A workin’ chap

Sarah Smellie speaks to Scottish-Canadian folk singer Enoch Kent.

“Only my grand-daughter knows I’m famous,” laughs Enoch Kent. “She’s seen me on a stage once, but to a child her age, I’m now up there with Elvis Presley!”

Enoch’s grand-daughter is actually not so far off. The 77-year-old Scottish born singer was instrumental to the folk music revolution that occurred in Scotland throughout the 50s and 60s. His deep commitment to unearthing and celebrating the story beneath each and every song that he sings helped to inspire an entire generation of young Scottish musicians to seek out music as a way of coming to know their histories and themselves.

I’d say that’s up there.

But he’s not too quick to boast. Frankly, he cares far too little about what anyone thinks or says about him to even consider it. He’s busy thinking, singing or telling stories about the people and the politics that continue to inspire his music.

“See, when I was a kid, when the second world war was going on, my dad could explain everything at the kitchen table,” he tells me, his accent thick. “He was brought up a Christian, but became a socialist when he came back from the first world war, and saw what was happening. He had some insight into life.”

Enoch’s father worked for the Glasgow Corporation Tramways, where he established their first labour union, and was asked to leave after he joined the Socialist party. He also played in a concertina band and had Enoch, his sister and his mother singing along each night in the kitchen to whatever music he could find.

Enoch began playing and singing songs himself. His defining moment as a musician came early, at a concert at the Highlander’s Institute.

“I was old enough to say no, but I went anyways,” he says, laughing. “And there was a guy singing ‘The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvin Hall’. Kelvin Hall was right down the street from me! He was singing about the city I lived in while I’d been singing about ox drivers, of which I knew nothing.”

“I started trying to hear traditional singers. These were coal miners, berry pickers, people who were looked down upon in Scotland, called Tinkers, or traveling people, and right away I was captivated, because they knew more about Scotland than I thought anyone knew.”

In school, Enoch had been forced to read English books and learn English songs, so the Tinkers’ music because his real connection to his culture and history.

“Now I only sing a song because I know about a song, not just the words,” he says. “I know why a song was written. I know something about the social conditions. So I when I wrote a song about cod on the Newfoundland banks, I knew the social condition there.”

Enoch moved his wife to Canada in the sixties, after Enoch and his band the Reivers finished laying the groundwork for the massive folk music revival that took place in the fifties and sixties. He started working in advertising.

It was there that he first heard about Newfoundland’s declining cod stocks.

“I worked on something for the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization so I got a kind of inside look at it. It seemed every time something went wrong, they put in another minister! We have to enforce the international rules, look after the 200-mile limit and they never did.”

From those feelings came his legendary song “No More Cod on the Banks”, which appears on his 2002 album, I’m A Workin’ Chap.

He recorded that album when he was seventy years old, and he’s since recorded four more.

“Every one I made, I made for a reason. I don’t make them just to sing,” he says. His last album, One More Round, made to satisfy a long-standing musical curiosity of his, brought him right back to where he started:

“I’ve found that a lot off Scottish songs—and a lot of Scottish people hate when I say this—are based upon Irish tunes and stories, so I got traditional Irish players to accompany me. One had a house and that’s where we did the recording.”

Enoch Kent will be performing on November 23rd at the Canadian Folk Music Awards gala at the Arts & Culture Centre (729-3900, tickets $44.) On November 22 he will lead a workshop entitled “Women in traditional song” presented by The NL Folk Arts Society, MMAP Gallery 2nd Floor, Arts and Culture Centre. Tickets $10/$15 for non-members. Contact the Folk Arts Society at office@nlfolk.com or 709-576-8508.

Visit www.enochkent.ca for more information.