Can a Caucasian musician take on residential schools? Yes.

MUSIC by Hank Videoclip

John Wort Hannam
The Artful Dodger
Friday 23

Folk music tells stories, from Johnny Cash’s murder ballads to Stompin’ Tom’s tall tales.

John Wort Hannam is sharing one of Canada’s most shameful.

The Juno-nominated Hannam is a United Kingdom-spawned Canadian folk musician based out of Fort Macleod, Alberta, and his newest album Love Lives On details life on the road, love and family histories. On his track “Man Of God”, Hannam also writes about residential schools. I asked him about that during a phone interview from his hometown, where his fall cross-country tour began. Hannam and a full band bring their soulful sounds — one is reminded of legendary folk artist Tom Russell — to The Artful Dodger later this month.

How do you feel about the tour?

It feels good. My first child is going to be four this month. I used to be gone about 200 days a year before Charlie was born. I haven’t put out a record in three years, so it feels really good to get back on the horse again.

You talk about residential schools on your new album, Love Lives On. You come from a background of teaching and Native American Studies. When did that topic start seeping into your song writing?

The residential school song “Man of God” was the last song I finished for the record, but it was the one I started first six years ago. I wasn’t sure how to finish it. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to sing it. Being non-Native, there’s a fear of misappropriating a history that isn’t yours or you’re not a part of. I’m as Anglo-Saxon as they come.

I think some people believe residential schools are a Native issue. I think it’s a Canadian issue. I wanted First Nations people to know there are non-Native people out there who care. They care about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and what comes out of it. That’s why I wanted to finish that song. It took me a long time to figure it out, I think, because I’m a dad now.

I couldn’t really attach myself to [the issue of residential schools] until I became a father. The thought of a church official or the police coming to my house and removing my child made me realize how crushing that was. I thought about how hysterically lonely my son would be.

Do you think music is one way for non-First Nations allies to find empathy?

Absolutely. There’s a line in the song that goes, “They cut off the braids that my mama had tied.” That image of a woman braiding their child’s hair and touching them for potentially the last time before being taken away is relatable. Music does that.

I got an e-mail from a man in Halifax about a week ago. He said, “Music has the power to influence people. My father was a priest at Saint Paul’s Anglican Residential School, and that song [“Man of God”] was a slap in the face.” He said his father wasn’t a monster.

Is there a part of you that empathizes with that guy’s concerns?

I said I believed him, but I can’t believe that all of them were kind and loving because that’s not what the accounts from survivors say. The [song’s] main point is residential schools were xenophobic. First Nations people were thought of as evil and needing religious education. It was a loss of culture — a crime. I had to tell him, “I’m sorry, but your father was engaged in that.”

You’re not afraid of losing fans over this?

[Laughs] No. I’m not.

John Wort Hannam and company play The Artful Dodger on Friday, Oct. 23 at 9 p.m.