GWG) Company who then took those stories and turned them into a multimedia project. The recordings on this album are “all songs inspired by women that worked at the GWG clothing factory.” Some of the songs feature Indian instruments such as the sitar and the tabla, and I was curious to know the inspiration:

“I was interested in what musical elements would resonate with the women themselves. After talking to them, about their life at the factory . . . we realized that it really reflected the waves of immigration to Edmonton. So many of the women that worked there . . . would be sent to GWG, so if they were still learning English, they could still have a job.

Between the early years, the background [of the women] was largely Ukrainian . . . and then in the 1970s and 80s, women coming from South Asia were working there. The Indian instruments, that’s for wanting to musically represent where women came from.

We never made any CDs with drum kits . . . with the folk music that I use as inspiration, it’s not really part of the sound that I hear. So that’s where the beautiful warm tabla comes in.”

There’s a really interesting and beautiful weaving of different musical traditions and sounds in Maria’s work. For example, the work song, “Speed Up”, uses tabla as percussion. Maria notes that “the inspiration for that as a work songs comes from the old Scottish Gaelic work songs . . . the idea of there being a line that an individual singer sings and then others join in on the refrain.” Even though she was otherwise trying “to encompass a very Western Canadian immigrant experience,” it was “so cool to be able to add tabla to that.” Because she has such a penchant for telling stories through song, I wanted to know her story:

“We had a lot of music in the house growing up, in a casual way though. My dad grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, and the music that was all the rage in the 50s when he was growing up was skiffle music. Some people malign it as being unsophisticated, but it was the legacy of people like Woodie Guthrie through to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot that really caught on fire in the UK at that time . . . My dad really passed on this interesting passion of these old songs. He also sang old Scottish songs, so that was my introduction to that.

I still try to draw on traditional elements of folk music. I love Scottish and Irish music and I’m learning more about Indian music!”

Something really important for Maria’s musical identity was the idea she grew up with – the “idea that music doesn’t necessarily come out of the stereo box, sounding perfect.”

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Another thing that I personally found very captivating was the various themes Maria uses throughout her lyrics, such as the struggles that immigrant families, and women in particular, have to deal with. So I asked: what really motivates you to chronicle the lives of immigrant, worker women?

“I thought it was a wonderful way to tell all the stories that we don’t hear very often. Maybe because a lot of what I learned in high school about Alberta . . . I don’t feel like I learned so many of these things. I learned, you know, what so many people think of when they think of the Prairies – of agriculture and Ukrainian settlers that came and farmed.

But there’s a narrative about people that came and worked in cities, and the fact that immigrants have always come from all over. I wasn’t seeing those reflected in other things and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to tell these stories.”

Maria notes that she wasn’t the one generating the stories, but “stealing all their best lines” and shaping them for an audience. There is so much honesty and depth to her lyrics, even though she did not experience many of these struggles herself. However, she reflects on her past experiences as a teenager, when in her Sherwood Park community in the 1980s, two Vietnamese families were sponsored as refugees:

“They’ve gone through this harrowing boat trip, and here they are now trying to start over. So I think maybe that was part of what I’m sure has all gone into this interest. I really think that was an amazing gift to have, that experience, to meet people who were coming as refugees. It gave me some perspective on growing up, growing up far away from family.”

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When asked about Edmonton’s folk music scene, Maria definitely sees Edmonton with its positive attributes:

“I’ve always found [Edmonton] a very supportive place to be an artist in terms of people encouraging each other, and your fellow artists encouraging you, and a lot of people playing with each other. And we have some great radio that also supports that. CKUA is a very special radio station to have. An artist in Edmonton who might not get too often to other parts of the province, people in those communities are hearing what I do.”

Piece by piece, Maria Dunn provides a social insight into an important part of Alberta’s history. Not only is the album insightful, it’s also simple, wonderful music. While you’re waiting for her multimedia video to come out, feel free to listen to the rest of her repertoire. She has a fine collection of folk songs or you can always come down to the O’Byrnes Celtic fiddle tune session on Tuesday night to hear her play her accordion!

 

Image courtesy of Rob Swyrd and appears on Maria Dunn Music

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