John Wort Hannam is one of the visiting headliners at Steamboat Mountain Music Festival in Edgewater. He will be performing at 7 pm on Saturday, July 25th and instructing a songwriting workshop on Sunday. John, who comes from Fort MacLeod, writes mostly ballads, story songs with characters as real as your neighbours, or you own family. Some of his musical influences include Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Fred Eaglesmith – master storytellers all. He likes the way their songs convey a whole life experience in just a few strokes.
“The traditional advice to writers is to write from your own experience about what you know,” he says. “People in my songs are mostly blue-collar folk. I have never been a miner, farmer, fisherman, or residential school survivor. I don’t have those first-hand experiences, but I can write about what I imagine those people may feel.” He thinks for a moment, and adds, “I come from hardship. As a kid, our family knew poverty. We saw how hard it was for my father to cobble together enough work to make ends meet, and how my mother protected him from the knowledge that we sometimes had to take charity to keep food on the table. It’s not hard to imagine the struggles of other people down on their luck.”
John composes his songs from fragments of feeling. “Many of the stories in my songs are about people in hard times. I overhear little snippets that have a certain sound or rhythm or that express some strong emotion. That draws me in. My songs are lyrically driven narrative, but I don’t want to spell it all out. I like to leave a little mystery,” he says. “I also work from visual images. I imagine the story as though it’s a scene in a movie, then I try to set the image into the verse.”
“My song Man of God, is written in the voice of a residential school survivor. Although I have no First Nations heritage, I majored in Native Studies at school. I know the factual details of the story, and I have friends who have described some of their experiences, but I could not have written this song until just recently. I have a very young son. When the Reconciliation Commission came across Canada, and all the memories began to emerge from survivors, I imagined how I would feel as a parent if my child had been taken away by the authorities of church and state. Thinking of my boy, I went inside the feelings of a frightened child missing his family. Instead of writing about the rough and brutal haircut, I connected that longing and love by writing: ‘They cut the braids my mama made.’ When the song first came out, I got a call from a First Nations woman who thought I was Native.
“If you care about the human condition, then you can imagine the life and feelings of others. It’s simple empathy. Good storytelling comes from human connection. If there is one message I want my songs to bring listeners, it is: put yourself in other peoples’ shoes, try to be less judgmental. In essence, it is the same thing I hope that I will impart to my son. If there is one thing I hope he leans in life, it is: be kind.”
Looking forward to his songwriting workshop on Sunday, July 26, John says, “I’m excited whenever I get to teach about songwriting, I always learn from other people, and from trying to explain my process. One thing I’m still learning is how to push the bar higher each time, by revision and editing.”