Folk Fest 2015: Joanna Barker in Conversation with Folk Hero David Francey

A really nice heart-to-heart on work, memories, music, and the link between them, for folk hero David Francey

David Francey is just five years younger than Bruce Springsteen. Much like Springsteen, Francey is lauded as the voice of the working class and poor. The difference between the two artists, however, is that Springsteen started his career as a musician when he was a teenager. Francey, on the other hand, started his music career at the age of 45, having worked as a carpenter and labourer his whole life. 

Joanna Barker and David Francey
Joanna Barker interviews David Francey at NL Folk Fest 2015. Credit: Alison Cass of Tack Marketing

He says that he never meant to be a songwriter or performing artist. Making up songs throughout his days was just a part of who he was. He spent years alongside working class men and women, inspired by the poetry of their stories, as well as his own. It’s no wonder that he appeals to so many people worldwide. His honest lyrics and tender melodies are somehow always familiar.  

Francey doesn’t write his songs with an instrument in hand, rather he sings them out a cappella as he has done all his life. His live performances always see him looking very humble, standing with hands in his pockets or folded behind his back while a guitarist plays alongside of him, chiming in with perfect harmonies.

Francey was born in Scotland and lived there until the age of 12. His father’s work brought their family to Canada and he’s lived here ever since.

The Song-Makers Circle in the Oral Traditions tent at the Newfoundland Folk Festival today featured local acts Brianna Gosse and The Blue Drop along with visiting artists Catherine MacLellan and David Francey. I had the opportunity to speak with David for a few minutes after their performance.

I started by asking him about his earliest his childhood memory

DF: Ya it was when I lived in Scotland, and I think I must have been about 3. And my Uncle drove a bus and the whole family (it was a lot of us in the village, everybody was still in the village at that time) we all got on the bus and I just remembers singing all the way to the beach. We were driving to the beach – in weather like this, ya know – to basically stand and freeze at the beach, but it was a day out with the family, ya know? And I just remember that bus. And funny enough, I remember so much about it. It had this chrome thing at the front that looked like a steering wheel and my Uncle let me stand up and pretend to be driving the bus.

JB: And so music was in there, right from the beginning for you?

DF: Oh yeah it was always there. My family always sung. Like if we were on a bus or in a car later on when people got cars, you sung when you went places.

JB: Do you have a memory of the first melody you remember learning, or trying to sing?

DF: Oh boy, that’s a great question. I was awful big on hymns so I’d like to say it might have been ‘What A Friend We Have in Jesus,’ ya know that one?

JB: Oh yes. Incredible! And so another question is that as a songwriter, sometimes you’re singing songs that are much older than some of the people you’re playing with…

DF: (laughs) oh yeah, too true.

JB: So I’m curious which is the oldest song in your repertoire?

DF: Ah geeze, good question! Shit. What’s the oldest one I do. Oh uh it could be Torn Screen Door

JB: No way….

DF: Yeah it could be that one. There’s probably a couple from the late 80s. And my theory on that is, if a song was good then and it was a decent song, the song is good now. I don’t give a shit about using stuff I wrote ages ago as long as it stands the test of time. Ya know?

We’re still singing Steven Foster songs and ya know them and they’re in our hearts and anybody can sing a Steven Foster song [Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races, Old Black Joe] and he’s long dead now, but they’re timeless….There’s no kind of time limit on writing… or on creativity.

I used to think I was drying up and I wouldn’t write for a while and I just realized it was everything taking it’s time to settle in and ya know percolate through you and come out as a song later on when you’ve got the emotions sorted out and you know what you want to say about it. It’s turmoil til you get that out and then you feel so much better. I don’t know how you feel or how you write, but I get into turmoil and then I write my way out of it.

JB: No, I can relate to all of that. And Torn Screen Door has certainly stood the test of time. 

DF: Thank you, yeah I believe it has.

JB: I think it speaks to so many people.

DF: Sadly, yeah. And you can sing that in Australia and they get it. And you can sing it in Britain and they get it. And in Denmark and anywhere you go. Yeah.

JB: So just one more question. You sing so much about work. I’d like to hear you speak about work and song.

DF: Yeah well I mean, I did my songwriting while I was working and I always had labouring jobs. I tried university and was a complete failure, so I just left and thought, “I can lift heavy objects” and I just went into construction.

And so I did that. A lot of jobs that you do in construction you can do by rote and eventually it’s just a muscle memory hammering away there. And so it leaves your brain free to do whatever it likes, and my brain likes to write. And so I’d be talking to the boys at work ya know, about life in general, maybe their family or my family whatever it is and something would come up that would just trigger a song and I’d just start working on it.

And I don’t know how you do it, but I work in my head that’s all I do. I just, I get the melody in the lurk and I just start hammering it. I wrote tons of songs at work so, I think [work and song] are integral. I also think that being in motion is a huge part of writing as well. I don’t know about you but I write a lot when I’m in motion. So I think that’s just a case of your eyes are engaged, therefore your mind is engaged, therefore you’re clicking, and so, I think that’s the theory behind it.

JB: Thank you so much. 

DF: You’re more than welcome!

JB: I’m really very honoured to get a chance to talk with you

DF: Nice questions! That was a flippin great interview!

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