Toronto’s folk and roots music scene is flourishing, with talented performers taking the stage almost every night of the week at the city’s clubs.
Award-winning singer and songwriter Glen Hornblast, who’s playing at this year’s Winterfolk Blues and Roots Festival, is one of the leading players on the scene, at venues like the Tranzac Club and the Free Times Cafe.
As a musician, Hornblast has had his ups and downs. During his high school years at Bathurst Height Secondary School in the late 1960s, he was “into music, poetry and smoking pot,” he said. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan were his heroes
He taught himself to play guitar, quit high school and travelled across Canada in the early 1970s, staying at youth hostels. “We’d jam all night and I started playing my own songs and people loved them,” he said.
By 1980, Hornblast had released a well-received hit single, called “Northern Skies.” He wrote it while he was living on a beach in the interior of British Columbia. He’s planning to re-record the song on his yet-to-be-released sophomore album.
“But the ‘80s weren’t kind to folksingers,” Hornblast said. His record label went bankrupt, and he went on the road, playing in bars in Ontario, in a duo called Hornblast and (Michael) Kelly.
“We never had a profit because we had to put all our money into our cars and never really got ahead. The other thing was, you had to play cover songs. You’d get to a bar and they’d ask you, ‘Do you know any Waylon Jennings?’ and if you said no, they said, ‘You better know some by tonight’ and that’s the way it was,” Hornblast said.
Some artists might have given up on music, but Hornblast persevered. “I love playing with my fellow musicians, and it’s gratifying to be able to share your art with other people and have people say, ‘Now that was truth. You really spoke the truth, you really touched my heart with that song,’ and that’s the payoff we have,” he said.
He currently hosts open mics and his own song and poetry events at the Tranzac Club, and he continues to write prolifically, in a range of genres, folk, country, blues and jazz. He’s been called one of Canada’s top tunesmiths and lyricists by No Depression, an online journal of roots music.
“Mary,” a song he wrote about a homeless Holocaust survivor he befriended on Bloor Street West in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, won a Folk Music Ontario’s Song From The Heart Award.
“She was there for 15, 20 years, sleeping in alleys, sleeping in doorways. She was a bit crazy, she talked to God. We call that crazy when people talk to God, but I talk to God sometimes. People in the neighbourhood were very kind to her,” he said.
“She didn’t talk about her past, so when I wrote the song I couldn’t include the details of her life. It was too private for her to talk about. Whatever it was, there was war, there was escape, there was probably family dying, like there was in my family.”
Hornblast added that most of his family on his dad’s side were Polish Jews who died in the Holocaust.
His song “Freedom Train,” about the Underground Railroad, also won a Song From The Heart Award. “I wrote that when I went to Memphis and I went to the National Civil Rights Museum. It was a moving experience, and on the plane home I started writing that song,” Hornblast said.
A political left-winger, he said he supports social justice. “That why I’ve written so many songs about poor people, homeless people, about ordinary people,” he said. “The best songs are about experiences from real life.”
Glen Hornblast is playing at the Winterfolk Blues and Roots Festival, February 21 to 23. Visit winterfolk.com.