Home Culture Arts & Entertainment This land is full of Jewish-Canadian folk legends

This land is full of Jewish-Canadian folk legends

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Jerry Gray
Jerry Gray

The story of how the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” were rewritten by the Canadian group the Travellers to reflect our geography has become the stuff of legend.

In his song, Guthrie sings the praises of the American landscape, citing California, the New York island, the Redwood forest and the Gulf Stream waters in the chorus. For the now classic Canadian version, the Travellers modified the refrain, changing the American place names to Bonavista, Vancouver Island, the Arctic Circle and the Great Lake waters.

One of the rare Canadian hits of the early 1960s, “This Land Is Your Land” made the Travellers a household name during the folk revival. In 1967, they played 186 concerts, including touring across Canada and the Far North. “It’s quite a record for anyone,” said Jerry Gray, a founding member of the Travellers who sang and played banjo in the group and was inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame at this year’s Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ont., earlier this month.

“It’s always great to receive an award from a peer-driven organization for quality and longevity,” Gray said.

The Travellers made 16 appearances at the Mariposa Folk Festival, including headlining the first festival in 1961.

The Travellers in 1954

The first incarnation of the Travellers  – with Gray, Sid Dolgay, Helen Gray, Jerry Goodis and Oscar Ross – came out of a choir of 12 young people who were summering at Camp Naivelt, a left-wing secular Jewish camping community near Brampton, Ont., that was operated by the United Jewish People’s Order.

American folksinger Pete Seeger sang Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at a concert at Camp Naivelt in 1953, the year the Travellers were formed.

At the time, Guthrie and Seeger had been blacklisted by the industry due to McCarthyism. Guthrie’s song was banned from U.S. radio stations and Seeger asked the Travellers to take the song. They adapted it for Canada by changing the geographic references and adding a verse in French, and recorded the song in 1956. “Then we did it on about 15 Canadian television shows and it became a mega hit in Canada long before it (Guthrie’s version) was released in the U.S. by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962,” Gray said.

The Travellers performed folk, protest, labour and children’s songs, recording 19 albums from 1957 to 1969. They sang at every major Canadian union convention from the 1960s through to the ’90s.

In 2009, Gray received a lifetime achievement award from the Ontario Federation of Labour for his support for unions and, the next year, he was the recipient of the Joe Hill Award for integrating arts and culture into the labour movement.

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Joe Hampson, husband of Sharon, Lois and Bram’s Sharon Hampson, was the Travellers’ bassist for more than 40 years. All together, 12 singers and instrumentalists have been associated with the Travellers over the years. James Gray, one of Jerry Gray’s four sons, was part of Jerry Gray and the Travellers, a group formed after Hampson’s death in 2006. A talented multi-instrumentalist who played keyboards with the band Blue Rodeo for 14 years, James Gray died of a massive heart attack in 2013.

Jerry Gray, 85, usually spends five months each year performing in Florida, but in 2016, after a series of his concerts were cancelled, he decided to write a book about himself and the Travellers. He’s currently looking for a publisher for his book, Jerry Gray: The Lonesome Traveller. If he’s unable to find one, he said he’ll self-publish.

Looking back on his career in music, Gray said one of its high points was conducting the 385-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Canadian version of “This Land Is Your Land” at  Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto in 2011. “It’s probably the most significant performance I’ve had to do, although I wasn’t singing,” Gray said. 

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