Mike Tod, host and producer of The Folk Song Hour (Saturdays 7-8 a.m.)
Mike sat down with Michelle Johnson to talk about his love for folk music, his dream to build a cabin, and how Biggie Smalls and JayZ are actually Folk astists!
MJ: Mike, where are you from?
MT: I’m from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
MJ: When did you move to Toronto?
MT: September 2014.
MJ: What brought you to Toronto?
MT: Schooling. So I’m taking my graduate degree at York in Ethnomusicology.
MJ: Oh, amazing. Is your undergraduate in music as well?
MT: No, my undergraduate is in Communications Studies from the University of Calgary. And that’s where I first started getting involved in radio was back at the U of C.
MJ: So you were involved in radio there as well?
MT: Yeah, I’ve been programming for four years. My previous program was called “The Pioneer’s Handbook,” on CJSW 90.9 FM in Calgary and it focused on “sustainable living” topics, back-to-basics living. The whole program followed the arc of finding a plot of land, building a cabin on it, and how: what to fill the cabin with, events and musical activities that could take place and it was kind of like groundwork for my only goal in life. I want to build a cabin, on my own and live in it one day. So whatever I do in life is geared towards me building this cabin.
MJ: And so how does radio help you build this cabin?
MT: I think a guy of my generation needs to draw on multiple pools, like, sources of income. So my ideal is that one day I’ll get paid for my radio work, I’ll teach part-time at a university level in music, folk music. And get paid for playing shows. Those are my three kinda things.
MJ: So you’re a musician as well?
MT: That’s correct, yeah.
MJ: What instruments do you play?
MT: I play guitar, I’m kinda in the old-time, finger-style picking, Carter-family picking, Mississippi John Hurt picking and flat picking.
MJ: Where did this love for folk music come from?
MJ: Well the one side of my family, the Wards side of my family was around Alberta for generations. And Grandpa Ward was a rancher and a homesteader and he brought a guitar with him. And he played music, and I remember family gatherings where he would play some old folk-songs. I kinda guess where the watershed opened was when I started radio programming at CJSW and I would sit in the library for like, hours, every week, just in their folk music section, with the vinyls and bins of CDs and Pete Seeger was my gatekeeper, he kinda introduced me to all these old, primarily American, folk songs and ballads, and the history behind all of them. Yeah, he’s definitely like the guy, you know. The cookie-cutter model for most folk people out there.
MJ: How long have you been doing The Folk Song Hour?
MT: Since November
MJ: Where do you get most of the music for your program?
MT: So over the years at CJSW in the library, sitting for hours a week I would bring my laptop in and I would just import CDs in the thing, then I would put it on my iTunes. And I have, like a collection of, it’s almost at 11,000 folk songs.
MJ: Have you listened to every single song from that library?
MT: Yeah, yeah.
MJ: So you have a pretty… I don’t want to say “eccentric,” that almost sounds insulting, but a different look. You dress how I would picture the music; can you talk a little bit about your style?
MT: I don’t know. You’d have to ask my partner, Grace. She’s says I have an OK style. I just, I dunno I, ah, yeah. I couldn’t even comment on that. I don’t know. The only comment on style I have is I’m a carpenter by trade.
MJ: That helps with the cabin dream, I’m sure.
MT: Yes. Yeah, exactly. So I kinda did odd jobs for Ian Tyson back in Alberta, I was his carpenter for about a year. And Ian Tyson was around in the early 1960s, when the folk revival, or scare, or boom or whatever you want to call it, was happening. And he knew Bob Dylan, personally. Before Bob broke, just became this massive star.
MT: So I’d go in the mornings and just do some carpentry work, I’d fix his well top or whatever. And in the afternoons we’d have coffee and I’d ask him stories about Bob, every time. And my only story about style is he said that Bob Dylan was acutely aware of how he looked. And he would spend hours in front of the mirror, trying to look like he didn’t try, was how he put it.
MJ: And is that you?
MT: I do not spend hours in front of the mirror. I just have like, two pairs of jeans, two hats, my glasses.
MJ: So you said you play instruments, are you currently in any bands, playing around town at all?
MT: I play solo, and I do play around town.
MT: I’m going to be on tour for March and April. Two people I know from out West are coming and touring and I’m just going to open for them.
MJ: Do you have any music that you’ve released? CDs?
MT: Yeah, I’ve released 3 CDs and I’ve took them all down. So only 200 people have the CD back in Calgary somewhere.
MJ: Why did you take them down?
MT: You change, you know. And I don’t like it so I take it down. And there is so many… I was having this conversation the other day; it’s like a drop of sand. If you put something up on bandcamp, it’s like a drop of sand on this huge beach. It doesn’t even matter, really. I was thinking about like, I play a lot of field recordings on the program. And field recordings back in the 40s were really hard to do. You have to lug this huge reel-to-reel player to the guy’s house in the mountains of Appalachia and today, we have field recorders everywhere on our laptops.
MT: There’s this huge bulk of field recordings that are being created. But anyways, that’s kind of off-topic. I am releasing something on Tuesday, though, like a demo CD I recorded over the holidays. And it’s for free; it’s just at miketod.bandcamp.com and its all traditional songs from Alberta.
MJ: What makes The Folk Song Hour different from other radio shows?
MT: Yeah, I guess what would set the program apart first is that it is both entertaining and educational. I’m very passionate about the stories, and the history behind these songs and the people who played them. Just as much as I am passionate for the song itself, the music. So I make sure I take a good amount of time to go through the backstory of these people. Most of them were like, farmers, hard labourers, who made records before World War II, and then they just went back to sharecropping some of them, like in the blue’s tradition, were slaves, were prisoners. So I really make sure I communicate that on the program. As opposed to, some programmers would just say “I really like this song because… blank.”
MJ: Do you ever play new music?
MT: Well, not like new, I say it’s like new-old music, like people who still play these old songs. There’s pockets of us, all around the globe, who… it’s like a tradition-bearer, someone who carries these songs with them. So that, when I have children and they have children, those songs will still be around. So it’s an age-old process, it’s called a folk process, that’s been refined and refined to the point where we have this great collection of old folk songs and then like, sometime in the mid twentieth century, people started writing their own songs, you know. And that evolved, into pop music and that’s like a whole other deal. I do plan special shows so like, St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll play Irish music, maybe. This weekend, although that won’t matter by the time this newsletter comes out, I’m doing a special on Pete Seeger, because it’s the one-year anniversary of his death this week.
MT: Back home I would always do this “Stampede Show,” all cowboy songs.
MJ: So for people who may not be familiar with the folk genre or the folk tradition, why get involved, why listen?
MT: Oh, man. Well, why I got involved and why I started really listening to it was just a feeling. I was talking about this in class this week, apparently a lady wrote a whole paper on the scientific reasons she liked this one song. But I say there is no way you can tell that. It’s like saying “why do I like eating clam chowder?” It’s good, it tastes good, it fills me up. And it’s the same with folk music. I feel like, I feel full after listening to it, I always go out of the studio with a smile on my face, because it’s like listening to an hour of these fantastic songs.
MJ: Are there any misconceptions about folk music that people should know about?
MT: Um, yeah. There are misconceptions about labels, I think, today. Because when Mumford & Sons was out, people said “wow this is a great folk band,” but it’s just pop music with a banjo. And I try my best not to get into those arguments of like, defining folk music because I recognize that Mumford & Sons have a really great place in music. My aunt, who had never heard a banjo in her life, she heard Mumford & Sons one day on the radio and she got interested in banjo. She started tracing it back to like its African roots, you know. So they’re needed, but I think there’s always grey area in life. “What is folk?” Nobody really knows, I can only give you my idea of that, but everyone has got their different one.
MJ: And so your idea of folk is?
MT: Ah, my idea of folk is like, it’s usually a traditional song, or a song that is created in the traditional vein, traditional meaning like, we usually don’t know the author of the song, it’s pretty archetypal. A lot of similar chords, like you can reuse a melody, Woody Guthrie was really big for that, just taking a traditional song and putting new words to it and then, that’s a folk song now. I don’t know, there’s a couple tongue-in-cheek definitions, like there’s this blue’s guy called Big Bill Brunes he said, they asked him if what he was playing was like a folk song and he said “it has to be, I’ve never heard a horse sing it!” You know? But there’s a lot of… that’s a fiery debate amongst folk people. Some people say it’s only music of illiterate or preliterate people. Which would mean like, the only folk songs today are kid songs, because they’re preliterate.
MT: But I think that rap music is even folk music, too. You know?
MJ: That’s a bold statement.
MT: Oh, man. I think that the folk magazines should be publishing JZ songs, for sure, and Biggie Small songs.
MJ: Interesting. Why?
MT: Because one definition of folk music is it’s a way to communicate amongst your community and your region, to tell the stories and events that are going on. And I think of what Biggie Smalls or JZ looked like in Brooklyn standing on a street corner, talking about their life. That’s just as much a folk song as a Big Bill Brunes folk song. It’s the exact same, it’s right on par.
MJ: So would you ever play JZ or Biggie Smalls on your show?
MT: No, because I’m very, I have like this, very fine, fine scope that I’m still processing. I’m still getting through it. You know.
MJ: So how do you find time for all of this? You’re doing graduate studies, you play your own music, how do you find time to research and collect the music?
MT: You just do. I think if you are desperate enough, you’ll find a way. If you want to do it bad enough and you love it.
MJ: And you love it?
MT: Oh, man. It’s one of my passions.
MJ: How did you find out about CIUT?
MT: I got in touch with this station through an old-timer at CJSW, and his name is Chef Wayne. He has a show which is “South Louisiana Gumbo,” which is all Cajun music, which is also a great genre of music too. And he recommended this station and when I came to town I was kinda like shopping around and this was the best place for like, college and campus community radio. The one York where I go to school is like all Reggae music. And I know nothing about Reggae music. So I knew I wasn’t going to get a show there. And I know Sam through my friend, Sarah Hamilton, so she gave me a recommendation, and I just came in and talked to Ken face-to-face, pushed some buttons and weaseled my way in here.