by Lynn Stevenson
“I can feel the spirit building. Soft as a whisper. Loud as a roar.”
So sings Tom Juravich, one of a dozen amazing performers who raised their voices in honour of Gil Levine – union leader, social activist and folk music enthusiast who lost his battle with cancer last November. If the measure of a man is the love he inspires in others – then Gil Levine was clearly larger than life. The Elmdale Tavern on June 6th was filled to capacity with countless friends who came to share their affection for this fine man. “Songs of Protest, Songs of Hope” organized by the Spirt of Rasputin’s was not a goodbye, but a profound expression of hope and enduring gratitude for a person who meant so much to so many and whose influence continues to be strongly felt.
One after another, talented musicians took the stage to share a story about Gil, what he did for them personally and how hard he worked to improve the lives of people in our community. Kate and Hollis Morgan set the tone with Pete Seeger’s “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread” recalling how Gil Levine brought Pete Seeger to Ottawa when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Missy Burgess sang “Lucky Old Sun” remembering how Levine helped her with a difficult work-related situation, how fortunate she felt to have met him, and the rare talent he had of making anyone he spoke to feel special. Arthur McGregor was moved to pen a special version of “Last Night I Had the Strangest (Saddest) Dream” to “sing farewell to Gil.” Alex Sinclair sang of workers beaten but unbroken and the inspiration that comes when people band together to defend their rights. Jeremy Owen had the entire room singing “Solidarity Forever” – a stirring closure to the first set.
Hard to imagine it could get any better, but no voice was silent as banjo ringing, Gail Anglin, Tom Lips and Mary Gick led the audience in a joyous rendition of “If I had a Hammer”. Hair stood on the back of my neck as Maria Hawkins exploded into “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – a stirring response to Chris White’s spontaneous effort to engage the entire audience in 3 part harmony to the timeless gospel tune. The room was electric with positive energy as Phil Jenkins belted out John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. And Tom Juravich moved me to tears with “Bread and Roses” – a tribute to women fighting for respect and a decent wage. Gil Levine was a strong supporter of the rights of working women. “Compassion” says Jenkins, is an endangered virtue” but Gil Levine was brimming with it – a precious tonic that he shared generously.
Another thing he shared with enthusiasm was his love of folk music. Although he couldn’t apparently carry a tune or play an instrument, Gil Levine had a talent to inspire and make things happen. “He was always organizing”, said his wife, Helen Levine. He was famous for his hootenanies, unforgettable evenings that lasted into the wee hours and brought the community together. In his obituary, he suggested that if people wanted to remember him, they could organize an hootenany. And this is what the Spirit of Rasputin’s has done. “He would have loved to have been here” added Mrs. Levine. It was a very special night – a testament to the power of participatory music and the memory of a rather special man. It was also a compelling indication of what the folk music community in Ottawa can do – when the spirit moves them!
The performers in order of appearance: Kate and Hollis Morgan, Alex Sinclair, Missy Burgess, Chris White, Jeremy Owen, Gail Anglin, Tom Lips and Mary Gick, Phil Jenkins, Maria Hawkins, Tom Juravich, Arthur Macgregor, Tony Turner (also host).
There are more photographs in the gallery.