I got a big part of my education from the CBC. My formal schooling ended with Grade 9 and I moved to the welfare roll and endless unskilled jobs.
Life became a struggle to survive and it was only the free knowledge contained in a library and the world presented to me by late-night radio that allowed me to grow.
I always had a radio. I always had a book. Together, they made nights in the shabby dwellings my meagre income allowed me, more livable, comfortable, home.
I would turn the lights down low, the music on softly and read. A lot of times the music would cause me to raise my head and listen and I would close my eyes and let the rapturous sounds inhabit me.
Those nights were memorable because they made me feel alive. My world was dismal, hard and the music the CBC offered me then was ebullient and elevating. It was the early 1970s and while the titanic surge of rock was everywhere with my generation, I felt more attuned to the jazz and classical music that washed over me those nights.
Maybe it was the melancholy I lived in then. Or perhaps it was the yearning I felt for more of the world, for a bigger slice of it than my circumstances allowed. Either way, the CBC became a trusted friend and I would scribble down the names of the songs, composers, and artists and look them up in the library the next day.
I first heard the word continuo on the CBC and discovered the world of the Baroque in books.
Each piece of music had a story. When I took the time to discover the story, it led me to other more fascinating tales. I heard Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances one night and soon I was reading about the folk dances of Czechoslovakia, which led me in turn to the plight of the Romany Gypsies, the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, the history of the violin and the 16th century, Michelangelo, Raphael, Don Quixote and the life of Tyco Brahe. There was a continuo in learning I’d never known before.
Similarly, jazz gave me the foundation of a political learning that would frame my experience. Through explorations of Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith, I discovered W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Eldridge Cleaver.
They would in turn lead me to Vine De Loria, George Manuel, Howard Adams and Maria Campbell, great native voices that called me forward.
The music of the CBC ignited a flame in me. Each sound, at first unfamiliar, pushed me to learn more about it and the longer I did that, the broader, richer, more eclectic my frame of reference became.
I thought less about my poverty than I did about the world of possibility that surrounded me. I am a successful writer today because of the overwhelming influence of that music.
Like a lot of young people I had a limited attention span. I got used to receiving my music in three-minute chunks. I got used to television giving me the news of the day in short, sharp blasts. I grew to need instant gratification when it came to information. But CBC taught me how to pay attention for the length of a concerto, a symphony, or a suite. It taught me to concentrate, identify, categorize and compare. It broadened me intellectually.
So it’s sad to know that on September 2nd, CBC Radio Two will change dramatically. I loved CBC FM, and welcomed Radio Two enthusiastically in 1997.
Disc Drive and Katy Malloch’s ‘Tonic’ maintained the profound learning experience I discovered in the 1970s and they will be dearly missed. My music collection, huge and expansive, will have less impetus to grow now.
The brass at the CBC says it has a responsibility to its audience. But that responsibility lies less in the need to contemporize than it does in the need to maintain a tradition.
We live in an age where institutions have become disposable and the cultural linchpins that define us are nearly gone. The legacy of the CBC is the possibility of a wider horizon and if it can work for an under educated Indian kid, it can work for anyone.
CBC, and the musical tradition it maintained, provided me with a free, liberal education. It formed the critical bridge between music and books and I crossed it eagerly, regularly. I learned more out of learning about the non diatonic tonality of Paul Hindemith than the chord progressions of Ron Sexsmith say, or Harry Manx. It’s just a richer vein.
So when the format changes on September 2nd I won’t be tuned in. Instead, I’ll be listening to the CDs of the great music the CBC has introduced me to all these years.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday.