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The Rediscovery of Stevedore Steve

Gerry Taylor has been writing articles about folk and country music for the Telegraph-Journal of Saint John for years. In 1988 he decided to look into the career of Saint John native, Stevedore Steve. Gerry is an avid collector of recordings and information about just about anything connected with country and folk music that he can get his hands on and loves to chat endlessly about these subjects. Discovering the sorry plight of the mighty Stevedore - something so far removed from the mental image Gerry had of him - drove him to take a direct interest in reviving Steve's career. He felt that it was a very unfair situation that he found the Footes in: living near destitute in a basement in old Saint John.

He set out to change that. Something had to be done and writing an article in his weekly column about the plight of Steve and Gini was a start. It was around that time that an unexpected knocking was heard on the door at 46 Garden Street. It was after dark as they sat in their kitchen looking at each other, wondering who the hell could be at their door? Steve got up and answered. There was a stranger standing in the cold with a guitar case in hand.

"Are you Stevedore Steve," he asked?

"I used to be. Why?"

"Because I think I've got your old guitar."

Steve asked the man to come in so that he could inspect what was inside the case. Sure enough, after so many years, his old guitar had come back to him. Without asking any questions Steve paid the man what he wanted - which wasn't very much - for his old companion. It was hopelessly out of shape and worse for wear but it set a spark off in Steve's heart that set the wheels in motion and a desire to start writing and playing music again. This, after a period of more than ten years.

He was still in touch with Tom Connors at the time. Tom would sometimes drop in to visit and it bothered him to see the way the Footes were living. Arguments would ensue as Tom would try to urge Steve back into music but he was as stubborn as a mule and solid as a rock. It seemed that there was no way of forcing the Stevedore to budge. 

The Toronto Connection comes a knockin' at the door

As I stated before, I had totally lost track of Stevedore Steve. I enquired about him from various corners only to find raised shoulders that didn't know any more than I did. I asked Ossie Branscombe of Toronto's famed Country Music Store and he didn't know. I only had his 3 LPs to listen to and remember him by. But Stevedore Steve was very present in my life, the same way that Stompin' Tom was. The two of them, in my mind, were my Canadian music uncles. They had given me the foundation, the instinct and the drive to want to do something to see that Canadian music and its musicians received the credit, the acknowledgement and the kudos that they richly deserved. I was just fan with a guitar, a guy that liked singing The Mighty Pickerell River, The Coal Boat Song, The Ballad of Kate and Luke and Algoma Central #69.

In the early 1970s I took my guitar and hopped a bus for Peru. I know that sounds strange, but that's what I did. I left from the Toronto bus terminal at Dundas and Bay with a book full of songs by Gordon Lightfoot, John Prine, Stompin' Tom and Stevedore Steve. I was asked to play at parties in Mexico and Columbia; sometimes I'd strum and compose a song, like the time on the rooftop of a hotel in Costa Rica. Like Steve and Tom before me, I was going somewhere and playing the guitar was a ticket out of trouble, or for a meal.

I can never forget the time, in 1973, when I was all alone in the village of Otavalo in central Ecuador, just minutes north of the Equator. It was a quite place with dim lights located high in the Andes Mountains. I met a man who heard me playing the guitar and he asked if I would consider playing a song or two on his local radio program. Of course I agreed. All that day I had this picture in my mind of a small studio with a dim light and ceiling tile acoustics on the walls. I arrived at the address to find two men standing outside listening to a transistor radio. One of them told me to wait as he went inside; the other man, with the transistor, stayed behind. There was some very strange music coming out of that little radio, it sounded like a Spanish variety show with great howls of laughter. After a few minutes the first man re-appeared and asked me to follow him inside. I trudged up the darkened stairs and into a large hall packed with people seated on the floor, standing around the edges and even seated in the rafters high above. Most of them were Otavalo Indians in their traditional garb - white clothes with long black braided hair and fedoras and blue ponchos. Eduardo, the man who had invited me down, was on a stage at the far end of the room with a child who strummed away at a guitar - unable to play any chords - and singing. That was what all the laughter was about. Eduardo looked at me and stopped the show, asking folks to make way so that I could get through to the stage with my heavy guitar case.

"This is my friend Estebban, from Canada. He will sing us a song from his country," he announced both to the crowd and the radio audience.

This was live to air. This was local radio much the way it was in rural Canada back in the 1930s. I took out the guitar to the watchful eyes of the audience. A song about Canada! To me that meant singing Lightfoot's Alberta Bound, Tom's Algoma Central and Steve's I'm A Truck Driver.

Oh the prairie lights are burnin' bright
The Chinook wind is a-movin' in
Tomorrow night I'll be Alberta bound

The audience exploded after the first few lines as if I was singing one of their old time favourites. "Please, another one," requested Eduardo. I sang Algoma. Stompin' Tom to the rescue!

She's on a bar hopping spree
Back in Sault Ste. Marie
Because of me she's now a fallen star

Then Steve's song to take it home.

Well I wheeled out rubber all across this land
I wheeled from Halifax to Van
Even rode my rig up the old Alcan
I'm a truck driver.

I left there a hero. For the rest of my week long stay in Otavalo I was regarded as a celebrity for singing Canadian songs.

In 1975 I decided to go to India. This time I would not be burdened with a chunky guitar to lug around. But by the time I got to Calcutta I was longing to play music again and in the hotel dorm I was staying in there was a Canadian guy with an acoustic guitar. He reluctantly allowed me to play a few songs and that is how I met my wife Maggie. The first thing she heard me play was Peaceful Easy Feeling, but after that I resorted to songs by Stompin' Tom Connors and Stevedore Steve.

A couple of years later I returned to Canada a married man, having tied the knot with Maggie in her native UK. She was coming to Canada for the very first time but already she knew of Stompin' Tom and Stevedore Steve. Our two children were born with Canadian music, both the Stevedore and Connors were imprinted in their fresh, young minds. Wherever we would travel in Ontario there was a song to identify it with. We'd pass over the mighty Pickerell River, see the statue of the goose in Wawa, or see the Hollinger Mine in Timmins, the place where Steve wrote about the demise of a card shark known as "The Duke".

For many years I shared the music of the Stevedore with a small circle of friends. Then I met Kevin Nan.

Kevin and I worked at the post office hit it off just like that. When I showed him the covers of my Stevedore Steve albums he flipped out, couldn't stop laughing at the cover of Hard Workin' Men.  But when I put the records on he flipped out even more when he heard Steve sing in his Johnny Cash-like voice:

The East Coast way of life is hard as hell
but the men are even harder
with blistering hands and aching backs
trying to keep their families fed

He was hooked immediately.

Kevin was always impulsive to the extreme and searched every music shop for a copy of one of Steve's old records. I found a used copy of Songs of the Stevedore and gave it to him as a Christmas gift. The moment I handed it to him he knew what it was and keeled over of laughing in pain as soon as he confirmed it.

"Look at his jaw! His arms! The sinews," he cried. As much as I love the music of Stevedore Steve, Kevin loved the image of the man.

(drawing by Maggie Fruitman, taken from the cover of I've Lived)

In 1986 I decided to do something: I dreamed of the day when Canadian radio stations would play the music of Canada. I vowed that I would do something about it. I joined as a member of the Toronto Blues Society and The Mariposa Folk Foundation. By January1987 I was elected to the Mariposa board of directors. I don't really know how I got there, it was just stepping forward when others stepped back, I guess. But now I was in a position to begin my quest. Within months I was the new Editor-In-Chief of the fledgling Mariposa Notes newsletter. Maggie drew a sketch of Stevedore Steve from the cover of the I've Lived album which I used as my editorial logo. It was apparent to me, even then, what I was up against: the folk music world was confined to a definitive circle which did not include people like Stompin' Tom or Stevedore Steve. I felt it was my job to include these guys in Mariposa's official newsletter.

It was in the spring of 1988 that I got another idea: why not phone Boot Records and see if they had any extra copies of Stevedore Steve's albums. I called and spoke with Jury Krytiuk who confirmed that he still had a few copies hanging around. I phoned Kevin Nan and told him what I'd found; he was over in a flash and we drove to the Mississauga offices of Boot Records. I had seen Jury before at Stompin' Tom concerts but had never really spoken with the man. He seemed aloof, a little cranky, not the friendly, bearded, cuddly guy I thought he would be. He went into the warehouse and returned with brand new copies of Stevedore Steve's two albums on Boot (no copies of Lester the Lobster LP in stock). Kevin Nan was on cloud 9. Juri even sold us a few 45s we never realized existed. When I asked Jury if he knew the whereabouts of Stevedore Steve he shook his head and said, "The last address I had for him was in Saint John, but I don't know where he lives now." I asked him where he sent his royalty payments? but Jury closed up like a clam.

In the car Kevin hugged his albums as if they were gold. I looked at him and said: "You have a week off in May don't you? Well so do I. We're going to go and look for Stevedore Steve."

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© 1999 & 2010 by Steve Fruitman for Back To The Sugar Camp ®