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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

“What do people want to read over breakfast? Do you honestly think it’s you stripping back your skin so that your insides splurge all over the page? No. It’s ugly. Self-indulgent. Pay for a therapist.” Taking notes, I panicked. There was me, writing here about my dad last time, because I couldn’t see beyond him. Was it too personal, too overwrought? “Also, never ever refer to your previous work (bugger), and ease up on the personal pronoun.”

I was at a column-writing seminar at the Guardian. And then a stranger wrote to me, a lovely man called Bob Bossin emailed fRoots. I’m assuming he’s lovely and not an axe-murdering psychopath because a) he said ‘thank you’ for my column about my dad in a short single line, when if people write at all they use quite a few – generally to explain that I am in fact an uninformed twat with a total inability to communicate clearly having such useless language skills. And b) he’s a Canadian folk singer.

I googled him. He founded The Stringband in 1971with singer Marie Lyn Hammond, writing songs that are politically engaged, wry snapshots of life. A Canadian broadcaster, Stuart McLean, writes “Only a handful of songwriters have created a body of work that constitutes a portrait of our country. Stan Rogers did that. So did Gordon Lightfoot, so does Bob Bossin.”

His music’s found fans across the world particularly when it can’t be broadcast, as in Show Us The Length, based – apparently – on a real event, a jolly sing-along with a catchy chorus. It follows here after the first verse.

“Girls as the principal of Terra Nova High School/ Once each year it's a pleasure for me/ To introduce you to the Mayor of the City of Pacifica/ To say a few words about our annual Queen.”/ “Who'll be,” said the Mayor, “a very lucky maid/ To represent Pacifica to all of the state/ And who could go on to be Miss California/ Or even Miss America herself! I expect to see some volunteers.”

When one girl rose and without any fears, she said: “Mr Mayor/ Show us the length of your cock/ Are you hung like a beaver or hung like a bear?/ Let me check the weight of your rocks/ So we can have a standard by which to compare/ You men don't worry if it's very very slender/ The personality is as important as a member/ Drop your trousers and make the news/ Or don't judge lest we judge you.”

Pete Seeger called him “Funny, informative and inspiring at the same time.”

To which I can add “Kind. And thoughtful.” Currently touring Davy The Punk, a one-man show about his “father’s life in Toronto’s gambling underworld of the 1930s and ’40s,” my first thought (“It’s Toronto, how bad can it have been?”) was swiftly chased away by how brilliant it is that he’s able to explore his dad’s life and their relationship through music. Not by sitting alone sadly with what’s left of his father’s record collection, but through creating a humourous celebration of his life in song, so that it comes to mean something to people he’d never even met. There’s a testimony for you.

“Erm, never address your readers directly.” Right, now I’m off to type up my notes from the masterclass. Better late than never.

Elizabeth Kinder


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