I went to overnight camp for the first time in 1964. It was there, at Camp Hatikvah in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, that I developed a fondness for the Israeli and North American folksongs that we’d sing en masse every day.
One of the most popular songs we sang at camp was “This Land is Your Land,” written in 1940 by the great American folksinger Woody Guthrie – a song that over many decades has been considered by many to be an alternative national anthem in the United States.
The chorus to Guthrie’s song is “This land is your land, this land is my land/From California to the New York Island/From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters/This land was made for you and me.”
But we sang, “This land is your land, this land is my land/From Bonavista to Vancouver Island/From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lake waters/This land was made for you and me,” a version of the chorus sung by millions of Canadian campers and school kids over the years.
The Canadian variation of “This Land is Your Land” came courtesy of The Travellers, a Toronto-based folk group modelled on The Weavers, who rewrote the chorus and recorded and performed it on TV in 1956.
The Travellers – who got their start in 1952 at Camp Naivelt, the United Jewish Peoples’ Order’s summer camp near Brampton – recorded many LPs, were often featured on TV and radio shows, and were a popular attraction at concerts and festivals across Canada, including major events like Expo ’67 in Montreal. Long before the arrival of Canadian content regulations for radio and TV, the group was popularizing songs like “Something to Sing About” and “The Black Fly Song,” which celebrated Canada and Canadians.
Banjo player Jerry Gray – now over 80 and retired from his other career as a dentist – was a founding member and lead singer of The Travellers. He still leads a version of The Travellers and appears as a solo performer at concerts and community events, and he will be bringing his one-man show to the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC) on August 22.
The Travellers came along at a time when there was a large Jewish presence on the North American folk music scene.
“When I started in folk music, it seemed like the whole world was Jewish,” Gray told me during a recent phone conversation from his Toronto home. “Other than Pete Seeger, it seemed like everyone involved in folk music was Jewish.”
Gray pointed to Toronto’s Jewish Folk Choir in the 1940s as a catalyst for his interest in folk music.
“My mother was a member of that choir,” he said, “and I absorbed all the Yiddish songs and songs like “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill” and other songs performed by Paul Robeson who performed several concerts at Toronto’s Massey Hall as a guest of the choir.”
In 1953, Seeger introduced The Travellers to “This Land is Your Land,” which, due to the McCarthy-era blacklist in the U.S., was not in wide circulation at the time. Seeger, said Gray, suggested they rewrite the song with Canadian words. They did just that, and, within a few years, it spread across the country becoming popular here at a time when it was barely being heard in the U.S.
At the SJCC concert, Gray will be singing a variety of the Canadian folksongs popularized by The Travellers as well as Yiddish folksongs he picked up as a boy from the Jewish Folk Choir.
“It’ll be Canadian songs and it’ll be Yiddish songs, and a little bit of the history of me – which is really the story of Canadian folk music on stage,” he said.
There will most certainly be lots of singing along.
Jerry Gray of The Travellers performs Monday, August 22, 7 pm, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre. Tickets are $10 and will be available at the door. Contact Roslyn Wollock at email@example.com or 613-798-9818, ext. 254, for more information.