Three days at folk boot camp : Songwriting fundamentals with Great Lake Swimmers' Tony Dekker

Posted by on 31 July 2008

Peter Hemminger, FFWD Weekly, July 31, 2008


I jog into the Cantos Music Foundation at five minutes past 10 a.m., out of breath, guitar case in hand. Late, of course, and lacking a notebook, I feel like I’m in high school all over again. Except, unless they were extremely adept at hiding their secret identities, none of my high school teachers fronted internationally successful indie-rock acts. Certainly, none of them ever started a lesson by playing an Innocence Mission song, though I wish they would have.

So begins the first day of History Through Song: The Fundamentals of Folk Music Writing, a three-day “boot camp” hosted by the Calgary Folk Music Festival and featuring Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers. Now in its third year, the boot camp series provides music fans the rare chance to pick the brains of their favourite artists on topics ranging from songwriting to finger-picking techniques to the fundamentals of clawhammer banjo.

As the lesson begins, it’s clear that neither the students nor Dekker, a first-time teacher, have any real idea how the session will proceed. The class consists of a baker’s dozen songwriters at various points in their musical journeys — some have been putting out albums for years and are hoping to refine their process, others have hardly mustered the courage to play in front of their own family. By the end of the third day, everyone will have presented a song of their own, as well as collaborating with others in the group. For Dekker, that alone was reason enough to take part in the event.

“It was really wonderful to see people playing songs, a lot of people for the first time,” he says. “That’s a special thing, to see someone play a song for the first time. That was a really amazing part of it to witness, from my perspective.”

It’s clearly special for the rest of the group, too. The atmosphere in the classroom is incredibly open and incredibly positive. Supportive comments spring forth after every performance. “Boot camp” is entirely the wrong term, as it feels more like a self-help group than a seminar. Other workshops might be more regimented — the rumour is that the blues guitar session with Tao Ravao was a bit of an ordeal, though a rewarding one — but for a topic as personal as songwriting, the open-armed approach seems appropriate. Not that finding positive comments was a stretch, as Dekker confirms.

“[I was surprised by] the level of talent, and how people tapped into it,” he says. “I was really impressed with the way people were willing to be open and engaged and tap into that creativity that I believe is within all of us.”

By the end of the third day, it’s clear that the “History Through Song” aspect of the session won’t be completely ignored, but that’s not what anyone was really looking for, anyway. The chance to work with an established artist and share his thoughts on the songwriting process was incentive enough to have taken part. The encouragement and insight Dekker provided may even kick-start a career or two.

“Your story is unique, good and different,” he says as the session comes to a close, “ and just being alive is reason enough to tell it.”