Troubadour On A Quest

I grew up near the Cow Palace in Fort William. It’s not to be confused with another Cow Palace in San Francisco where famous musical acts such as Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead wowed audiences. In our neighbourhood, the Cow Palace was a corner store that sold popsicles and cigarettes. Many a summer night you could be out in the yard and the unmistakable sounds of garage bands would fill the air. Maybe those players would never make it to a stage and some bands were, well, more musical than others.

My mom never complained about the backyard musicians. She liked to hear the sounds of live music around her. One of the bands playing in our neighbourhood comprised folks like Murray McCullough, Don Jewett, Lindy Norhaugen and Dan Buzzi. The garage where the jamming took place was Rodney Brown’s. My mom said she knew Rodney would be musical because she grew up with Rodney’s dad, Mel Brown in Emo, Ontario.

“My dad was an entertainer,” says Rodney. “He played country-style and was inspired by folks like Wilf Carter and Hank Snow and Jimmie Rodgers. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s, early 30s, when my dad started to write songs. He wrote story songs about people he knew like Sam the Blacksmith Man in Emo. He was a really good songwriter,” he reminisces. Later when Mel had retired, he and Rodney would perform together at festivals. Those times together on stage were some of Rodney’s favourite memories in a career that has spanned 40-plus years.

Singer, songwriter and troubadour, Rodney Brown’s first band was called The Drifters. “We were 13 or 14 years old with Jeff Murphy, Ralph Drugie, Gerry Lazar and me. That band split and we carried on as a trio called Image with David Martens and Gerry Lazar. Both bands made the round of community centre dances and school grads.”

Brown wrote his first song at age 16 for a girlfriend. Back in those days he played all kinds of music – country, folk, rock. He is remembered from FWCI coffee houses as the singer of ‘American Pie’. “I’ll occasionally play it now,” he says. “It’s a great story song.” He also was president of the high school band in those days. Under music teacher Joe Yaciuk he learned music theory, how to read music and the group dynamic.

“As a musician you need to learn as much as you can about all kinds of music. High school formal bands are great because you get encouragement from the teacher and other players. I used to think I was a pretty good trombone player until I went to music camp in Owen Sound. There I ended up as fourth trombone.

I don’t play trombone much anymore but I appreciate a good trombone player.”

Once Brown’s band, R&B Airways, broke out of the garage, his first paid gig was at Scott’s Tavern on Cumberland Street. He was hired to be the back-up band for Christy Star’s striptease performance. Christy wasn’t impressed when the 18-year old kept missing the musical cues. Rodney didn’t care.

Over the next few years, Brown toured the country. When he became a father he got into the children’s music scene and spent time teaching music in the schools. All the while he wrote songs. “There has to be a trigger to get you excited to write a song. You want to know more.”

On his travels, Rodney came across real-life characters that were worked into songs. I know. Rodney’s 1980 album, ‘When the Bay Turns Blue’, featured a song called ‘Jack of Clubs Hotel.’ The Jack of Clubs was a hotel in Wells, B.C. When I was in a federal government youth program called Katimavik 34 years ago, I noticed a poster for Rodney Brown’s gig at that hotel in the local post office. My motley crew of Katimavik friends and I sang along with Rodney. A few years later, some of those local characters like Lucky Swede and Old Elwood ended up in that song, and are a lasting memory for me of the wonderful people in that tiny town in northern British Columbia. I picture them every time I hear the song and somehow that gig seems like yesterday.

Rodney has become known as a singer and writer of historical songs. Much like the great Stan Rogers, Brown’s songs are connected to real events in Canadian history. When you hear him tell those seldom-heard stories, you have a glimpse into an era that was vitally important in Canadian history. “I get to do what I love – combine history with music.”

When Rodney’s mother was ill, she said she would leave him some money but she wanted him to do something ‘fun’ with it. Rodney used it on a quest that began in 2007. He went for the first time overseas to England and began his search for William McGillivray. For 20 years, William McGillivray directed the North West Company through major North American explorations, the Pemmican War and the War of 1812. Canada would look quite different if it wasn’t for his perseverance. The songs on Brown’s 2004 album ‘The Big Lonely’ are based on the important role Fort William played during the years it was headquarters for the North West Company. William McGillivray has been his muse and inspiration for much of his historical music. Brown started the William McGillivray Plaque Project to have a new burial stone for McGillivray at St. James Piccadilly Church in London. The church has set aside the middle window vestibule at the back of the church for the plaque. His grave and that of his wife Magdalen were destroyed by bombs during World War II.

Brown says his quest will be over when he returns to the church to sing ‘The Big Lonely’ beside the new plaque. “This man accomplished so much and so little is known about him,” says Brown. “William was with the North West Company for 40 years. From 1784-1790 as clerk in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba and partner from 1790 to 99. From 1799-1821 he was chief director. His wife Magdalen died in England in 1811 after falling ill in Montreal after the death of their new born son. As far as I know his daughter lived on. His ‘country wife’ Susan, who was a Cree woman, died and was buried in 1819 at Fort William.
McGillivray became ill and suffered from depression after the merger. Returning to London, he died before realizing his dream of retiring at Pennyghael House on the Isle of Mull.”

It was quite a process to write the McGillivray plaque’s inscription. It took six rewrites. All the parties agreed on the following based on wording taken from his coat of arms in 1823:

Hon. Col. Wintering Trader
Montreal Merchant
William McGillivray Chief Director
North West Company 1764-1825
His perseverance extended Canada
from his named Fort William on
Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean
Born in Scotland • Died in London
Buried Here

This November, Brown will work with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra to record an album of his historical songs. Brown is pleased to work with the Symphony again. For an introduction to ‘The Big Lonely’, he has arranged for the Thunder Mountain Singers, followed by fiddle music performed by Pierre Schreyer, bagpipes, then an interlude by Lise Vangois leading into the song.
“I’m so excited to have this opportunity,” he smiles.

Brown admits that he’s more interested in listening to CBC Radio and news these days than music but he does still listen to Paul Simon, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. When playing a children’s concert at Dylan’s elementary school in Hibbing, Minnesota, Brown told the kids during an echo back that he was glad they didn’t all sound like Dylan! (His favourite Dylan song, by the way, is ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.) At the 2011 Red Rock Folk Festival he was blown away by the all-women group, Oh My Darling. “If you closed your eyes, you’d swear they were old-time musicians from another era.”

Rodney Brown and his family explore the Northwest by canoe. A recent paddle into White Otter Lake to see the castle was a highlight, as was a 5-day pictograph tour in Quetico.

Rodney’s daughter, Aidan, plays piano. Son, Jarek, plays drums and guitar. A guitar that Rodney often plays has ‘Mel’ written in magic marker on its body. It belonged to Rodney’s dad, Mel, and will be passed along to Jarek. The Browns’ musical legacy continues.
Somewhere out there, the Lucky Swede, Old Elwood and William McGillivray are listening, tapping their toes and singing along in gratitude.

For more information on Rodney Brown, his performances and 10-album discography, go to

Proposed William McGillivray plaque

If you would like to show your support for Rodney Brown’s William McGillivray Memorial Plaque Project and his trip to St. James in London, you can send a cheque or money order to the McGillivray Memorial Plaque Fund, BayCredit Union, 142 S. Algoma Street, Thunder Bay, ON P7B 3B8. For more details, go to

Nancy Angus is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Bayview. Contact her at nangus(at)shaw(dot)ca.