Folk/roots musician and former teacher John Wort Hannam is taking on the controversial subject matter of Canada’s residential schools with his album Love Lives On.
Hannam has performed in Lloydminster before at the Vic Juba Theatre, but he said it has been quite a few years and he is looking forward to coming back, and is excited to be playing at The Root for the first time.
While there, the former teacher will be performing every song off his new album with a four-piece band to play his brand of Canadian roots music.
“I was a teacher for six years, and a lot of people assume that I taught music and I didn’t, my degree is in Native American Studies,” Hannam said. “I am not First Nations myself, but I went to the University of Lethbridge and I did a degree in Native American Studies, and then I ended up teaching out on the Kainai Nation, which is the Blackfoot Reserve down south here, the Blood Reserve.”
While teaching there, Hannam knew one day he was going to write a song about either his time on the reserve or something to do with what he had learned in university in his Native Studies classes, but he was never sure of how to go about it as a non-native. He did not want to misappropriate an experience that isn’t his.
However, with all the readings he had done in his studies, he felt he had at least a good grasp on the history of what had happened.
Another major influence on the album and on its signature song Man of God, was the birth of Hannam’s son four years ago. Hannam said although he had never been to a residential school, all of a sudden he could appreciate the pain and suffering that must have occurred to Native parents having their children taken away by the church and the Mounties, and not being able to see them until either Christmas, the summer holidays, or when they graduated school.
“That thought is absolutely crushing and it was something I tapped into, I tapped into that emotion that I would feel having my children taken away, and tried to tap into how my son would feel being taken from his parents, his home, his language, his culture and things like that,” Hannam said. “Man of God, the song came out of that.”
Love Lives On will be released on October 2 by the independent record label Black Hen Music. However, Hannam has had the chance to play Man of God to former residential school students in both formal and informal settings. Given how unsure he initially was about the project, one of the first things Hannam did when he began writing was send the song to some of the elders he had worked with while on the Blackfoot Reserve to get their opinion. Everyone told him it was a great song, and asked him to please tell their story for those who don’t know it.
Hannam also posted the song on YouTube with a slide show of archival pictures of residential schools and of survivors speaking at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he said got a lot of appreciation from both Native and non-Native citizens. Although he acknowledges he has not heard from every First Nations people across Canada, Hannam said he has yet to get any backlash.
“I just sung this song at a little festival last weekend, and a lady approached me from the audience as I was heading to my car to pack up my guitars and stuff, and she came up to me and she gave me a big hug, and she said ‘I am a residential school survivor’ and she said ‘thank you for writing, thank you for singing that,’” Hannam said. “I feel like I’ve got the OK to go ahead with the song.”
Through Facebook, Hannam has also received feedback from some of his former students, who have liked the song, and understood it as they have been hearing these stories from their relatives and grandparents for years.
“The other thing that’s quite funny is that when I was teaching, I didn’t even own a guitar,” Hannam said. “I didn’t sing, I didn’t write songs, so they saw me like you would see one of your junior high school teachers. That’s who they are, they’re a teacher, and they’re in that mold and they play that role, and so for them to see me now touring and singing songs and making records, it’s very sweet they think I am a bit of a rock star in their minds, and I always tell them I am just writing a few songs and plugging away here.”
Hannam feels the album is more personal than his previous work, and will give listeners an insight into who he is as a person. He said in addition to the personal topics, the album does things he has never done before, such as incorporate a horn section on two of the songs. It also includes collaborations with many guest artists who dropped by during the recording session, such as Geoff Hilhorst of the Deep Dark Woods, John Ellis of Doc Walker, and Yukon bluegrass musician and producer Bob Hamilton.
“I hope that I’ve matured as a songwriter and as an instrumentalist, and I hope the record reflects that,” Hannam said.
As part of his tour for Love Lives On, Hannam will be spending almost five nights a week for six straight weeks playing all over Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. He will be performing at The Root on Wednesday Oct. 7. Admission price is $20.
“I wrote (the album) because I wanted residential school survivors to know that there are non-native people out there who care,” Hannam said. “They care about the outcome of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they care about what happened in this very, very dark chapter of Canadian history, and they are paying attention.
“My heart breaks when I read those stories that the survivors of residential schools talk about.”