Arts·Point of View

CBC's digging up its music archives, and it couldn't have happened at a better time

Amanda Parris co-hosts From the Vaults on CBC. What does it mean to dust off these tapes in 2018?

Amanda Parris co-hosts From the Vaults on CBC. What does it mean to dust off these tapes in 2018?

Amanda Parris and Tom Power host From the Vaults. The series debuts on CBC Television Thursday, Nov. 15. (CBC)

From the Vaults, which premieres tonight on CBC, is a deep dive into six decades of music archives from our national broadcaster. It will present rarely seen performances from some of the biggest names in music. You'll see Shania Twain (before the braces), Carole Pope (at her crotch-grabbing best) and k.d. lang (in her cow-punk princess glory days).

I co-host the show alongside Tom Power, and I've been thinking a lot about what it means to dust off these archives in this current moment of media upheaval and transition.

The first episode of the show is called "Land of Opportunities," and it provides a perfect case study on the subject. But the "land" the episode speaks of is not Canada as a country, but Canadian television as a landscape.

A breathtaking all-access journey into a Canadian treasure that few people have ever seen: The CBC Music Archives. Hosted by Amanda Parris and Tom Power, this series features musical performances and candid interviews, shining a bright light on a remarkable musical story – our own. 1:29

In the early days of TV, some musicians couldn't get airtime in their home nations, but they could find a stage here. I dare you not to gawk at the screen when you see Sammy Davis Jr. host his first solo TV special. He did it on CBC in 1959.  

He bounds across the stage singing and dancing, bouncing from a drum kit to a xylophone with ease. He tells stories with charm and charisma. He smokes a cigarette between serenades. He tap dances as though he's floating on air. Davis is a whirlwind of talent, and it's thrilling to see this legend sharing all his audacious brilliance without apology.

In 1959, the CBC provided Sammy Davis Jr. with an opportunity he couldn't get in his own country: the chance to host his own TV show. 9:55

It's similarly moving to see a young Joan Baez in 1967, singing folk songs calmly and confidently. That's another moment you'll find on From the Vaults — and in an interview following her performance, she is asked about her work at a school for non-violence. Her response is powerful to consider today. Baez says she's not trying to stop schoolyard brawls; her goal is to develop a culture of pacifism that will put an end to warfare. What kind of world would we live in had that dream been realized?

The CBC provided a stage for these performers at a time when no network in the U.S. would, and that's a point that's repeated throughout the episode. Folk music rarely got airtime. Black artists struggled to have creative free reign. For American artists like Davis and Baez, these were opportunities they couldn't find at home.

Sammy Davis Jr. performing on his own CBC television special Parade in 1959. (CBC)

However, before we do the thing Canadians love to do — pat ourselves on the back for being so progressively distinct from the U.S. — it's important to point out an important pattern: these performers were already stars, and they came from south of the border.

For emerging artists living in Canada, the journey was very different. And on the premiere episode, a group of Jamaican reggae musicians challenges the myth of Canadian benevolence.

Musicians Jay Douglas, Joe Isaacs and Jimmy Wisdom appear on the show to speak about the legacy of Jackie Mittoo, whose 1976 performance on CBC was a huge moment for reggae in Canada. 

Artists like Douglas, Isaacs and Wisdom were part of a generation that left the Caribbean for cities like Toronto, New York and London looking for opportunities that they couldn't find at home. Many members of my family made a similar journey — my grandparents, uncles, aunts and mother were all part of that generation, and for them, the logic behind that migration is rarely questioned. But these musicians wonder if leaving Jamaica actually hindered their success.

They arrived in a city that was not interested in making room for reggae music. Says drummer Joe Isaacs: "Musicians who stayed in Jamaica — who didn't leave the island and stayed in the industry — became more popular than us."

While they saw Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley become globally recognized names, the musicians who arrived in Canada struggled. Radio stations refused to play them and record labels didn't sign them. They were left wondering if they'd made a mistake.

It's a question Black musicians are still asking today: is it possible to find success in the Canadian music industry, or do I need to leave? We might be living in the era of Drake and The Weeknd, but those superstars found acclaim in the States before they were recognized here. The fact that this question persists all these decades later proves there are roadblocks preventing Canadian artists from accessing opportunities that exist at home.

CBC's role in the conversation is something that I think about often. Looking at the archives, it's important to recognize the very specific context that made these television opportunities possible.

Jimmy Lee Morris, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, and Mable Hillery perform on CBC television in 1966. (CBC Archive)

In one segment of the show, we revisit a TV special from 1965 featuring Muddy Waters and more than 10 other blues musicians. Barry Callaghan, a former host and producer at CBC, reflects on how it came to be: "The CBC was in a very particular state of being then. There was not so much of that talk of, 'We know who our audience is.' Everything was kind of being made up as it went along here at CBC Television in the '60s. The American networks were already busy being very, very professional about what they did, tailoring to their audiences."  

Relatively uninhibited by stats, advertisers, competitors and audience profiles, CBC producers had the freedom to pitch ideas that wouldn't fly south of the border — or get the greenlight today.

But when it comes to Canadian music programming for the small screen, we are in an interesting moment. MuchMusic and MTV, the channels that led the way for at least two decades, have largely ditched their music-first mandates, and at the same time, audiences have more content and platform options than ever before.  

The CBC — as the host of the Junos, the Polaris Music Prize and the Searchlight music competition — has become the home for some of the most important music events in the country. In this time of transition, maybe now is the time to return to the experimental energy that helped CBC Television define itself as a place for opportunity. I can't think of a better time for a show like From the Vaults to come along and remind us of the brilliance that can emerge when the public broadcaster takes a chance on bold ideas that put talented musicians front and centre.

From the Vaults premieres on CBC Television Thursday, Nov. 15 at 9 p.m./9:30 NT. Watch online at cbc.ca/watch.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.