Monday, August 18, 2014

Singing at the Log Drive Café, Friday September 12, 2014

Thanks to Maura Volante for inviting me to sing at the Log Drive Café next month.  I'll be on my own, and probably not amplified, so sit close and be prepared to sing along! 

I'm particularly honoured to be invited because this series normally features only traditional music, whereas I do mostly my own songs.  I'll try to give it a somewhat traditional feel...


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Stories and Songs of the American Civil War - August 9, 2014 in St Albans, Vermont

In January of 2012, as part of the Ottawa Storytellers' NAC 4th Stage series, Gail Anglin, Daniel Kletke, Paul Hornbeck and I presented a show of stories and songs about the Civil War. (See blog entry for January 11, 2012). The show went over very well, and Gail began to spearhead the search for an opportunity to repeat it.  Despite a couple of tantalizing leads, no such opportunity panned out, and we resigned ourselves to retiring another "one-night wonder."

One of the most interesting possibilities was the chance to do the show in St. Albans, Vermont, which is the scene of one of the stories Gail tells -- a true tale of Confederate commandos crossing the border from Canada into Vermont to rob banks, terrorize the good citizens of St. Albans, and if possible burn the town to the ground.  The St. Albans Historical Society was interested in having us do the show there, and so were we, but there were so many logistical obstacles (most importantly visa requirements for performing in the U.S.) that we eventually put the idea on ice.  Gail went back to the struggle the following year, but again the efforts on both sides appeared doomed.  However, the seed had been planted, and imagine our surprise some months later when our St. Albans contact, Al  Weldon, contacted us: the plan was back on track for the summer of 2014!

By now, of course, we had to relearn all the songs and stories and put the show back together. Fortunately we had good notes!  Our banjo player, Paul Hornbeck, was unable to join us this for this outing, but we were most fortunate to recruit Ann Downey (of Finest Kind fame) to support us on banjo and vocals.  We called ourselves "The History Gang" for this outing, as it was not done under the formal auspices of Ottawa Storytellers.

To make a long story short: we made it at last to the lovely town of St. Albans (SO glad the Confederates didn’t succeed in burning it down!), and were met with a very warm welcome before, during and after the show.  For me (as a Canadian) it was a very different feeling, performing these songs and stories in the United States, where the Civil War is woven into the nation’s history, culture and identity.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the traumas of the North and South, and all the accompanying myth and imagery, seem to be much more viscerally present to Americans.  The Battle Hymn of the Republic was a rousing song when we did it in Ottawa, but in St Albans it brought the audience to their feet. It is humbling to reflect that, although the personal accounts from the war that we presented have a universal dimension, for Americans they are also, in a sense, part of their own family history.  I think knowing this added depth to our performance.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Looking Back on the Iliad

Well, the Iliad is accomplished!  On Saturday, June 14, 2014, from 10:00 a.m. to about 10:30 p.m., eighteen Ottawa storytellers brought a room full of dedicated listeners (150 of them!) along to Mount Olympus, abode of the blessed everlasting gods; to the vaulted undersea cavern of the sea-nymph Thetis, mother of Achilles; to the workshop of the divine artificer Hephaestus; to the war-camp of the Greeks, among the black, hollow beaked ships that had lain high and dry on alien sand for nine long years; into the palace of Priam, king of that ill-starred city, sacred Ilium; and most of all, onto the broad and calamitous battlefield on the plains of Troy.

I am proud of my companions – tellers of all shapes, sizes, styles and temperaments, who made the effort to become a team and pass the thread of the story unbroken from one to another; who came to grips with this hard, frequently violent text and found currents that ran deeper than battlefield bloodshed.  We started out, I think, rather appalled by the Iliad –by what we had signed on for.  So much of it is alien and harsh: so many quasi-clinical descriptions of spears piercing various body parts; so much fickleness, deception and unfairness on the part of the “blessed” gods; so much ultimately pointless death.  In other words, so much war. 

In truth, the Odyssey is easier to like (though its climax is arguably more vindictively gory than anything in the Iliad).  The Odyssey is rich in varied and adventurous episodes, fully realized characters, even humour. The goddess Athena shows herself more likeable in her consistent helping of Odysseus.  By contrast, with the Iliad we are mostly in the trenches.  Character after character is given a personality and a name only as a prelude to sudden death.  We hear briefly of his parentage, his beautiful homeland, his lovely armour, perhaps his hopes and fears; then he is falling under the wheels of an enemy’s chariot, struck down by arrow, spear, sword or rock, and darkness engulfs him.  The Iliad is harder to learn, harder to tell, harder to listen to.  But it has its rewards.

We have argued (not so much amongst ourselves, but with our friends and families) about whether the Iliad glorifies war.  It strikes me that, as we tellers became more and more involved with the text over these past months, it was increasingly rare for one of us to express that view.  There is room for legitimate disagreement here; but to my mind Homer’s dispassionate, almost surgical descriptions of the intimate violence of man against man is worlds away from the gung-ho fantasies of the more simple-minded patriotic war movies.  The Greeks and the Trojans may hate each other, but there is no evidence that Homer hates either, or that he identifies either side as “the good guys.”  He is amazingly even-handed and unromantic in describing this war.  He does not even pretend that it ultimately has any meaning or value, except perhaps as an opportunity for men to show courage or cowardice, cruelty or mercy.  Troy will fall and be pillaged, not because its inhabitants are more sinful than other people, but because Fate has ordained it.  There are causes for the disasters (Paris’s favouring of Aphrodite over Hera and Athena; Agamemnon’s arrogance; the pride of Achilles and Hector) but on deeper reflection these “causes” seem to be merely the playing out of forces beyond human understanding.

Yet some things are being glorified here.  There is glory in the beauty and strength and speed of the warriors (and of their horses!).  When they show courage, or mercy, or sound judgment, or skill with words or weapons, we are surely meant to approve. 

Somehow we can’t help liking Hector, though he gives evidence of being as violent as Achilles, as ready to take vengeance on the dead.  Perhaps it is because Homer shows him as a father, kissing his wife and young child and heading off to another day of grim battle.  We find it hard to like Achilles, but we see him compelled against his will to grow, to experience terrible loss, guilt,  responsibility, acceptance and ultimately even a little compassion.  Priam is “a violent-tempered old man,” not a kindly grandfather figure.  Crushed by sorrow, he shows all the selfish cruelty of sorrow, wishing his lesser sons had died instead of Hector; and yet we cannot help pitying him.  Even Zeus, demonstrably short on pity, pities Priam.  Mired in loss, all the old king  asks is a chance to grieve properly for his son: “Achilles can kill me then and there, once I have taken my son in my arms and wept my fill.”

People have been talking and writing about the Iliad for almost three thousand years.  This is all I have time to add for tonight.  Thank you, Jan Andrews and Jennifer Cayley, for leading us in this project, this climb.  Thanks, Ellis Lynn, for sharing the final chapter with me.  Thanks Marie, Jacques, Katherine, Kathryn, Kim, Daniel, Nicole, Anne, Phil, Catherine, Marta, Dean, Mary and Jeff, for digging deep, finding the thread, and letting it shine. And thanks to the listeners, who made it real.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

June 14th: Hear the Iliad Told Aloud, from Memory (Homer Would Approve!)

Let me be frank: If you start feeling restless when a Youtube video lasts longer than 30 seconds, you might not be up for a day-long telling of Homer’s Iliad.  On the other hand, the Iliad might surprise you.  You might even surprise yourself, discovering a talent for letting a spoken story unfold in your mind over several hours (with lots of breaks, of course!).  I know that when the Ottawa Storytellers used the same approach to tell the Odyssey a couple of years ago, many who were not expecting to stay for the whole thing ended up coming back after every break, caught up in the ancient epic.  Of the brave audience who began the journey with us at 10:00 a.m., I think only one dropped out before the end.  We’re hoping for similar success with the Iliad.
(Picture source: Wikipedia)

 One of the oldest (and most influential) surviving works of Western literature, the Iliad tells the story of the critical days near the end of the Trojan War. As Greeks and Trojans battle on the plains of Troy, heroes on both sides strive for honour with bloody deeds.  The Greeks face defeat when Achilles, their greatest warrior, withdraws from the conflict.  Meanwhile, the all-too-human gods of Olympus meddle continually, but even the gods are ultimately powerless to alter destiny. 

It is a story that has gripped audiences for almost three thousand years.  Rooted in the oral tradition, it is a tale that has soaked into the very roots of Western literature.  Alien and familiar by turns, the epic sets forth the terrible cost of war for those who fight and for those who wait at home.  Join 18 storytellers on the plains of Ilium (i.e. at the 4th Stage of the National Arts Centre) as  Ottawa StoryTellers and two women productions evoke the events of the Iliad in all their complexity, in a twelve-hour telling of this epic tale.  Not something that happens every year, believe me; don’t miss it, if you’re interested!

Tickets for the full day (10:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m) are $60; tickets for the evening only (4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.)  are $40.  See
Student discounts are available. Please note there is a surcharge if you buy online through Ticketmaster (

Thursday, February 06, 2014

March 20th - "And Tell Laura I Love Her: Stories and Songs of the Early 1960s"

While the June 2014 Iliad is very much on my mind, there is a very different show on the horizon, approaching much faster.  On March 20th, as part of the Ottawa Storytellers' series at the NAC 4th Stage, Gail Anglin and I will join forces with a gutsy rock'n'roll band (Last Band Standing) to present a light-hearted show with stories about being a teenager in that golden age, the first half of the 1960s. 

"Who did put the bop in the bop-shoo-bop-shoo-bop? And why must I be a teenager in love? As the 1960s began, and the first great tidal wave of boomers crashed into adolescence, these and other life-and-death questions were uppermost in their minds and their music."

As in every period, there was plenty of scary stuff going on in the wider world, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to race riots in Mississippi and the assassination of JFK; but for this evening we're steering towards the lighter side, the way most of the pop music of the day did.  Welcome back to a time when boy bands were courteous and clean-cut, when TV was new, and when the real crises were about bad skin, fitting in, and falling in and out of love. It still looked an awful lot like the 1950s, but Rock'nRoll was sneaking up on everybody in broad daylight, clean-shaven, Bryl-creamed, and wearing a suit and tie. 

Monday, February 03, 2014

First workshop for the June 2014 telling of the Iliad

It's been two years since the Ottawa Storytellers brought the Odyssey to the National Arts Centre, and many of the same tellers are back, along with some new daring recruits, grappling now with Homer's other, perhaps greater, epic story.  On June 14th, 2014, from 10:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night (with breaks for meals etc.) the Ottawa Storytellers will be telling Homer's Iliad at the NAC 4th Stage.  A hardy band of storytellers spent this past  weekend working collectively on bringing this seminal story of Western culture to life.  The work has just begun:  parts must be edited, tweaked, learned, refined, practised again and again.  Funds must be raised. This unique storytelling performance must be marketed and publicized -- tickets must be sold, so that we will not be telling to empty chairs.  Most of all, this rich, violent, complex, tragic story must be internalized, felt, understood, transmuted into a collective performance.  But what a wonderful start!  Already we can feel the different books growing together, the many voices weaving into one big tapestry of story.  Already this epic, which seemed at first to be "just" an interminable battle scene, is revealing its depth and winning us over.  I am so happy to be part of this adventure with my fellow storytellers.
(Picture: )

Friday, December 13, 2013

Now entering the 21st century, a bit late: Tom's CDs now available online in digital form!

 The digital version of my two CDs, "Made of Sky," (Mylodon Music, 1999) and , "Practical Man" (Mylodon Music, 2004), or individual tracks, can now be purchased online from CD Baby. Just click on the links below!  (You can also order the physical CD from CD Baby, though if you are ordering from inside Canada, the shipping costs make it cheaper to order directly from Mylodon Music by mail, using the CD order form on my website,

Tom Lips: Made of Sky

Tom Lips: Practical Man

I admit I am a late arrival to digital distribution.  Personally I like having a physical CD, with liner notes, etc., but I know that a lot of people now listen mainly on portable devices.  They appreciate the convenience of being able to buy a single track or the whole CD and listen right away, without waiting for delivery. 

If you don't need a physical CD and can do without liner notes, buying the digital version is faster, cheaper and easier.  It's an interesting experiment!

I've arranged for CD Baby to make the physical CDs available as well, with a view to reaching more people; but frankly it makes more sense for people in Canada to order CDs directly from me: it will be cheaper (when shipping is factored in) and probably faster. 

By the way, there is a new CD on the way early in 2014.  I'm really excited about it.  Stay tuned!