Gil’s Hootenanny: Uniting activists through song

Tamara smiles as she plays the Ukulele. Rows of tea cups sit on a shelf behind her.
Tamara Levine has been singing since she was eight years old. She is one of the main organizers for Gil’s Hootenanny. Photo by Zenith Wolfe.

By Zenith Wolfe

A springtime Ottawa concert celebrating the life of an influential labour activist is hoping to unite people through song.

Gil’s Hootenanny is an annual event featuring over two hours of protest music performances. Their 14th concert on May 1 will be held near Carlingwood at the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa, with a vocal workshop the day before at Westboro Masonic Hall.

It’s a tribute to the late Gil Levine, who spent decades fighting for union and labour rights. According to his daughter Tamara, from 1963 to 1988 he was the first research director for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). She said he was also a peace activist during the Vietnam war, and an outspoken critic of plans to defund the CBC and redevelop Lansdowne against the community’s best interests in the 2000s.

“If there was an issue in the community, the country, or the world that he felt strongly about, he was out there and part of it,” she said, adding that his social activism was inspired by the financial instability his immigrant parents faced during the Great Depression.

Tamara said her father also loved music: during her childhood, their family car didn’t have a radio, so they all sang together on long drives and camping trips. She said Levine often pulled the Ottawa community together by hosting hootenannies, folk events that encourage attendees to sing along, at their home in Westboro.

When acute leukemia claimed his life in 2009, Tamara knew she had to carry on his legacy. Two years later, she and some of Levine’s friends organized the first Gil’s Hootenanny to celebrate working class people.

“It’s often neglected to think about the work that people in our communities do. We want to shine a light on that,” she said. “It’s a way to remember my dad, but also to celebrate the idea of hootenanny with songs of hope and protest… We knew that he would have really loved that.”

A black and white photo of Tamara with her family.
Mother Helen, Tamara, father Gil, and sister Karen Levine in 1958. Photo provided by Tamara Levine.

In the first half of the show, Ulyn Georgette will perform a tribute to Odetta, an American civil rights activist and trained opera singer. Tamara said Odetta is one of her favourite musicians since her powerful voice and lyrics have the ability to move people.

The second half will feature headlining singer-songwriter Coco Love Alcorn. Over her 30-year music career she has played on many national tours, published several folk albums, and won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Contemporary Singer of the Year.

Coming out of the pandemic, Alcorn has enjoyed playing concerts that invite more audience participation – her recent songs have a greater focus on collective singing and harmonies. So when Gil’s Hootenanny invited her on as a performer, she said she couldn’t resist the opportunity to connect with Ottawa on a spiritual and emotional level.

“Almost any subject matter and genre in music can have that effect of bringing people together for a shared experience,” Alcorn said. “But when people are singing together, that adds even a bit more. And when thematically we’re talking about spirit-lifting and hope, that does it even a little bit more.”

The event has also expanded to include singing workshops and high school history lectures in the hopes of encouraging young social activists to appreciate community-building music. Tamara said that in the “age of Spotify and downloading music,” people listen to a lot of songs, but they aren’t encouraged to write their own or perform with others.

Gil’s Hootenanny consistently sells out, drawing in around 300 people of all ages at their biggest venues. Tamara said she thinks her father would be “humbled and pleased” to know that the event is still a success after 14 years.

“It’s great to remember my dad this way, but it also feeds me,” she said. “It uplifts my soul.”

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