Few people have worked as tirelessly to promote and nurture the roots music scene in Canada as Holger Petersen. Beginning in 1969 with his radio show Natch’l Blues on Edmonton’s CKUA, Petersen’s musical passions led him to co-found Stony Plain Records in 1975, providing an outlet for the work of homegrown artists such as Ian Tyson and Colin Linden, while also being the Canadian distributor for dozens of other important releases by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch.
In the 1980s, Petersen helped establish the Edmonton Folk Festival as one of the world’s premiere annual roots music events, while also launching his Saturday Night Blues program, which can still be heard every week on CBC Radio. But on top of all of the awards and honours he has received, Petersen’s heart remains with the artists who make the music he loves.
Some of the conversations he’s had with them for his radio shows were first compiled in his 2011 book Talking Music, and now a second volume subtitled Blues And Roots Music Mavericks is set to published this month through Toronto’s Insomniac Press. Once again presented in an engaging Q&A format, the new book presents in-depth interviews with artists such as B.B. King, Allen Toussaint and Townes Van Zandt, whose work will stand the test of time, along with many other equally important but often-unheralded voices like Wanda Jackson, Mose Allison and Van Dyke Parks.
Talking Music 2 is now available to order through Amazon and Chapters/Indigo.
Your new book is another treasure trove of conversations with great musicians who were seldom heard from. Do you think that’s part of what made them open up to you?
Thank you! I’ve found that generally blues and roots music musicians, no matter how famous, enjoy talking about the music they love. But yes, so many cult artists like Mose Allison, Dan Hicks, Bobby Charles and Townes Van Zandt—at least back in the 80’s—didn’t get the attention they deserve and often didn't do that many interviews. I think they appreciated opportunities to talk to someone who really cared, respected them, had done the research and gave them lots of time.
My favourite thing about interviewing artists is sometimes getting that kernel of wisdom that changes how I view the world. Do you recall any of those moments with these interviews?
Being in the presence of B.B. King always seemed to have an effect on me. I’d have a smile on my face for a week and just make a point of being a better person. He set that kind of example. He had clearly paid some heavy dues, was humble, generous and seemed to have lots of time for everyone. I was honored to interview him a half dozen times over 35 years and to hang out with him a bit. He has a special place and it’s the first interview in the book.
You personally worked with many of these artists, often at times when they needed help the most. Were any ever surprised that a guy from Canada was interested in what they were doing?
I think that was often the case, but Canada has generally had a good reputation with American musicians. Whether they were black artists who were loved in clubs in Canada decades ago when they still played for segregated audiences in the U.S., or nowadays when we have a great reputation for the quality and eclecticism of our festivals. Several artists I’ve worked with have told me how proud they are to be with a Canadian label. I’ve always tried to find Canadian angles for my interviews as well which brings out some interesting things.
A few artists in the book recently passed away. Do you think we’re coming to an end of an era in music when someone could ever replicate the achievements of say, Allen Toussaint or Mose Allison?
I think we’ve been so fortunate to have been exposed to them during our lifetime and they should continue to be celebrated. They came out of regional environments with unique influences as musicians and songwriters. Roots music and blues are all about regionalism and the culture that’s inherent to that. That regional influence has become more universal and homogenized over the years. Much of that first-hand, distinctive culture has been lost with the passing of artists like them.
On the other hand, blues continues to evolve. What do you see in its future?
Blues is a classic art form and a broad one when you consider all the regional styles and decades of recordings. Its influence is felt everywhere and it does continue to evolve. There are over 30 blues societies in Canada and dozens of summer festivals that include blues in various musical forms—old and new.