I was barely a year old in 1973, a good two decades away from my first official pub gig. (In a bizarre twist, it took place at The Fleur-de-Lis Beverage Room in L’Ardoise, which was partly owned by my father and some of his in-laws in the early ’70s.)
Little did I know that a song recorded by a Canadian folk singer, inspired by an ill-fated performance in front of a hostile rock-loving audience, would provide me some solace on nights when the crowds just weren’t buying what I had to offer.
The singer: Paul Valdemar Horsdal, better known for nearly half a century as Valdy. The tune: The deceptively-titled “Play Me a Rock and Roll Song,” a folkie’s lament cleverly disguised as a catchy, delightfully-melodic toe-tapper whose original recording lets out some killer electric guitar riffs (particularly after the last chorus) and an irresistible backbeat.
Originally recorded for his 1972 album Country Man, the song was inspired by Valdy’s appearance at British Columbia’s Aldergrove Rock Festival in 1968. To hear Valdy himself tell it, “an amplifier blew up,” forcing him to play on the festival’s rock stage instead of its folk stage, as originally scheduled. The resulting audience hostility sparked lyrics that have resonated with many a musician since “Play Me a Rock and Roll Song” arrived on Canadian radio playlists 45 years ago:
I played them some songs about peace and contentment, and things I have come to believe in/When I was through to a chorus of boos, some track star yelled “Thank God he’s leaving
Now someone play me a rock ‘n’ roll song/I’ve had it to here with your flowers and beads/Play me a rock ‘n’ roll song, or don’t play me no song at all”
Canadian music lovers ate up the frustrated-folksinger anthem, pushing “Play Me a Rock and Roll Song” to #37 on the Canadian singles charts and snapping up 97,000 copies of the Country Man album (bringing it just shy of platinum status in Canada). The 1973 Juno Awards saw Valdy win Outstanding Performance of the Year (Folk); he would go on to win the Juno for Folksinger of the Year in 1974 and rack up a dozen more nominations over the following decade, in genres ranging from county to children’s recordings.
I didn’t hear “Play Me a Rock and Roll Song” in its entirety until I found it on the Oh What A Feeling box set released in 1996 to celebrate the Juno Awards’ 25th anniversary. It was a delightfully cathartic antidote to those nights at the Fleur-de-Lis Beverage Room with the band I was in at the time, a Celtic combo named Close To Shore that often found itself playing for three or four people on any given Saturday night, somewhere out there in the dark.
(To their credit, they usually weren’t as antagonistic as the “track stars” in Valdy’s song – a sharp contrast to a solo performance at a Port Hawkesbury pub in 2001, where a group of rowdies insisted that I wasn’t leaving without performing “Sweet Home Alabama.” Because, you know, that’s what you ask a folk-singer at a Roland keyboard to play.)
Weeks after hearing “Play Me a Rock and Roll Song” for the first time, I was shocked to see Valdy stroll into the studios at Port Hawkesbury’s CIGO-AM Radio, which had employed me as a news reporter for the previous three years. Turns out he was visiting a longtime friend of his, musician, actor, writer and artistic jack-of-all-trades Craig Wood, in nearby Guysborough County. I told Valdy how much “Play Me a Rock and Roll Song” had come to mean to me. I’m sure he’s heard people say that a million times over the last 45 years, but he still seemed grateful that some random guy in his early 20s from the Maritimes would bother to say that to him. And, at the risk of going over over-the-top, I just don’t think Valdy is capable of lying, especially not when he’s saying “Thank you.”
My most profound connection with Valdy has come through his many appearances at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival over its 20-year run in Canso, Nova Scotia. The photo above shows him performing in 2010 with one of my Nova Scotia music heroes, pianist, singer and songwriter Doris Mason. But Valdy has fit seamlessly in all aspects of the StanFest vibe, whether he’s jamming with any of the other headliners or sharing tunes from his own extensive catalog. (Among my favourites: “Peter and Lou,” his tribute to veteran U.S. folkies and fellow StanFest performers Peter and Lou Berryman, and “Scruffy Dudes,” Valdy’s recounting of how Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were barred from a Vancouver golf course for violating the dress code.)
During the original StanFest in 1997, I interviewed several festival artists live on the CIGO airwaves, and on the final day I summoned up the courage to ask Valdy to join me for a chat. We huddled in the administrative office of the Canso and Area Arena, using a rotary dial phone to connect with Port Hawkesbury. I was so jittery that I actually dropped the receiver shortly after completing the interview. I don’t know why I was nervous – Valdy was as cool as can be, and he has greeted me warmly whenever I’ve met him since that time. (He even signed a get-well card for my wife Cathy when chronic pain issues kept her from joining me for StanFest’s 2010 edition.)
Which all goes to show you that, in sharp contrast to the flowers-and-beads dude hassled in “Play Me a Rock and Roll Song,” sometimes the nice guys finish first.
(Above: Valdy at the 2016 Stan Rogers Folk Festival, singing “Atlantic Blue” during a one-hour mainstage tribute to the late Ron Hynes. Valdy would later join several other StanFest headliners to lead the audience in “Sonny’s Dream,” which has been a part of Valdy’s own playlist since the mid-’80s. I’m glad to say that I took the two StanFest pictures featured here, because that meant I got to see how Valdy can still capture a song – and a crowd – after all this time.)