December 2018 marks the 100th birthday of the late, great Al Purdy, a man heralded by many as Canada’s greatest poet. To commemorate this milestone, Borealis Records, along with producers Brian D. Johnson and Jason Collett, have released The Al Purdy Songbook, a collection of music and readings from Canadian icons influenced by Purdy’s legacy, including Leonard Cohen, Gord Downie, Margaret Atwood, Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer, Greg Keelor, and more.
The 3-disc set includes the Al Purdy Songbook CD, a 40-page booklet, plus a DVD and BluRay of Johnson’s critically acclaimed documentary feature Al Purdy Was Here, which has screened across Canada, and the U.S. and Latin America since its award-winning premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“This project meant handing over the body of work of an iconic artist of one discipline to artists of another discipline, inspiring a whole other work,’ Collett notes. “And the process proved incredibly fertile. We should do it more.” Al Purdy Songbook contributors were given free reign on their submissions. “They could adapt a single poem—or they could quote, sample, plunder, or allude to any number of them,” Johnson explains. “But in each case, their lyrics are flecked with images drawn from a wide range of Purdy’s work.”
What makes Purdy so memorable after all these years? “He was a working-class anti-hero, a virtuosic poet who could talk beer and roadkill, nature and politics” Johnson adds. “And he was part of a movement before it was called CanLit—a self-made poet in a self-made house finding a voice for a country that was just learning to invent itself.”
The Al Purdy Songbook track listing:
1. 3 Al Purdys Bruce Cockburn 6:05
2. Transient Doug Paisley 4:14
3. Just Get Here Sarah Harmer 4:28
4. The East Wind Gord Downie 4:28
5. Sensitive Man Jason Collett 5:32
6. Outdoor Hotel Snowblink 3:43
7. Unprovable Greg Keelor 4:26
8. Wilderness Gothic Margaret Atwood 3:00
9. At The Quinte Hotel Gord Downie 3:08
10. Say the Names Bidiniband & the Billie Hollies 4:19
11. The Country North of Belleville Felicity Williams 4:54
12. Necropsy of Love Leonard Cohen 1:22
13. Cowboy Casey Johnson 3:08
Al Purdy was born December 30, 1918 in Wooler, Ontario and died April 21, 2000 in Sidney, BC. He has been called the first, last and most Canadian poet. “Voice of the Land” is engraved on his tombstone. But before finding fame as the country’s unofficial poet laureate, he endured years of poverty and failure.
Dropping out of high school at 17, he rode freight trains during the Great Depression, worked odd jobs, and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Purdy lived all over the country, labouring in mattress factories. In 1957, he and his wife Eurithe built an A-frame cabin near his birthplace in Ontario. There, after two decades of writing what he admits was bad poetry, he found his voice, and finally broke through with The Cariboo Horses (1965), which won the first of his two Governor General’s Awards for Poetry. Purdy published 33 books of poetry, a novel, a memoir, and nine collections of essays and correspondence. In 2008, nine years after his death, his statue was unveiled in Toronto’s Queen’s Park. Then, after a robust fund-raising drive, the Al Purdy A-Frame Association bought and restored the A-frame, and launched a writing residency program in 2014. The A-Frame project inspired both the film Al Purdy Was Here and The Al Purdy Songbook