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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

A Tribute to Samuel Gesser

(1930-2008)

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As you listen to Classic Canadian Songs, with its array of songs about occupations, courtship, drinking, historical events, politics, patriotism, and spiritual conviction, or tap your toe to the instrumental dances, remember that, then as now, music-making was integral to the lives of Aboriginal peoples and immigrants alike—a means of connecting what and who they were with what and who they had been, a means of preserving self- and cultural identity, and a means of fostering relationships within and across cultural boundaries.
(Dalen 2006, 6)

Artists whom Sam Gesser introduced to the Folkways catalogue include Canadian folk giants Alan Mills, Hélène Baillargeon, Jacques Lebrecque, and fiddler extraordinaire Jean Carignan. Sam likewise was responsible for Folkways releasing performances by well-known classical violinist Hyman Bress, Canadian maritime songs, Jewish folk songs, and much more. After Folkways, he put together compilations of Canadian folk music for Mercury Records, later Universal. As a body of works it was a magnificent accomplishment and an important seedbed for what came to be known as the Canadian folk music revival.

...Canadian albums speak in the voices of America's closest, and most closely related neighbour, and like-minded folks from both countries have long been sharing music and culture as well as social concerns across their national boundary. Folkways recordings and what they stand for easily found a Canadian constituency. Canadian performers and collectors entrusted Folkways with their materials, and this appreciation was a natural basis for trusting the label.
(Qureshi 2007)

By the late 1950s, some of the music Gesser had produced for Folkways had made its way into elementary school classrooms. Wayne Grigsby is a renowned Canadian film producer, formerly a print and broadcast journalist, and was a friend of Sam's from 1971 until Sam died.

Maybe in elementary school we would have sung Alan Mills' "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly" sort of stuff but I didn't connect it to Sam... I knew about Jean Carignan...but I didn't know that Sam was the guy who recorded him until years later.
(Grigsby 2009)

All of this would have been enough to make him a legend in some circles. But not long into the distribution business, Gesser recognized that live performances by artists would boost his album sales. He put together a Pete Seeger concert in Montreal, and then in 1954 founded Gesser Enterprises, which unfolded as did his over forty years of impresario activity: all across Canada. His work had a lasting effect upon Canada and many Canadians. I asked Wayne Grigsby about the impact of Sam's work on him personally:

I met him, metaphorically, in 1965 when I was at university taking some theatre courses. He was presenting Marat/Sade at Place des Arts [an important performance venue in Montreal]. He had called around to all the theatre schools and offered free tickets... I was completely blown away by the production—Peter Brook's Royal Shakespeare Company—"Holy mackerel! That's theatre?" ...Over the next few years it slowly dawned on me that all the shows that I was interested in tended to be presented by Sam. He presented Janis Joplin, he presented Marat/Sade, he presented (this was later) the Shanghai Ballet, the Beijing Opera—that would be Sam; Pete Seeger, that would be Sam. It was just intriguing to me that there was this guy who didn't want a lot of publicity and presented interesting shows.

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Click to watch video

Sam Gesser discusses Folkways Records and Canadian music