A Song, A Journey
I’ve been painfully aware of the fact that it's been some time—several months, in fact—since I last posted anything here. I think with all that's been happening in the world—Covid, the social and political dysfunction in the US and elsewhere, the reality of climate change beginning to sink in—I've been preoccupied with fending off the despair that wants to close in on me, much like the thick smoke that recently engulfed our region from the numerous forest fires raging all around us. My avoidance strategy has been to retreat to the solace of gardening and my forays into the woods and mountains. Whatever attempts I made at putting my thoughts down on (virtual) paper seemed always to drag me down the rabbit hole of frustration and hopelessness. After a few paragraphs I would abandon my efforts and escape to the soothing meditation of pulling weeds.
So, this time, instead of my usual reflections on world history or current events, I thought I would share the story of what you might call a music-nerd treasure hunt that my curiosity, triggered by a song, drew me into—a journey of discovery and nostalgia through our local history and my own past, with some memorable characters along the way.
My old friends Roger Cristofoli and Judy Smith introduced me, some years ago, to the folk ballad I Remember Loving You—a song about a vagabond life of hard times, riding the rails and sleeping rough. They discovered it on the album Heart Songs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips, by the folk/bluegrass duo Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin. The anarchist, Wobbly and union organizer Phillips had included the song on his 1979 album All Used Up: A Scrapbook and, interestingly, had given himself the sole songwriting credit.
Interesting, because I remember Roger telling me that the song was written by the somewhat notorious Nelson, B.C. resident Luigi Del Puppo. In fact, it was Del Puppo and his friend Tino Chumlevich* who wrote the song sometime in the 1960s. In a jailhouse interview with British Columbia folk song collector Philip Thomas, Del Puppo relates how he and Chumlevich sold the rights to the song to a character named Terry Roberts and that the song had “hit Nashville already.”
After searching online, in vain, for any reference to the song in relation to Nashville, I gave up and wrote off the remark as exaggeration or fantasy. Just recently, though, I discovered, somewhat serendipitously, that the country singer Sheb Wooley recorded his version of the song on the 1969 album Warm and Wooley. It was also released as a single and climbed to #52 on the US country charts. Those of us of a certain vintage may remember Wooley for his 1958 #1 novelty hit The Purple People Eater. He was also an actor who appeared in numerous TV and big screen westerns, including his role as drover Pete Nolan on Rawhide. (There's a link to a YouTube post of Wooley's recording of I Remember Loving You at the end of this piece.)
Utah Phillips reportedly heard the song performed by Hilda Thomas (Philip Thomas’s wife) at the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington. I also discovered that Del Puppo and Chumlevich had written only the first two verses and Phillips had added a third before he recorded the song—a good example of how folk songs shift and evolve. On Stecher and Brislin’s album, the song is credited to all three of the writers: Del Puppo, Chumlevich and Phillips. Utah Phillips' revisions and extra stanza, however, seemed to trigger some controversy in the folk music world. Philip Thomas was one of those not particularly enamoured with the Phillips version. In a letter published in a 1999 Canadian Folk Music Bulletin, he wrote: "Luigi's presentation has a raunchy tone, which is completely absent from Phillips' version," adding that he felt Phillips had transformed the "crude sentiment" of the song into something belonging in a "delightful musical."
Luigi Del Puppo's song I Remember Loving You appears on these albums, and was also covered by several other performers, including Tom Paxton and Garrison Kiellor.
I’d gotten curious about Luigi after coming across a reference to his less than savoury activities—the shenanigans that ran him afoul of the law. I contacted local historian Greg Nesteroff and discovered that he already had a file on Del Puppo, which he generously shared with me. Greg was also the one who told me that Philip Thomas had recorded some of Luigi's songs during his visit to the Nelson Jail, with the recordings now residing in the British Columbia Archives, and we agreed to share the cost of acquiring digital copies of the recordings.
Cover of a book of songs collected by Philip Thomas
Thomas was a BC schoolteacher with an unpaid career as a collector of homegrown and vernacular songs of the Pacific Northwest, a career that spanned more than twenty years, from 1953 to 1975. He traveled the length and breadth of the region recording songs of local relevance, usually in people’s homes. During a couple of trips to the Kootenays, he made recordings of songs by several musicians whose names will be familiar to many long-time locals—names such as Hazel Irving, Joe Irving Sr., Joe Irving Jr., Jack Irving, Skip Fraser and Dick Pollard. I have fond memories of the folk music scene in the West Kootenays during that era, and enjoyed numerous festivals, concerts and house parties where the Irving brothers, Skip Fraser, Dick Pollard and others performed some of the songs recorded by Thomas.
From left: Dick Pollard, Joe Irving and Skip Fraser, performing at a
Kootenay music festival in the 1970s. (K. Koerber photos)
It was during one of these visits to the Kootenay area that Thomas recorded eight of Del Puppo’s songs while Luigi was awaiting trial in the Nelson Jail. Why was Luigi in the lockup, you may be wondering? I’ll come back to that later but, for the moment, I want to stay with his songs. In addition to I Remember Loving You, the songs recorded by Thomas include Hubba Hubba, North to Krestova, Good Morning Judge, The Fireman’s Lament, All Day All Night, Hard Rock Miner and Red Light Saloon.
The title North to Krestova immediately caught my attention, because Krestova is the rural community where I’ve lived for the past quarter-century or so. It's become more diverse over the past few decades, but in the 1970s and earlier it was a communal home of the Svobodniki, the breakaway Doukhobor sect also known as the Sons of Freedom, or simply Freedomites. The Svobodniki practiced a simple, pacifist, anti-materialist, agrarian faith and lifestyle that brought them into conflict with Canadian authorities, mostly for their nude protests and refusal to send their children to public schools because, they believed, the curriculum promoted militarism. The more fanatical members also demonstrated their renunciation of wealth and possessions by practicing arson—burning down their own or their neighbors’ houses—which, understandably, caused a degree of consternation in the community at large.
Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s there was an ongoing cycle of protests and arrests, with members of the sect being imprisoned for public nudity and arson. A special prison was constructed on Piers Island, near Schwartz Bay on Vancouver Island, just to house the scores of Freedomites who had been convicted, in the main, for their nude protests. When the authorities seized Freedomite children and incarcerated them in a residential school in New Denver, the protests escalated to bombings: power lines, bridges and buildings. A young man was killed when the bomb he was transporting exploded prematurely. It was long, tragic saga that eventually subsided and passed into history as the fanaticism died out and the Freedomites entered into a process of reconciliation with the mainstream Doukhobor community.
This is a photo of the former TB sanitarium in New Denver, BC, that was repurposed a residential school for children of Freedomite Doukhobors, who were forcibly removed from their homes and interned here from 1953 to 1959. In the 1999 report entitled Righting the Wrong: The Confinement of Sons of Freedom Doukhobor Children, the BC Ombudsman found that they suffered "...significant harm as a direct result of being confined in New Denver, forced to live in an institutional setting, being removed from their communities, and abused through neglect, lack of love and nurturing and harsh discipline…" A link to the report can be found at the end of the article. (K. Koerber photo)
The Doukhobor story is familiar to most Kootenay residents of my generation, and many of us have connections with the Doukhobor community. My first wife was from a Doukhobor background. Her family was non-observant and assimilated in the mainstream “Anglo” culture, but often still spoke Russian at home. My mother-in-law also incorporated the traditional Doukhobor cuisine into their diet—a custom I came to greatly appreciate. Like most of the mainstream or assimilated Doukhobors, the family had no time for the Freedomites. The same was true for the Doukhobor owners of the lumber company where I was employed for the last years of my working career; when I moved to Krestova they sometimes teased me about living in “enemy territory.” Even though by then (the 1990s), the conflicts were well in the past, a lingering residue of trauma and stigmatization stayed with many Doukhobors, whether of Freedomite, mainstream or assimilated background.**
Luigi’s song North to Krestova is a cheeky takeoff on the Johnny Horton classic North to Alaska, poking fun at the Doukhobor community in general and the Krestova Freedomites in particular. In the interview with Philip Thomas, he claims he wrote the song sometime around 1958, while working with a “Doukhobor fellow” on “the sewer line” in Nelson. The lyrics lampoon the Freedomites’ lifestyle and the arson and other infractions that made headlines and brought them into conflict with the authorities. Krestova (situated on an elevated terrace) is cited as a “…very good place to live…” because "You can see the Mounties coming, even when they’re far below.” The northern lights, that were “a-runnin’ wild” in Horton’s original version, couldn’t compare to the charming glow of “burning neighbor’s barn.” I found myself chuckling at this verse in spite of myself:
Now George looked at Sam with his cabbage in his hand
He said Sammy boy you’re lookin’ at a very hungry man
I’d trade all the sunflower seeds God placed in this land
For one small plate of borscht cooked by sweet Marushka’s hand.
I was surprised to learn that Del Puppo had also written Hubba Hubba, a ditty that I remember was circulating among Kootenay locals in the 1960s and 70s. He told Thomas that he’d written it in 1954. Thomas also recorded what I believe must have been a later version of the song, entitled Sun-Sun-Sunflower Seeds, when he interviewed Jack Irving of Castlegar. This later version is the one I remember, with the “Sun-sun-sunflower seeds” chorus sung to the tune of Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Dee-Ay. Luigi’s version, which he sang a cappella in a heavy faux-Russian accent for Philip Thomas in the Nelson jail, did not include the chorus, so it must have been added later.
Hubba Hubba also makes fun of Doukhobors, and hits on all the stereotypes. I suspect that it was perceived as derogatory by some, but my memory is that most people, including my Doukhobor friends and acquaintances, didn’t take it too seriously and got a kick out of it. Here are a couple of the more provocative (or offensive, depending on one’s point of view) lines:
Got a homemade bomb in car, gonna blow up CPR,
People think that I look cute, dressed up in my birthday suit.
There’s a certain irony in the homemade bomb verse because Luigi was convicted in 1971 of planting ten sticks of dynamite against the outside wall of the Creston courthouse (they didn’t explode, fortunately) and received a prison sentence of two years and eight months. He denied the charges, claiming he’d been in Creston to buy a truckload of Christmas trees to sell on to St. Louis, Missouri, where he purportedly had a connection with the St. Louis Blues hockey player Bob Plager. I didn’t find any mention of a possible motive for the attempted bombing.
Luigi had a number of other run-ins with the law and, by some accounts, he was something of a player in the Kootenay underworld, such as it was. He made his mysterious and somewhat flamboyant exit on May 6, 1985, when he was declared missing and presumed drowned in Kootenay Lake. The Nelson Daily News reported: “After voyaging about a bit with two friends on his Second World War surplus amphibious land-sea vehicle, he waved goodbye to them from the craft about 11 p.m. at Four Mile on Nelson’s North Shore. The vessel was found later at One Mile.” As far as I know, no body was ever recovered. He was 52 at the time.
From the little I know of him, I can’t help but feel sympathetic toward Luigi, a tragi-comic figure who impulsively crashed and banged his way through his short life, leaving a legacy of headlines and a handful of songs strewn along the way. I Remember Loving You, with its infectious chorus and evocative lyrics, has stood the test of time, for now, with several versions out there on YouTube and other streaming sites. I wish I’d been able to decipher the lyrics to a couple of the other songs on the Philip Thomas recordings, like The Fireman’s Lament, Hard Rock Miner and Red Light Saloon, but the audio quality was too poor. Those songs have faded into oblivion as, I suspect, have Hubba Hubba and North to Krestova. In retrospect, this is probably a good thing, although the songs do provide a glimpse into the culture of our region during my youth—artifacts of a bygone era when the term ‘politically correct’ was yet to be coined. It is surely a reflection of my own white privilege that I look back nostalgically on those times, just before the opaque rural bubble in which we lived was burst wide open, and the cultural paradigm shift of the ‘60s and ‘70s came flooding in through the little screens that had inexorably become the focal point of every living room.
I remember loving you
Of all the girls I knew
Yes, and I’ve had quite a few
I remember loving you.
This is the song's refrain, with its catchy “hook,” as written by Luigi and his cohort Chumlevich, and as recorded by Philip Thomas in the Nelson city jail in 1970. Who was the special someone, I wonder, who inspired the song? Could it be that she is yet among the living? Had he lived, Luigi would be 88 today, so it’s conceivable.
Utah Phillips, in his rendition of the song, revised the chorus (to the apparent dismay of Philip Thomas) to read: "...back when the world was new / and I think you loved me too / I remember loving you.” Somehow, this version fits a little more comfortably into my sensibilities and I usually sing these lyrics, rather than Luigi’s, when I play the song myself. They resonate, I suppose, with my own memories of those turbulent, yet magical, days of the 1960s and ‘70s—for me, a time of curiosity, wonder, exploration, and endless possibilities: “...back when the world was new."
I Remember Loving You, performed by Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher.
Sheb Wooley's 1969 recording of the song.
The Canadian Encyclopedia article on Philip Thomas.
Righting the Wrong: 1999 report of the BC Ombudsman on the apprehension and internment of Freedomite children in New Denver.
* When I Googled Chumlovich, Chumlavitch or Chumlevich, all variations I have seen in relation to Tino’s co-authorship of I Remember Loving You, the only hits I got were for Tino himself, connected to the song. There seem to be no other Chumlovich’s in the world. Is that possible? I’m guessing this is a made-up name. ** The history of the Doukhobors in Canada and the Kootenays is long and complex and there are a number of excellent resources available for anyone wanting to dig deeper, many of which are listed in the bibliography of the Wikipedia article on Doukhobors. I recently read a fascinating memoir, Our Backs Warmed by the Sun, by Vera Maloff, that interweaves the personal stories of the author's family with local Doukhobor history, particularly relating to the breakaway groups like the Sons of Freedom.