Monday, August 20, 2012

Life and Death and Art

I had always thought that Judy Garland had nailed the definitive version of Over the Rainbow. That was until I heard Rebecca Jenkins sing it last night in Sechelt at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the WrittenArts  . She was joined on stage with her husband Joel Bakan, who, aside from playing a mean jazz guitar, is also a well known writer, film maker, and law professor at UBC. The band also included their son, Myim Bakan Kline on drums, and Bruce Meikle on stand-up bass.

Their performance triggered a standing ovation, and for me at the same time a powerful memory - but before I tell that story, I want to give a shout out in appreciation of the past four days at the Festival. They were filled with the experiences of both laughter and insight, as well as many moments of profound feeling, all of this thanks to the 24 writers who read and spoke to mostly sold out crowds.

Presenting author, Doug Gibson & Andreas Schroeder, walking along Beach Avenue

 This was the 30th year of the Festival, and the story of how it all started is as unlikely as the fact that it endured.  Betty Keller, Maureen Foss, Rosella Leslie and Gwendolyn Southin - four of the original founders and charter members of The Quintessential Writers Group - took us through the grueling first years of birthing the Festival and told us of their unrelenting years of work and worry. Later in the day, I heard of a couple who had actually moved to the Coast because of this Festival. After all, they said, if such an idea could flourish here, there must be a reason. They were right.

Often it is the new-to-me writers who have me on my feet, clapping like a maniac and wishing there were time to hear more. This year it was two emerging writers: Kim Clark and Robyn Michele Levy . Before their session started, all I knew of either of them was that both wrote from the perspective of physical disability: Kim had MS, and Robyn had been diagnosed first with Parkinsons, and then with breast cancer –at age 43, no less.

Any impulse to pity from the temporarily abled  - a term I steal from Bonnie Klein – was totally misplaced. These two women are powerful. The riffs of their humour totally blew me away. I can’t replicate it. You had to be there: Raunchy. Sassy. Wise. The only pity that I felt was for those who missed the most irreverent and daring act of the weekend.

I am singling out Kim and Robyn, but I don’t mean to neglect any of the other writers or their presentations. Not for a moment. I will be savouring their stories and insights for days and months to come. One thing I do know is that the next trip to Sechelt will have to include popping into Talewind Books to add to my collection. Plus I will be ordering at least one of Rebecca’s CDs on line.

 But back to what I promised at the start of this piece. Riddle me this – as The Riddler said in Batman Forever. In this case, the riddle that I cannot unpuzzle is why Bye Bye Blues, the Anne Wheeler directed movie that starred Rebecca Jenkins, is not available on DVD. I am not the only one who finds this to be beyond ridiculous.  Even the esteemed Internet Movie Database agrees with me:

Possibly the best Canadian film ever shot! This warm, real look at WW2 life abroad and on the home front is a visual and an emotional tour de force. The tensions on the home front (husband missing in action; wife living with in-laws) and the inner conflicts gripping a woman determined to be loyal yet needing an identity of her own have rarely been more skilfully portrayed. A must for collectors -- if it could only be made available as DVD or Laserdisk!!!
[My emphasis]

Why do I care about this? Let me share a story.

In September 1990, Sweet Norma Locke – as she was known professionally - was approaching the last of her days, riddled with cancer. Bye Bye Blues had come out the year before, and featured her signature tune: The West, the Nest, and You, Dear. Norma had performed this song countless times from the mid 1940s until the late 60s with her husband and his band, Mart Kenny and his Western Gentlemen.. By the time the movie was released, she was much too unwell to get out to a theatre. What to do? Well, a group of us passed the hat to purchase a limited edition VHS of Bye Bye Blues - the only format available – for the ridiculous price of $200.00.

Later, we viewed it with Mart and Norma at their home, not once, but twice. Not only did it mean the world to Norma to hear herself singing in the movie’s soundscape, but it also thrilled her to see one of their young relations also acting in the movie. Not long after this, Norma passed away.

Last night as Rebecca Jenkins was singing the Bill Henderson tune When I Sing – a tune composed specifically for this movie - I was transported back a couple of decades to that living room in Mission, BC. I remembered Mart telling me that when radio first came to the Prairies, he had realized that he and his band would have to play differently. Without audiences having the visual distraction of seeing him perform, he and his fellow musicians would now have to learn not only to play together but also to breathe together. As I watched Rebecca and her family, the thought occurred to me, Yes, they also know how to breathe together. And this is good. 

What else is there to say? Just thanks and unbounded gratitude to Jane Davidson, and to all the artists, the donors, as well as all the willing hands, minds and spirits that made this year’s 30th Festival possible. Gracias. Merci. Thank you.
Anne Wheeler kindly sent me this years ago - for my composer daughter and myself.


  1. Ah, I missed Kim Clark and Robyn Michele Levy... knew I should have stuck around for it! Love this post, thank goodness you're NOT providing it poetically for it would miss its essential 'you-ness'. Wonderful pictures too.

  2. Hi Sharon,
    That event was the highlight of my summer! What a Festival! What an audience! And you were there! Thank you for embracing #SexySickChicLit! Your praise has brightened my day.
    Robyn Michele Levy
    aka Ms. Mastectomy & The Parkinson Princess