The Yorkville district located in Toronto was a village where young musical and artistic talent could gather and share their love of music during the 1960’s. It was a place that launched the careers of many Canadian artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Ian Tyson, and Neil Young, just to name a few. The area began its legacy with a couple of coffeehouse’s that offered live entertainment named the Half Beat and the 71. The entertainment was usually irregular with different styles playing on any given night, such as a flamenco guitarist one week and a folk-rock singing duo the next.
As time went on, many other coffeehouses and clubs sprouted up along Avenue Road, Cumberland St. and Yorkville Ave. , and at its peak there were over forty clubs and coffeehouses in the area. 1 A “scene” was created which attracted musicians from all over Canada and the World but most importantly, solidified Yorkville as a starting point for the most talented and creative musicians in Canada. Yorkville was the foundation in a progression toward popularizing Canadian music in Canada during the sixties.
Once musicians became popular in the Yorkville scene, they usually chose to migrate into the United States in search of fame and fortune, which the Canadian Music Industry could rarely provide for them. Yorkville also served as grounds for a youthful social movement which thrived through the music of the times. During the early sixties, folk music was beginning to make an impact on popular music in Canada. Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker were the pioneers of folk music in Yorkville.
Canadians could relate to the lyrical content and the introspective composition that these and other folk artists to follow, conveyed in their music. The venues in Yorkville happened to be the most creative environment where most of these artists, many who had come from all over Canada, could express this through the numerous coffeehouse shows. The most notable being the Riverboat, but others such as the Mousehole, Purple Onion, Upper Crust, Night Owl were all in a constant battle to offer the most popular music which in turn, would give them the best business.
The amount of international recognition that these and other Canadian folk artists such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Cockburn have received is not just a coincidence. They were, and some still are, able to capture people’s imaginations through their soul-searching which has been inspired by Canada’s vast landscape and unique culture. Essentially Canada’s people, land, and culture were at the forefront in terms of motivation for creating Canadian folk music.
Gordon Lightfoot’s song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” best exemplifies all of these attributes together with lyrics like “There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run” and “when the green, dark forest was too silent to be real” and workers “swinging [their] hammers in the bright blazing sun,”2 This was a direct attempt to offer Canada its own identity in popular music which during the sixties was a predominantly over-saturated American market. The amount of Canadian artists forced to migrate into the United States in order for their music to be heard, is clear evidence of that being the case.
It is important to recognize the limited role the Canadian Music Recording Industry had in developing Canadian artists who played in the Yorkville area. The industry during the 1950’s and up until the end of the 60’s was a “relatively underdeveloped and fragmented one” which consisted mainly of small recording company’s who were concerned with “record pressing” and “custom duplication of Canadian-made masters so as to maximize the revenue potential of existing operations”. The majority of record companies in Canada then, were essentially distributors and not in the business of signing performers to contracts and essentially furthering their careers. The major label companies in Canada were mainly foreign-owned and showed little interest in signing Canadian performers. This influenced the decisions of numerous Canadian artists who left to New York, San Francisco or Los Angles in order to make a living playing music. The radio stations were playing limited Canadian content with the bulk of their programming filled with American pop music.
Artists that made a name for themselves in Yorkville by playing countless gigs and earning praise through word of mouth were left with nowhere to go but south of the border to be heard, and be signed to a recording contract. There were a limited number of independent labels in Canada which meant they couldn’t possibly support the immense amount of musical talent that was breeding from the Yorkville scene during the sixties. The Canadian Music Industry was intensely regionalized with no networking capabilities and the financially impossible cross-country tour crippled a performer’s chance for exposure. This lack of support led to the migration of Canada’s top musical talents during the sixties such as Joni Mitchell, Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker, The Band, Neil Young, Steppenwolf, David Clayton-Thomas, Zal Yanovsky, and Denny Doherty; all of which began their careers in Yorkville. The success of these Canadian acts in the United States is evidence of their musical talent and the apparent lack of support from the Canadian Music Recording Industry.
By 1969, Gordon Lightfoot’s song If You Could Read MY Mind hit number one on the pop charts and was covered by more then a hundred artists including Barbara Streisand, Neil Young had recorded his first solo album in the U. S. A. which began his popular solo career, Joni Mitchell had won a grammy for Best Folk Performance, and numerous other Canadian artists were infiltrating the American Pop charts. This also brings to light the incredible influence the Yorkville scene had on these artists development. Neil Young was quoted by the Toronto Star in 1969 saying “You know all those dirty long-haired kids with no direction in Yorkville?
Well I was one of them”. 5John Kay of Steppenwolf reminisces of his time in Yorkville saying “For the most part everybody knew somebody who knew the next guy and so on down the line. The village had the added attraction that people actually lived and worked there so it was more than just a handful of clubs where people would come to and go home separately. “6 Yorkville then, was a place where fellow musicians felt comfortable around each other and in turn was a healthy environment for creativity among the performing artists.
This type of atmosphere nurtured Canada’s most talented musicians and eventually gave birth to Canadian Popular music on a large scale. During the mid to late sixties the Yorkville district became a hub for counterculture activity. This was a time when young people were rebelling against conformity by ingesting mind-altering drugs like LSD, listening to psychedelic-rock, growing their hair long, and basically adhering to the hippie theory of “turn on, tune in, drop out. ” This was a reaction based on conservative generations preceding the sixties as well as differing political views with the government and other institutions.
Yorkville was a retreat for many Canadian youth that were living the hippie lifestyle because it offered a sanctuary where everybody had similar interests and they felt welcomed. The welcoming was short-lived in Yorkville with an overwhelming feeling that the city of Toronto wanted to clean-up the area once and for all. Yorkville turned into a tourist destination where the traffic was “bumper-to-bumper” and many of the locals were “Reduced to curiosities for the passing, pointing motorists, many resented the way their community was being taken over by tourists gawking at the longhairs. 7 During the summer of 1967, Yorkville saw a rising police presence and politicians rallied for a curfew that was aimed at clearing out many of the immigrated hippies. This was clearly disliked by the hippies of Yorkville and culminated into a meeting between Allan Lamport, former mayor and city controller at the time, and many of the outspoken hippies from Yorkville at City Hall to discuss the circumstances. 8 The hippies wanted Yorkville Avenue closed off to cars because of pollution concerns and Lamport stated he wanted to see Yorkville as a shopping district.
This led to a ‘sit-in’ on Yorkville Avenue on August 20, 1967 that saw thousands of youth sitting on the street preventing any cars from entering the Yorkville district. The police moved in and forcibly removed many of the protesters and in the end, (it lasted for three nights) 61 arrests had been made. 9 The Yorkville village during the sixties was essentially an outlet for subcultures to express themselves how they sought fit. The poets, musicians, protesters, writers, and hippies had an environment where many of their views were shared.
During this time the majority of youth in Canada were rebelling against right-wing conservatives that filled the government and other institutions, which as a result caused a social movement. In a sense, Yorkville represented the social and political ideals of many other Canadian youths but in a more condensed environment. The music being created in Yorkville was an example of this expression. Folk music was popular during the sixties in Canada because it fueled the social movement that was so prevalent in the youth.
In Denisoff’s article Folk Music and the American Left, he states that “Social movements have historically used song to put forth their belief systems and to gain internal unity. “10 The folk songs of the sixties embodied left-wing themes like world peace, civil rights issues, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Folk music was appealing to the youth because serious issues were being addressed within the music which offered a sense of disclosure and honesty. The culture of Yorkville was on the Left with their political views and this resonated throughout Canada’s youth.
The district of Yorkville was seen by many as a blemish in Toronto, but to others it was a mecca of artistic talent in Canada. It nurtured some of the greatest songwriters Canada has ever produced and offered the surroundings to make it happen. Canadian popular music is indebted to Yorkville and Martin Melhuish even goes as far as to say “Yorkville village in Toronto through the sixties and very early seventies had more impact on Canadian music than any other factor (outside of the Canadian content rulings in 1971)”. 11 This puts into perspective how much impact a creative environment like Yorkville had in popularizing Canadian music.