City and Culture: A History of Folk Music in Toronto

 Traditional folk music has its roots with the common folk.

In Canadian fishing villages, rural hamlets and pioneer farming communities, folk music provided an escape. It was a way for hardworking Canadians to entertain themselves while maintaining a sense of continuity with the past. Toronto was one of Canada’s earliest folk music societies, brought upon largely by the Great Migration of Canada between the years of 1815-1850, and was largely dominated by Irish, British and Scottish immigrants, who brought with them a strong folk tradition.

As Torontonians struggled with the realities of WWI and then the horrors of WWII, folk music ingrained itself more deeply into the culture of the city. It became a way for the city to come together as a community; not only did it allow the people of Toronto to express the myriad feelings of joy, loss, relief and heartbreak, they would experience during the war years. As Toronto rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the wartime decades, folk music provided Torontonians with a way to promote the democratic and peaceful ideals they were craving after what had seemed a lifetime of conflict.

Yet Another War

As the people of Toronto held its breath against the impending threat of the Cold War, folk music was approaching a veritable Golden Age in the city. Once again, folk music proved to be a saviour to the people of Toronto, providing them with a way to forget their troubles, and surprisingly enough, it would be the neighbourhood of Yorkville, which would spearhead the rise of folk music in the decades to come.

Originally a very rural community, Yorkville, became the place for German and English immigrants to establish their clubs and coffee houses by the end of the 1950’s. With the drinking age sitting firm at 21, these coffee houses offered a place of refuge for a younger generation of Torontonians who were desperately looking for ways to express themselves, and to protest the growing escalation of the cold war. The live folk music offered in the established coffee houses, provided the exact release these youth were looking for.

By the 1960’s Yorkville had established itself as a vibrant artistic community. Walking west along Yorkville, one could find as many as 40 different clubs and coffee houses offering live folk entertainment every night of the week. Music lovers could hop from venue to venue, taking in a seemingly unending number of shows. The most famous of these clubs was the Riverboat, which first opened its doors in 1964. Situated below street level, at 136 Yorkville (now Babaluu), the Riverboat could host 120 people in red booths amid pine walls and brass portholes and were treated to intimate concerts, many times by musicians who would someday soon, see their name in lights.

The Riverboat’s stage

The Riverboat’s stage has been said to have launched the careers of many a big name in folk music. Neil Young first appeared on the Riverboat stage as a fledgling folk artist before finding his fame south of the border with his tune “Buffalo Springfield.” He paid tribute to the Riverboat in his song “Ambulance Blues” where he sings, “Back in those old folkie days, the Riverboat was rockin’ in the rain.” Whether or not the Riverboat truly was the place that launched the fame and fortune of many folk stars, it did host a multitude of the biggest names in folk music to date. Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel and Gordon Lightfoot, are just a fraction of the artists who frequently made appearances on the Riverboat stage.

Sadly, like all good things, the Golden Age of folk music was soon to come to an end. Despite its rapid evolution, expansion and diversification through the 60’s and into the 70’s thanks to singers like Bob Dylan and Bruce Cockburn, whose styles melded folk with other genres, and despite the best efforts of the CBC to promote traditional Canadian music, folk music saw a decline in popularity. With the close of the cold war and an ever increasing demand for modernization, there wasn’t the same need for the expressionism that folk music had provided the citizens of Toronto. The Riverboat was forced to shut its doors in June of 1978 due to the lowering of the drinking age, and the resulting stiffening of competition from bars who began to offer live entertainment next to the alcohol that an even younger generation of Torontonians could now enjoy. It was a testament to the Riverboat’s popularity and success that hundreds of music lovers came out to its week long wake, to say goodbye to a tiny club that had served, in many ways, as the birthplace of Canadian sound.

Though its Golden Age may be over, folk music still holds a very special and prominent place in Toronto’s artistic communities. Yorkville has ceased to be the vibrant musical centre it once was, but in other Toronto communities, such as the annex, the folk music presence still runs strong. Fans of the genre do not have to search very long, or very hard, to find a venue offering folk music any given night of the week. Folk music was and ever shall be the heart and soul of Toronto. It guided its people through the horrors of war, the struggles of adolescence and honoured the folk traditions of its immigrants. Folk music was the heart that drove Toronto to become one of the most vibrant and culturally diverse cities in the world, and its heart will continue to beat, strong, for decades to come.

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