When Gil Levine died at 85 in 2009, three words in his obituary, “… plan a hootenanny’, started an Ottawa tradition that is now into its 8th year and getting stronger.
Held each year on May Day, this annual celebration of the collective power of song was inspired by Gil, who was the founding Director of Research at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and a great lover of folk music and supporter of folk musicians. Gil demonstrated his love of folk music in many ways, including hosting annual hootenannies at home for decades.
Among Gil’s favourite singer-songwriters were Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs, and the Hootenanny always celebrates these musical giants with a song or two.
Gil’s connection to Pete Seeger was particularly strong. In 1957, Gil co-produced a Pete Seeger concert in Ottawa – with friends Harvey Glatt and Max Sternthal – at a time when Pete was blacklisted in the United States. Helen Levine, Gil’s widow, remembers that “they each scraped $25 together to rent the hall, which wasn’t easy for us back then”.
Through its sing-along song-writing contest, Gil’s Hootenanny is making a major contribution to Canada’s hope and protest songbook. Tony Turner’s winning song “Harperman” went viral in Canada and beyond after he was suspended from his job at Environment Canada, including being featured on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Many believe Turner’s song had an impact on Canada’s 2015 federal election, and Turner received a 2016 Spirit of Folk award from Folk Alliance International for the song.
Gil’s vision of a better world included bringing people together to celebrate and share the stories, struggles and victories of working people. It is therefore fitting that Gil’s Hootenanny has evolved into a fun, energetic sing-along event that celebrates the power of song to change the world and the contribution of one man to make the world a better place.