Being a Mensch – Bob Bossin

 

If there's someone who can connect with an audience, it's Bob Bossin. He is a writer, folksinger and founder of the group Stringband. For decades he has touched the hearts, minds and funnybones of Canadians. His songs range from those like Pete Seeger's to satires reminiscent of Tom Lehrer.

When I came to Toronto in 1968, he had just graduated from the University of Toronto. When Stringband was founded in 1971, it soon became my band. It was actually OUR band: all my friends flocked to his concerts. He and Marie-Lynn Hammond sang about our generation, about politics, distant places, surprising events in Canadian history and even sex. His song, "Show us the Length," described a young girl's creative revenge on macho men: it always got laughter from the audience.

At one concert in Toronto in the 1970s, Bob announced that he had been paid way more than he expected for a gig for CBC, so he was giving a piece of cake to everyone in the audience after the show. Toronto writer Doug Fetherling once said that Bob may have created the "Canadian sound" that was in the air in the 1970s and 1980s. Well, I think Buffy Sainte-Marie, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Stompin' Tom Connors and Stan Rogers had something to do with it, too. But Bob wrote the history and the feeling of Canada in those years into his songs as surely as The Group of Seven painted the Canadian landscape of the decades before then. He also brought Canada to the world: in the 15 years when Stringband was touring, they performed in the US, the UK, the Soviet Union, France, Mexico and Japan.

As an active supporter of peace and disarmament, he titled his 1987 album “Bossin's Home Remedy for Nuclear War". No event of the peace movement of the 1980s in Toronto would be complete without some songs by Bob Bossin. After he moved to enchanting Gabriola Island off the coast of Vancouver Island in the early 1980s, he released his 1984 album, “Gabriola V0R 1X0”. A brilliant stroke in the days of snail mail: you could send a postcard to Bob with just that as an address and it would quickly arrive, no problem.

But danger was lurking in paradise: logging had increased in the virgin forests of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island where First Nations people lived. Along with environmentalists, university students and others, they joined forces to win a victory against clear-cutting. They carried out the largest nonviolent civil disobedience action to that day. Bob wove the story of that movement into his award-winning song and film, Sulphur Passage (No pasaran) in 1994. The film included the cream of the crop of folk singers and songwriters in BC. Singing their hearts out in the film were Stephen Fearing, Roy Forbe, Veda Hille, Ann Mortifee, Raffi, Rick Scott, Valdy and Jennifer West.

To tell the story of his father, David Bossin, Bob wrote the book Davy the Punk, in which he documented his father's early career in Toronto's gambling underworld in the 1930s. He turned it into a one-person musical that he performed coast to coast. In 2017, there was another danger out west: the Kinder-Morgan pipeline. Bossin released a video showing the chances - and the effects - that a fire would have at the proposed pipeline's terminus just downhill from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He titled the film “Only one bear in a hundred bites”, but they don't come in order. He posted the video on YouTube, as he did with Sulphur Passage. Only one bear went viral but she didn't turn on the environmentalists. Instead, that bear played a role in defeating the province’s right-wing BC Liberal government, which was going to help the Kinder-Morgan pipeline get built.

Among the dozen or so Yiddish words most common in the English language is mensch: it means a good person. That's Bob without a doubt.

 

By: Carl Stieren

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