CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 15 . . . . March 28, 2003
Given the title of this video and the universal Canadian appeal of The Travellers' cover of "This Land is Your Land," one would expect to see a chronicle of the group's formation, successes and events up to the present. It should be a nostalgic look at Canadian folk music in its early stages and a testament to the four members of The Travellers who did so much to bring Canadian folk music to the ears of most Canadians.
However, the first sour note is heard very early in the video where Simone Johnston refuses to sing her name as the others do. Singing is something she no longer does.
The Travellers takes the viewer back to a Toronto where anti-Semitism is seen posted on signs. The Travellers, as youths, met at Camp Naivelt, a United Jewish People's Order youth camp, where the workers' struggle was celebrated in song. As many of the early union groups were both Communist and Jewish, all camp members were steeped in leftist thought and ideology. McCarthyism in the United States blocked the singing of such songs there, and so many of the more outspoken singers found refuge and an outlet with the youth camp members. Inspired by the music of The Weavers and urged by Pete Seeger to form a musical group, The Travellers united to tell the stories of regional Canada as well as to celebrate the country as a whole. Since Woody Guthrie's music was blacklisted in the United States, Pete Seeger encouraged the new group to take and use Guthrie's music in Canada. As a result, the Canadian version of "This Land is Your Land" was born and became both a huge hit and a rallying song. On the strength of this and their growing popularity, The Travellers became the first group to be signed by Columbia Records of Canada. They toured the country making sure that half of their act featured Canadian folk songs. They set out to prove that Canadian songs were entertaining.
As with everything, politics began to interfere with the group's dynamic. When Khrushchev revealed to the world the atrocities done by Stalin in the name of Communism, the group faced a major rift. Sid Dolgay tried to explain away Stalin's crimes as he truly believed that the Soviet Union was a utopian dream come true. Stalin's activity against the Soviet Jews forced the group to reassess their views. In 1962, with a replacement for Jerry Goodis who left the group in 1960. The Travellers went to the Soviet Union on an international cultural exchange. They insisted on singing Yiddish songs in their concerts there and had a chance to meet with those people most affected by life under Communist rule. Troubles in the group increased on the tour, and this friction only intensified once they returned to Canada.
Folk music in Canada was changing. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the newer voices were taking folk music in a different direction. The Travellers had to decide whether to stay with the traditional music which gained them their fame or go with the new style. More friction resulted in a three against one vote, and Sidney Dolgay was squeezed out for being too old fashioned. Decades later, the bitterness of this action is clear. In a recent interview, he is too overcome with emotion to complete his account of what happened.
With a new direction, The Travellers worked on becoming bigger and more profitable. They performed at fewer benefits and union meetings. A clip of their version of a Molson Canadian commercial is followed by an explanation that there was nothing wrong in doing that. Simone Johnston felt that the group was no longer dealing with any real issues, and, as she toyed with leaving the group, she found herself pushed out. The last original member, Jerry Gray, took the new incarnation of The Travellers on a more popular route and continues to do so today.
Few of the members look back on their time together with any real fondness. Jerry Goodis states that they were the first folk group and the worst folk group. Johnston admits that she is not proud of being part of the group. In one scene, the new group sings "Solidarity Forever" as Dolgay watches from the crowd. There is resentment that Goodis never offered them any work after he established his advertising agency. The bickering between Dolgay and Gray about who sings what at the 2000 Mariposa Festival is embarrassing to watch. The group's return to Camp Naivelt at the end of the video is so heart-breaking that one has to wonder what is the point of the video altogether.
The Travellers: This Land is Your Land has little use at the high school level. While the group has had a great impact on the popularizing of previously obscure Canadian folk songs and celebrating Canada as a nation, this video offers nothing positive.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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