Positive stories of community activism and labour solidarity provide her inspiration.
Maria Dunn’s on Zoom telling a familiar tale about navigating the unfamiliar territory of online performing and socially distanced concerts.
“At the beginning of lockdown I looked into what others were doing, but I’ve realized I’d rather be spending my time writing songs,” she says with a chuckle. “In concert, I realized how much I rely on teaching people the chorus and now that’s the most dangerous thing! Now I have to ask people to hum along—so the pressure’s off, they don’t need to know the words!”
The Edmonton-based singer/songwriter and social activist has just released her excellent seventh album (produced, as always, by Shannon Johnson). The pandemic made completing the album tricky.
“We couldn’t schedule for Shannon and I to get together with the engineer and listen all together in the studio.” There was also a tour in England and Europe booked, which is on hold. In spite of everything, though, Joyful Banner Blazing is out. So how does she feel about it compared with the rest of her substantial body of work?
“There are things on it I’ve done all along and become known for, in terms of singing about workers’ history, community history, storytelling about people’s lives. There’s more of an element of gratitude, I think. Love Carries Me is very much about gratitude to my parents. There’s some songs I wrote a while ago that didn’t fit on the previous concept albums, songs about family like Ontario Song and like Declan’s Song for my nephew when he was first born—the magical feeling of a new life. He’s now 16!” she says laughing.
One of the most striking songs, which also inspired the wonderful cover artwork, is the title track.
“Joyful Banner Blazing is about my Aunt Cecily. She worked with young people for 40 years in Bermondsey, a working-class area of London in England. She was a Salesian nun and their philosophy is there’s good in everyone. Her motto was, ‘You are young, you are precious, you are loved.’
“She was known as the flying nun because she rode a scooter and she got things done—she was quite a whirlwind. At her funeral, the local people were lining the streets singing her signature song She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain. When I heard about that, I said I’ve got to try to capture that somehow!”
Waltzing With the Angels is another outstanding track with a great back story.
“I keep getting pulled into fascinating community projects. Two years ago, I went to a Sisters In Spirit march and my friend, Muriel Stanley Venne, a lifelong Indigenous activist, said, ‘Maria, you have to write a song about the Métis ironworkers’.
“She’s not a person I’d ever want to stay no to so I said, ‘I’d absolutely love to!’ She told me because of the danger of their work and being up so high they call it waltzing with the angels. So she gave me the title of the song.
“Alberta Labour History Institute had just interviewed the ironworkers. I spent the better part of a day reading the interviews and watching highlights and by the end of the weekend I was feeling pretty good about the song.
“I am looking forward to sharing the final version. That was one of those community things where you’re invited in and trusted with that story, which to me is just a wonderful feeling.”
Dublin With Love is a Ron Hynes song that has a different tone from the rest of the album, so we talk about how it came about.
“I learned it before it was properly published. It was in the old days where you heard something you liked on the radio and rushed to the cassette deck and pushed record. So I had half of the song and I’d drive around singing harmony to that bit of the song.
“In the early 2000s, Ron was at Edmonton Folk Fest and we were doing the same workshop and he sang that song so I sang my harmony. I must have done a decent job because he invited me to sing with him at his concert the next day!
“He later said he thought a woman should sing it and maybe I should do it. I had my doubts as it seemed a bit angst ridden. Then an old sweetheart passed away and I ended up re-reading letters we sent each other. I remember thinking, ‘Ron hit the nail on the head’. I can sing it now after reading how painfully intense I had been in those letters.”
Our conversation turns to the topic of equity and diversity and I ask her to reflect on her own experience as a woman in folk music.
“I am really glad to see more people talking about equity in terms of numbers of women booked at festivals and in folk venues. You wonder, of all the people played on radio, how many were women, how many were Indigenous, how many were of colour. You wonder if there’s still an unconscious bias, a systemic imbalance. There were definitely situations where I received sexist treatment. In the folk music world, there’s a lot of men who are wonderful allies but studios, guitar stores, etc. are still male-dominated places.”
With a career that now spans 22 years–a long and fruitful calling, and yet a hard row to hoe, I wonder aloud what keeps her going?
“A focus on sharing positive stories of community activism, on people who are making a difference. That’s how we inspire people to get involved and take action. I’m not shying away from how awful it is to be on the picket line fighting for your job but I’m sharing the feeling of how positive it can be to be part of that solidarity. That element is always going to be a source of inspiration.”