Interview with The Fugitives – Folk Group Releases Musical Documentary Covering The Battle Of Vimy Ridge
Vancouver folk outfit, The Fugitives recently released their album Trench Songs, written and performed in support of a feature film presentation by Vancouver’s Chan Centre, Ridge. Ridge, written by The Fugitives front-man Brendan McLeod, was originally destined to be a theatrical stage show at the Chan Centre earlier this year, however, it had to pivot in format due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The show itself is an exploration of The Battle of Vimy Ridge as well as other notable moments in Canadian history during World War One. The lyrics for the music in the film and on the Trench Songs album were written by frontline soldiers during World War One. The 72-minute film, Ridge, is available to stream on the Chan Centre website until December 21, 2020, and the album Trench Songs is available on all major streaming platforms.
If this year has given me anything, it’s time to reflect on how lucky I truly am to live in Canada regardless of the world’s current circumstances. Life can always be better, but at least in Canada we remain mostly united, our politicians are almost reasonable and intelligent-enough. Not least importantly in Canada weed is legal, which has helped me tremendously in 2020.
That all said and as wonderful as Canada is, our past is littered with some more than regrettable moments. Many of which we still do not teach our children about in schools, at any level. Canada’s story is far from perfect; and it turns out one of the most romanticized pieces of Canadian history, the battle of Vimy Ridge, is little more than an example of how history is written by the victors, more specifically old white politicians.
The battle of Vimy Ridge began early in the morning on an Easter Monday on April 9, 1917, and lasted for four days. It cost Canada 3,598 souls and resulted in over 7000 non-lethal, but often devastating, casualties. Vimmy Ridge was one of the most important turning points in World War One and is often noted to the moment the war turned for the allied powers against the German and Russian Empires. While it would not be the last time Canadian troops fought in Europe, it was the first time we as a country stood alone and won, where others had lost. It was and still is touted as one of the most defining moments for Canadian history. When you watch Ridge, you quickly begin to realize some hard but obvious truths about Canada’s history, and maybe even something about this thing called society, itself.
Ridge was originally conceptualized as a stage production written by The Fugitives frontman Brendan McLeod. It was originally set to debut as a live performance back in March of this year at the Chan Centre. Unsurprisingly the live show was canceled and the production was pivoted into a feature film. The film was completed in October 2020 and released online for audiences on Remembrance Day (November 11) of this year, and will remain online available to view until December 21, 2020, at midnight.
Ridge uses direct storytelling, verbatim theatre, and live music from The Fugitives to create a visceral film about the Battle of Vimy Ridge and other formative events in our country’s history. The project was filmed in different areas of the Chan Centre and takes the viewer on a journey of discovery of untold truths about Canada’s past and our role in World War One. The film is presented by McLeod, who is joined periodically throughout by the rest of The Fugitives for an interpretation of protest songs, or ‘trench songs’, the lyrics of which were written by World War One frontline soldiers, while they were living in what could only be imagined as a true hell.
One of the most impactful moments in the film comes early as McLeod tries his best to explain where the words came from. That they are from real people, with real experiences, horrific experiences that lasted years at a time. Scared people. People who didn’t want to be there, yet felt they had no choice but to stand by their friends who lived in hell with them. McLeod and the band reimagined the melodies and gave these heartbreaking words from ghosts back to life. All we can do now is listen in sorrow, try to hear the words for what they are, and hope we can learn something from them. Or at least, remember them and mourn them, for the flawed, terrified, brave, and complicated human beings they were.
Trench Songs was performed by The Fugitives’ four current touring members: songwriters Adrian and Brendan, as well as banjoist Chris Suen (Viper Central) and violinist Carly Frey (The Coal Porters). Much of it was captured live off the floor during the filming of Ridge, to capture the energy and spirit of friends and comrades singing together through tough times.
When you listen to the lyrics of the songs you can hear the heart of the people who wrote them. Humanity, the despair, the hope, and the fear. I think projects like this are incredibly important because they draw attention to the reality of life. Realities that are often glossed over, but contain tragedies that if not learned from could be doomed to repeat themselves.
Click below to listen to Trench Songs and keep scrolling for our interview with The Fugitives
Q: Can you tell me about the process of choosing the songs for this album/project?
A: We were looking specifically for songs that soldiers either wrote or would sing to each other. So the jingoistic songs that people sang back home weren’t of interest. In lots of cases, the soldiers turned those jingoistic songs into satirical songs. So it was those kinds of songs that we were looking for.
Q: Where did you source these songs/lyrics from? / Where does one look for songs written by World War One soldiers in trenches?
A: There’s a lot on the Internet, but the real gold mine was a Canadian Soldier’s Songbook that McMaster University had put up online in full – they are PDFs ofthe original lyrics and sheet music. So it was great to find such a huge songbook – there are hundreds of songs in it – but also one that was specifically Canadian. The Canadian Corps was small during WW1, so it was hard to find songs that were specifically Canadian.
Q: How aware were you of the original melodies of the tunes themselves? How much is adapted from a known original vs your musical inspirations around the lyrics themselves? / How did you approach writing the melodies to the songs?
A: We tried not to listen to the original melodies. Because once those are in your head they’re hard to forget. So we approached the lyrics carte blanche, as just a piece of text, which we then re-interpreted musically.
Q: Did any lyrics or message stand out to you as an ongoing theme throughout all of the songs you reviewed for potential use in the album?
A: I regard most of these songs as protest songs. These songs came out of the theatre show we were working on at the time, and the main thesis of that is that soldiers were well-aware of their oppression and they were horrified and angered by their circumstances. We often overlook this fact historically, and I think those soldiers would be deeply disappointed by that. When you read the lyrics of the songs their feelings are overt.
Q: What is your biggest takeaway/something you learned from working on this project?
A: That we need to do a better job, in Canadian culture, of accurately remembering and depicting history. This goes for WW1 but it also goes for so many other facets of our history. Colonialism, settler interaction with Indigenous peoples, the history of womens’ suffrage, reproductive politics – it goes on and on.
Q: What would be the takeaway you would want someone else to experience when watching the film or listening to the album?
A: We remember only what we want to remember, not what we should remember. I hope the projects inspire people to become passionate about more accurate historical representations of what’s come before.
Q: How long did you research the Ridge project?
A: Two years.
Q: What inspired this project originally?
A: It was this disconnect from previous generations. I have trouble, for instance, even imagining my own parents as 20 year-olds that had the same passions and desires and dreams and fears as I did at that time. And the further we go back, the bigger this divide gets. I wasn’t happy with my brain and my lack of imagination that way. I wanted to work on that facet of myself.
Q: Can you tell me about the experience of filming Ridge in the Chan Centre?
A: It was amazing. The Chan was totally onboard with us using whichever weird locations we wanted — we were up in the motors room, down in the plenum, on top of the canopy, in the seats, the dressing room. It was a very unique opportunity — to be in such a big theatre that, due to Covid, wasn’t as busy as it always is.
Q: When you think about all you know now about Vimy Ridge, Canada, and World War One and you step back and compare that to everything you learned in school, and how it was presented to you. How do you feel?
A: Angry. Not at any specific person, but all of the systemic barriers that seek to keep historical truth from kids. We’re basically teaching kids a pile of lies. It’s hard to have a functioning society that way. Your population doesn’t know where they’re coming from, or where their neighbours are coming from, so miscommunication is inevitable.
Q: What can we learn from being honest about the past?
A: An honest rendering of the past would allow us to square historical oppressions with the present reality. So we’d recognize what has happened to people in the past, the burdens that some segments of the population have faced, and we could account for that in contemporary public policy.
Q: What’s coming up next for The Fugitives?
A: It’s hard to tell with the pandemic. More music, definitely. And I think more theatre. We were pretty into that.