Betty Burke

AM signals from a parallel present

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Taking it All Back, Now (Austerity Measures): four free songs by Betty Burke

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Taking it All Back Now: photo by Jennifer Rowsom

“Taking it All Back, Now: Austerity Measures.” Four Free Songs by Betty Burke.

“No Drums No Masters!”

It’s not an ideological slogan- it’s a sign of the times. Musical austerity measures. Forgo the rehearsal space and cars that real drums require, and just lay it down with some cheap beats from a rented drum machine. As usual, the songs are all based on true stories. Low Budget- even lower than last time! But rich with imagination.

About the photograph: Jennifer Rowsom took this shot. I pitched it to her as a “feminist art project.” I’ve also re-enacted this shot with my theatrical collaborator Stephanie Markowitz. I love the musical genealogy of the original image by Daniel Kramer. In staging this version, I hoped to pay proper homage to the roots of each of the songs and to my artistic community, as well as to place the songs in historical context. Radioactive fallout is still a concern, but now the cover story on the magazine is about peak oil and climate change. On the mantle Bo Diddley, the originator, presides over all of the music that descended from his inspired playing. Beside Bo, there is a piece of art by Will Munro. Will passed away around the time I wrote “When the Wind Blows,” and the song reflects upon time spent with both him and with the writer Adam Gilders, as they were each dying of brain cancer (Adam died in 2007.) Will’s Vazaleen and Peroxide parties were the well from which my own musical community sprang. Among the records on the floor there is one anchor piece from the original album cover we’re aping (a special thanks to my father David for finding that, it’s rather rare!)

For more of Jennifer’s work:

Songs (c) 2010, 2011 by Maggie MacDonald (SOCAN)
Recorded and Produced in 2011 by James Bunton at his home studio
Mastered by Matt Smith

The Players:
Jo Snyder: Guitars
Maggie MacDonald: vocals
Sheila Sampath: keyboard, shaker
Paul Mathew: Bass
with backing vocals by Jo Snyder, Sheila Sampath

Thank yous: Cribbing from Fugazi we’re going to leave it at a simple “Thank you.” Imagine how many friends Fugazi had? We probably don’t have as many, but, imagine?

1. The Man in The Middle

This is an imaginary duet. At our gigs Gentleman Reg often sings this with me.

2. No Sympathy

When I’m feeling down, I throw on Between the Buttons. Picture it, track one- Let’s Spend the Night Together. And it’s skipping. Then the phone rings…

3. When The Wind Blows

Every era has it’s plague. I knew a guy with a lot of friends, then pestilence came. Some friends became activists and caregivers, others walked away.

The lesson of the plague is that the person with the pamphlet doesn’t always “answer the call.” Very often it’s that seemingly apolitical person who, when called by thoughtless, selfless “brotherly love,” does the right thing at the right time.

I know a guy, he’s got a lot of friends
Now let me tell you about his Problems
pestilence comes and grabs him by the collar
Who will come running when he Hollers?

Guilt is a cargo with no value
Competing regrets shout and argue
I pull my weight in Guilt and I press on
Slowed by my doubts and questions

Caught at the crossroads, watching
My mistakes shake, resonate
Making waves until the bridge breaks
If I cross, will I be saved?

When the wind blows
When the wind blows
Then you will know
Only then you will know

I stop in my tracks to read me a letter
From 79, signed “Pliny the Elder”
Sayin’ “Things will get dark before they get better
Don’t look back, at your creator

He told of a hole where a servant died
With Caligula’s stamp by the seaside
Best laid plans dissolve in Messianic time
When the lava runs down the rock No one can hide

The song of the wind I mistook for wise laughter
The sound of the leaves, an accident of matter
The angel of history only sees looking back
The debris of catastrophe is piling up fast

When the wind blows
When the wind blows
Then we will know
Only then we will know

4. The Giver and The Taker

You can outrun punishment, but you can’t outrun the judge.


BB’s “Suede” to screen at Ottawa International Film Festival

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People sometimes ask me how I know so many musicians from Ottawa. As a punk and fanzine writer in Cornwall in the 90s, attending shows in Ottawa and hanging around the zine rack at Five Arlington, was an important part of my life. Though I am not “from Ottawa,” I was more than a tourist/less than a resident to its music scene, and I continue to be friends with many of the great people I met in those years.

Ottawa-born Jeff Miller’s Ghost Pine zines and book are a big influence on Betty Burke. I consider Ghost Pine’s guiding principle “All Stories True” to be words to live by, and reading Jeff’s tales about friends and fellow musicians taught me that you don’t need science fiction to have a good time.

Ottawa has given me friends, literary influences, great music, and a distinctive accent. But that’s not all: this summer, Ottawa is giving Betty Burke a film screening! The Ottawa International Film Festival (OIFF) is happy to include Cornwallites in their definition of local filmmakers. It is just a hop, skip & jump; a jump away, after all! So this local filmmaker will be having a big screen debut on Sunday, August 21st at the Babylon club on Bank Street, as part of a music video program that runs 6:30 PM – 9:30 PM. The film of Betty Burke’s “You Can’t Wear Suede in The Rain,” a collaboration with Joseph Clement, will be shown along with other music videos from the Ottawa area.

There is a lot of talent in the valley, and I am proud to be part of a festival that celebrates this rich little land of storytellers, musicians, and film and video artists.

– MM

Written by bettyburkeband

August 3, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Got the power of the AM

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When I was sixteen, my friend Margaret Ann and I decided to take a wild road trip down Highway 2 to Belleville, Ontario. We had friends living there, but didn’t know their phone number or address. Somewhere around the Quinte Mall we stopped at a sandwich shop to exchange worried looks and twiddle our thumbs. The green haired fellow behind the counter started up a conversation with us, brainstorming ways we might find our friends. His name was Ian, and it turned out we knew some of the same musicians (Shotmaker of course, the best band in Eastern Ontario in those days). Ian welcomed us to stay in the sandwich shop as long as we liked.

Our mood had already lifted when the door opened, and in walked three of Ian’s friends- a girl in a powder blue polyester suit, and two guys, her henchmen, if you will. The girl’s name was Michelle Kasprzak. She had a fat cigar, and a tweed cap, and was clearly the ringleader of Belleville’s motley youth posse. We exchanged mailing addresses, and when I got back to Cornwall, I sent Michelle a package- or did she send the first? We were penpals for two years.

Michelle was obsessed with Glenn Gould at that time. She sent me a mixtape, and a photo of the magical scarf-and-glove man, in one of her decorated envelopes. I sent Michelle zines, and mixtapes too, it was 1997 afterall.

The limited number of highways in Canada means that most people travel either East or West, so it’s no shocker that I’ve had several unplanned run-ins with Michelle over the years. Now she is living in Europe, and I haven’t seen her since the morning after a show at which the Arcade Fire opened for The Hidden Cameras– which should give you a sense of how long it’s been!

Michelle’s career as an artist has taken off over the years, and another member of her Belleville posse, Daniel Cockburn has found success as a filmmaker, recently winning the prestigious Chalmers Award. Growing up in Belleville is probably a lot like growing up in Cornwall, and maybe just a little bit like being young in Espanola or Weyburn too. Teenage artists and art appreciators have the internet to connect with now, but in the past, we met by chance along the East-West highway.

Echoes of other places were always traveling to us though, through the night, on the other side of the dial. No gloom of night can stay the power of the AM radio, for which the signal is only stronger in more isolated places. As Jonathan Richman sings in Roadrunner, “Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on…got the power of the AM…rock & roll late at night…”

Michelle Kasprzak’s beloved Glenn Gould also praises the power of AM radio; in the 1974 essay “The Search for Petula Clark,” Gould describes a stretch of Highway 17 on the North Shore of Lake Superior where the AM radio reception is especially clear, bringing Petula to his ears from thousands of miles away. In the documentary No Direction Home, Bob Dylan speaks to the power of the AM signals that reached his ears at night, in his boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota, where the furthest headwaters of Superior trickle down towards Duluth. Drifting over hills and prairie, the songs of Hank Williams and Elvis were carried from stations in Memphis and New Orleans, to the children of remote towns and outposts who spent their solitary hours of darkness by the radio.

Distance and isolation amplify the power of music, radio resonating loudly in the hearts of the lonely, transforming anonymous lovesongs into transcendental breakers, slicing through the everyday to that other realm where parallel worlds ring together in a single chord.

Imagine yourself driving West on Highway 17, alone in the dark, with Lake Superior to the left, and ragged rocks to the right. You hear an oldies station, but do not recognize a single song. The announcer makes reference to the biggest artists of the 50s and 60s, and the names of the dead are spoken of in present tense: Otis Redding and Buddy Holly, two old men in America.

The news isn’t all good, however. Slight variations in the government, wrong turns in a war, floods where the well is dry, all of it adds up to a warning of what could be, what will be, and the temporary and delicate state of what already is. In that other world, there is no Highway 17, because the North Shore is just a sprinkling of mining pits. In that other world, Lake Superior is dry, because something had to be drained to keep the wheels turning. That other world is close enough to touch you through that break in time, the AM station so faint it can only be picked up on remote roads, when you’re all alone. And through the news from that other world, our own world is reflected- the systems and powers we behold and obey as permanent fixtures are only as strong as the belief that they’re endless. And the song of the distant station tests that belief, shaking its foundations with the vocalization of a lonely announcer, who faithfully waits for better days, and spins old 45s to comfort the world in the meantime.

Though we’re far apart, and we may live in isolation, we can pick up these signals and hum along to the songs that shake the foundation of the everyday, to let in the light of another, better future.


Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River: A Seaway Valley History Project

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The Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River is an EP featuring five songs about characters from the Seaway Valley, and an illustrated companion zine. The stories are all true, in their own way. Betty Burke is a proud member of the Blocks Recording Club, with whom we released the project in February 2011.

About the project

The vellum envelope cover features an image of two youths on the North bank of the St Lawrence River, and a line drawing of the section of river running from Cornwall’s West end to Morrisburg, Ontario, as it appeared from the end of the last ice age, to July 1st, 1958- “Inundation Day.” Under the vellum layer is a drawing of the same section of the river, as it appears today. Robert Alfons of the band Trust, critic/curator Kevin Hegge, and historian Dr. Laurie Bertram were my models for the drawings.

The comic book/zine inside is set in Cornwall, Gateway to the Great Lakes, industrial jewel of the Seaway Valley, little smoke on the St Lawrence Lowlands, urban bilingual hub of counties Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, at the Easternmost corner of Ontario, and the border of Quebec, Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, and The United States of America.

Cornwall and area is fortunate to have many local history buffs who collect photos and share stories online so that those of us from younger generations can understand the story of our home. Thanks to these local history keepers, I was able to do learn about some of the sites that act as supporting characters in the comic zine.

Most of the buildings and infrastructure works in the drawings have since been razed, burned or overtaken by weeds. They were built in an age of optimism, when a growing middle class could expect to live more comfortably and longer than their parents. The decay of public works marks the end of that era.

The objects depicted in the comic are:

p. 1: The remains of a small power dam that stood adjacent to a mill, which burned down in a Halloween fire in the early 50s. The remains of the Cornwall Cotton Mill, in the East end of town, burned down in a Thanksgiving fire in 2010, so it is hard to find reference to the earlier mill fire online- all search terms call up references to the recent conflagration, and the orange and black photos of that event. That’s how the memory of events gets buried and forgotten in the Google age. On my next visit to Cornwall I will be spending some time in the local history reading room of the Public Library, and I hope to turn up more information on the earlier fire.

p. 5: The Cornwall International bridge, soon to be dismantled and replaced by a low level bridge. Site of two major blockades over the years (during the Oka uprising, and more recently, over the issue of arming Canadian border guards), it was built with a curve so as not to pass over the Domtar paper mill lot. When the Domtar mill was open, the bridge offered an unparalleled view of colourful wastewater and chemical ponds- bright green and dark blue circles of liquid, veiled in trails of white smoke from the stacks. A sight to behold.

p. 9: A knot of trees by a small power dam that once powered a mill. The trees have overtaken what was once a busy industrial spot; now they create a peaceful archway over a footpath to the riverbank.

p.12: A Corvette up on blocks by the old canal, in the Riverdale neighbourhood.

p. 13: (Left to right) Mustard flowers (related in name but not chemically, mustard gas was manufactured and buried in Cornwall’s West end during WWII); Two Twentieth Century views of the Cornwall Cotton Mill, shown adjacent to a portion of the old canal, which ships used to pass the Long Sault Rapids to reach the Great Lakes prior to the construction of the St Lawrence Seaway; The King George Hotel in it’s heydey. Once the gem of the bustling Anglo downtown (“Le Village,” a few blocks away, is Cornwall’s historic Francophone downtown), the King George building was incinerated in the mid 90s.

p. 14: (Left to right) Powerlines stand between Laurie and The Howard Smith smokestack, of the now defunct Domtar paper mill. Most of the plant was torn down and sold for scrap, but the smokestack is still standing, for now; The Cornwall Cotton Mill in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century. The mill burned down in a fire on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010. It was set for demolition the next week. This is how the mill looked in the last two years of its existence. Just around the corner where water once flowed, 120 years ago Thomas Edison installed some of the first electric lighting for a factory floor; A portion of the soon to be demolished Cornwall International Bridge shown between bare trees.

About the songs

The songs were all recorded with James Bunton, with input from the players. The musicians included Shaun Brodie (organ, piano), the inimitable Holly Andruchuk (guitar, voice), Jon Hynes (bass, guitar), John Power (drums) and myself, with arrangements by Holly and Shaun. This was before Jo and Sheila joined the band, but they were both present spiritually, since Sheila lent her Farfisa to the recording, and Jo Snyder was my coach in the studio. “El Dorado” was composed with Holly’s help, at her old apartment by the Mount Pleasant Cemetery; the ten pages of lyrics I originally had for Eldorado were edited down on the fly a few minutes before we played it onstage for the first time in June 2009 at the Imperial Pub in Toronto.

1. New Job
I like my job; this song isn’t about the place I work at. It’s about a character from Cornwall- or any former industrial town that now has few jobs for young people. The character moves to a big city and starts temping; tired of the snobs at the water cooler, who’ve never hung in a trailer or had to run from a fight, the character fantasizes about moving back home to be a smuggler, running cigarettes instead of doing data entry.

2. River of Need

This is a love song for the St Lawrence River, “A river dishonored” my Godmother said, before she passed away in 2010. “If I die far from your banks, will my death have your mud to thank?” The sediment in the Stormont Country shoreline contains high levels of mercury, and the fish can only be eaten in limited quantities. Some communities in the Great Lakes are opting to dredge mercury and PCBs from sediment; Cornwall has opted to let the river bury the toxins naturally.

3. El Dorado

The true story of my grandfather Eddy, a uranium miner who defied death when a falling pick penetrated his helmet and lodged in his brain. After recovering from partial paralysis, he eventually returned to work- above ground. He died at the age of 77, and was buried near his birthplace in Alexandria, Glengarry County, Ontario. I often wonder what he thought about while waiting to be rescued from the pit where he lay bleeding, temporarily blind and deaf. The foreman had assumed Eddy would die but as the hours dragged on, Eddy’s chest continued to rise and fall, so they called a plane to airlift him to a hospital in Saskatoon. While he was most likely unconscious, I often wonder what went through his mind in those hours, when his number came up and he simply refused to die.

4. Brink of Extinction

Do you see ratio only? The last thing music needs is yet another Blake reference, but that hasn’t stopped us. This is a song about hope in the face of despair.

5. You Can’t Wear Suede in The Rain

I went out shopping with Shaun Brodie, to help him pick out a pair of boots. He sided against one elegant pair because “you can’t wear suede in the rain.” You never know when it’s going to rain. Philosopher Alain Badiou writes that the meaning of truth is to be faithful to “the event.” The event rearranges the world. “The weather that is”- that’s the event, in this song.

Thanks for taking the time to read about Betty Burke’s “Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River.” While Betty Burke continues to play the songs listed above, I am also working on an extended song cycle in the Great Lakes history vein, which I hope to stage in a slightly more theatrical fashion. No word on the timeline though- it takes a long time to turn the coal of life into diamonds!

I hope you enjoy the EP and zine, and if you’re passing through Cornwall, take some time along the riverbank to admire the blue and black water that sustains the local life.