Let me tell you the story of a folk hero. No, not Robin Hood or Billy Jack. And not Paul Bunyan either. A real folk hero. The kind that makes a difference in the lives of everyday folk. Yup, I’m proud to say that I know such a man, and to also have the privilege of calling him my friend.
Now, that word “hero” is kind of open to interpretation. For most of us the term conjures up the image of an individual who, with almost superhuman effort, sacrifices life, liberty, or safety for the sake of others. That is certainly the noble hero of whom stories are told and songs are sung. But there are probably more, less flamboyant heroes who, through unsolicited and selfless actions, promote the success or well-being of others above their own self interests for the sake of a just cause or a greater good. They may not end up as song-worthy legends, but they certainly deserve our recognition and heartfelt thanks for their deeds.
Jack Cole would probably deny that he’s anybody’s hero. And he’d be wrong. Those of us involved in the folk music community, who treasure that historically gentle and ageless art-form – that musical voice of the common folk – appreciate that it takes someone with vision, perseverance, and a selfless soul to keep the spirit of folk music alive in a modern cynical world that seems to openly mock heartfelt acoustic music at every turn. Especially when that person’s efforts are directed mostly to presenting and promoting the talents of others rather than their own. That’s Jack Cole.
How to describe Jack? Well, he’s an impressive man in many ways. First of all, he’s just undeniably likeable. I’ve never heard a negative word spoken about him. People seem to gravitate to his good nature, quick wit, and genuine interest in them. He’s also quite intelligent, having recently earned his Masters of Computer Science from the University of Guelph as a mature student, while at the same time holding down a full-time job as a College Professor in the Integrated Telecommunication and Computer Technologies (ITCT) degree program at Conestoga College, which is where I first met him.
Jack is ideally suited to teaching, as he is a natural speaker who seems as comfortable in front of a crowd as he would be talking to you in his living room. His organizational skills are appreciated by his colleagues, and his ability to express complicated mathematical concepts in an easy-to-understand way makes him popular with his students. But these are just Jack’s professional credentials. When the final bell tolls, who of us wants to be remembered solely for our career achievements? As impressive as Jack’s resumé is, that’s not what I wanted to tell you about. It’s his personal activities – what he does in his so-called “off hours” (if Jack even has off hours) – that makes him a folk hero in my books.
Jack’s personal activities are many fold. First of all, it must be appreciated that he is a talented and highly-respected folk musician in his own right. He plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bodhrán (a hand-held, circular, wooden drum with a goat-skin head that is loudly beaten with a short, wooden stick) and dulcimer (a curvy, 4-stringed, wooden instrument that looks like a cross between an anorexic guitar and a fiddle that got caught in a game of tug-0-war.) If you ever hear traditional or medieval music played, there’s probably a dulcimer and maybe even a bodhrán in there somewhere.
Jack also sings with an easy-to-listen-to, soulful voice. His songs are mostly touching and inspirational folk ballads that typically have some personal or historic significance to him. He prefers melodies that allow for harmonies and audience participation such as call-outs (“after I sing… you sing…”), as he loves to hear others sing. Jack’s participation in any show is always met with enthusiastic approval from those of us who know and enjoy his music. Especially if he can be coaxed into singing his popular and humourous “Canadian Tire Song” (if you’re Canadian, then you’ll get it.)
In true folk-hero fashion, Jack tends to dismiss his own talents and play up those of others. He is a passionate supporter and promoter of the genre. He claims he acquired his appreciation for both traditional and popular folk music from Canadian folk legend Merrick Jarrett who, in his later years, became a personal friend of Jack’s. In Jarrett’s younger days, back in the hootenanny era of the late 50s and early 60s, he was part of the bourgeoning Canadian folk scene. Jarrett played along-side the likes of Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Saint Marie, John Allan Cameron, and many others. When Jack met him, Jarrett had all but retired from performing and was teaching a History of Folk Music course at the University of Waterloo, with Jack as one of his students. Jarrett’s infectious enthusiasm for folk music rubbed off on Jack, who took up the baton and continues to carry it proudly, long after the untimely loss of his musical mentor in 2005.
To say that Jack is a big fan of folk music would be a gross understatement. Heck, I’m a fan of folk music but, like others, I support it from the wings, performing occasionally, but mostly attending folk concerts, festivals, and song circles. Jack’s efforts go so much further. Sure, he may perform and watch along with the rest of us, but he’s the kind of guy who also organizes and runs these shindigs.
The Old Chestnuts Song Circle
From their lovely century home on tree-lined Chestnut Street in Kitchener village, Jack and his adorable wife Lori have, for over 17 years, hosted monthly sing-along evenings. Those of us who attend regularly call ourselves the Old Chestnuts Song Circle, and Jack is our uncontested leader. Three seasons a year, on the fourth Saturday of each month, anywhere from 30 to 40 musicians, singers, folk enthusiasts and significant others convene at Jack and Lori’s for an evening of home-spun music and camaraderie. We plunk ourselves down in the Coles’ spacious living room, in a more-or-less rough circle, on chairs, couches, stools, benches – what have you – then take turns leading the group in a song or two of our choosing.
At any given Song Circle the preferred tunes are mostly familiar folk standards complete with impromptu harmonies and accompaniment, many distributed on handout song sheets, some read from the pages of Rise Up Singing (the folk music bible), and the odd one recalled from memory (to varying degrees of success). But on any given night you might also hear country songs, blue grass favourites, even the occasional pop song, all sung with heart and gusto if not pitch-perfect musicality. That said, the occasional song will inspire beautiful, soul-stirring harmonies that will put a smile on your face or maybe even bring a tear to your eye. But it’s not the quality of the music that counts, it’s the heart and soul put into the singing of it. And it’s Jack’s gentle, good-natured encouragement that gives experienced and amateur singers alike the courage to put themselves out there in front of others. It’s truly music for the folk, by the folk.
Song Circle was only the beginning. A few years into hosting the Old Chestnuts, Jack and some of his neighbours came up with the inspired idea of running a one-day music festival in their adjoining backyards. A kind of live music block party, as it were, but not on the street. Jack took on the organizing and scheduling, calling on musical friends and local musicians to offer their services for free by performing a few of their songs from the deck of one house while food, refreshments, and family amusements were offered in the yards of the adjoining houses. Since the two participating streets were Chestnut Street (where Jack and Lori live) and Pequegnat Avenue behind them, the event soon became known as the Chequegnat Festival. For 12 years, rain or shine (it moves indoors if it rains), this treasured event has been held to overwhelmingly enthusiastic community support. And, yet, despite his valued role in this wildly popular event, Jack has never received any formal acknowledgement or official commendation for his efforts. That’s what I mean by a hero.
I don’t know when it occurred to Jack that, instead of just supporting amateur and local musicians, he could also invite up-and-coming as well as established Canadian folk artists into his home. That’s when he and Lori started running house concerts. For many years the Coles hosted performances by famous and not-so-famous folk acts from all over Canada like Modabo, David Francey, Eileen McGann, Eve Goldberg, and many others, to the delight of small, intimate audiences who got to enjoy these musicians up close and personal in the cozy comfort of Jack and Lori’s welcoming home. Unfortunately, these house concerts have since been discontinued as many musicians no longer feel they are an effective source of revenue. But those who attended those shows during their heyday still speak of them fondly.
All the while Jack was hosting song circles, backyard festivals, and house concerts he was also spreading the word about folk music activities on his website Folknight.ca. On this site Jack informs visitors about upcoming and current folk music events across the region from Goderich to Toronto, and from Hamilton to Owen Sound. If one wants the scoop on what’s happening in the Southern Ontario folk scene, Jack provides it here. Yet he gets paid nothing for maintaining this website. It is all just a labour of love on his part.
Folk Night at the Registry
Not last, and certainly not least (there is so much more I could tell), Jack has given the city of Kitchener a gift it can never repay. Following the tragic death of his mentor, Merrick Jarrett, in 2005 Jack approached Kitchener’s Registry Theatre Director of Programming & Development, Lawrence McNaught, to see if he would be open to a series of folk concerts dedicated to the memory and spirit of Jarrett, to be held on alternating months from September to May, concluding in the spring with a concert dedicated to the memory and music of Merrick Jarrett himself. McNaught was enthusiastic about the idea, especially since Jack assured him that it would be organized and run by qualified volunteers from the Old Chestnuts Song Circle.
And so was born the incredibly successful Folk Night at the Registry concert series that has, over the years, showcased some of Canada’s best folk artists including Eileen McGann, Eve Goldberg, Haines & Leighton, David Gunning, Penny Lang, Dala, Sylvia Tyson, Lynn Miles, Archie Fisher, Ron Hynes, Wendell Ferguson, James Keelaghan, Christine Lavin, and folk legend Valdy to name but a few. For a ticket price of less than $20, audiences get to see and hear these amazing musicians perform mere feet away from them in an intimate, acoustically-superb theatre. And with the volunteer efforts of theatre managers Janette Kruegel and Nancy Nelson, lighting director Christa Ptatschek, sound engineers Dan Hergott and Robert Nelson, and CD sales volunteers Nancy Nelson and Ellen Hergott, Jack is always able to rely on his crack team to offer audiences a professionally-run, efficient, and enjoyable concert experience. You see, no one wants to disappoint Jack.
I could tell you so much more about Jack. About his entertaining performances with the talented James Morgan and Jean Mills as the folk trio Greenwood. Or his participation with Paul Mills and Glen Soulis in the well-received Stan Rogers Tribute Concert in 2008. Or his much appreciated musical contributions to the Harry Chapin Tribute Concert in 2011. I could mention that he regularly volunteers as a stage MC at Brad McEwan’s Mill Race Folk Festival held in Cambridge each summer. Or that he and Lori feed and house many of the artists at their own home while they are in town for their shows.
It’s not like Jack or his efforts have not received some recognition. Just nowhere near as much as I think he deserves. Jack was nominated in 2001 for the KW Arts Award, for example, but he humbly turned the nomination down. His Old Chestnuts Song Circle was also nominated for the 2008 YMCA Strong Community Award, but didn’t win. The Old Chestnuts Song Circle was once again nominated in 2010 for the KW Arts Award in the Festival or Event, Community Achievement category, and this time it won. Jack accepted the award on its behalf. Yet, while these accolades and honours certainly acknowledge the fruits of his labours, they don’t come anywhere close to recognizing Jack’s unselfish personal contributions to the folk music scene in this area.
As you can tell, Jack Cole is a tireless promoter, organizer, supporter, and performer of folk-music in our part of Southern Ontario. His enthusiasm and sheer joy in the pleasures that folk music has to offer is contagious. All the things I’ve told you here, all the photos I’ve shown you here, and much, much more, are all the results of Jack’s initiative and efforts. The KW folk scene really owes a debt of gratitude to this largely unsung folk hero.
In carrying on Merrick Jarrett’s mission of keeping the spirit of Canadian folk music alive, I know that Jack’s hard work, dedication, and talent would make Merrick proud. And that’s why I consider Jack Cole a true Canadian folk hero.