LITERARY LOCATION: Jericho Park, Vancouver.

Adjoining the seaside setting for the annual Vancouver Folk Musical festival, there is a park bench on the seawalk with a modest plaque that appropriately commemorates Hilda and Phil Thomas, the Pete Seeger of B.C. Having spent most of his adult life both singing and collecting indigenous songs, Thomas compiled the most essential book on the folk music of the province, Songs of the Pacific Northwest (1979).

ENTRY:

Until he died at age 85 in 2007, Phil Thomas remained active as a banjo player, singer and composer in the Alma Y Folk Circle, an organization that he and his wife Hilda Thomas co-founded with others in 1959. It later became the Vancouver Folk Song Society.

Born in 1921, Phil Thomas was a WWII veteran forced to take a teaching job in Pender Harbour in 1949 when he was suspected of being a communist by the Delta School Board. He taught grades six to ten in a small school where his students were mostly the children of fishermen and loggers.

Thomas' neighbour in those days was the author and fisherman Bertrand Sinclair who inspired Thomas to collect distinctly British Columbian songs. In the early 1950s, Thomas first adapted and augmented Sinclair's lyrics for a song, "The Bank Trollers,"; about commercial fishing (as distinguished from gillnetting and seining). A CD entitled Phil Thomas and Friends: Live at Folklife Expo 86 includes the song "Bank Trollers"; which was first published in Thomas' Twenty-Five Songs for Vancouver 1886-1986 (1986).

While Hilda Thomas was always involved in politics until she died in 2006, once running unsuccessfully for the provincial NDP in the Point Grey riding where they resided, collecting and field recording original B.C. material was Thomas' lifelong passion.

"A common theme is accepting one's destiny as a miner, fisherman or whatever,"; said Thomas. "Minor hardships are often made a grim joke in songs of places: the winters of the East Kootenays, the rains of Ocean Falls or Holberg. The bitter struggle of miners fighting for the right to have their own unions produced several B.C. songs, one of which was recorded 50 years after the events that sparked its creation.";

Much influenced by the song-collecting of Edith Fowke in Ontario, Thomas contributed songs to some of Fowke's books and to a 16-part CBC radio series entitled The Songs and Stories of Canada. Thomas' best-known song, "Where the Fraser River Flows,"; was written by Joe Hill and first sung in 1912. Where the Fraser River Flows was also the title of a CD made by Thomas.

Thomas' book Songs of the Pacific Northwest was revised and expanded in 2006. It included a dual-CD compilation from Cariboo Road Music, Songs of the Pacific Northwest: A Tribute, drawn primarily from songs Thomas had gathered through his field recordings and research. The audio collection features Thomas' final public performance as well as 40 other Northwest musicians singing 37 songs, 28 of which are in the book.

In 2003, Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebesaat released a CD drawn from Thomas' collecting work from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, The Young Man from Canada: BC Songs from the PJ Thomas Collection.

The approximately 500 songs in the P.J. Thomas Collection in the Sound and Moving Image Division of the Royal B.C. Museum mainly showcase indigenous songs of fishing, mining, logging and homesteading. Most were donated in 1975.

Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC has 7,240 items in its Philip J. Thomas Popular Song Collection.

FULL ENTRY:

The Peter Seeger of British Columbia, Philip James Thomas was born in Victoria on March 26, 1921. B.C.'s leading folk music historian was a WW II veteran forced to take a remote teaching job in Pender Harbour in 1949 when he was suspected of being a communist by the Delta School Board. He had gained his B.A. in English and history in 1948. In Pender Harbour, where he taught Grades 6-10 in a small school, his students were mostly the children of fishermen and loggers. Most of the music they heard came from battery radios. "They were receptive to all kinds of things," he said, "but they needed a bridge between their own lives and the broader cultural influences, between where they were and where they were going."

In Pender Harbour, Thomas' neighbour was the legendary B.C. author and fisherman Bill Sinclair who inspired Thomas to collect distinctly British Columbian songs. Sinclair's song 'Bank Trollers' is adapted from Sinclair's words [See Bertrand Sinclair entry]. Thomas has recalled: "My neighbour in Pender Harbour in 1951, the author-fisherman Bill Sinclair, wrote a 147-line narrative verse. The poem was published on the centre-fold of a 1953 pamphlet of the Vancouver Peace Assembly. In 1978 using the form and text of Sinclair's first three stanzas, I made this 47-line adaptation as a song, which I sang at the first Vancouver Folk Music Festival. Trolling is to be distinguished from gillnetting and seining." Thomas introduced the Japanese fishermen into Sinclair's lyrics. Although Thomas had sung the song for many years, a published version of the Bank Trollers first appeared in Twenty-Five Songs for Vancouver in 1986. Thomas later added it, along with eleven others, to an expanded version of Songs of the Pacific Northwest (1979), when that book was revised in 2006. The enlarged edition of Songs of the Pacific Northwest, edited by Jon Bartlett, was made available in its second printing from Hancock House Publishers Ltd. and Rainshadow Gallery. An audio companion to the book was also made available from Cariboo Road Music entitled Songs of the Pacific Northwest - A Tribute. The materials on this dual-CD compilation were drawn primarily from the collection of songs Thomas gathered through his field recordings and years of research. The audio collection features Thomas' final public performance as well as 40 other Northwest musicians singing 37 songs from the PJ Thomas Collection, 28 of which are in the book.

In 2003, musicians Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebesaat released a CD drawn from Phil Thomas' collecting work from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, The Young Man from Canada: BC Songs from the PJ Thomas Collection. Folklorists and teachers, Bartlett and Rubesaat perform at folk festivals and are members of the Vancouver Folk Song Society. The approximately 500 songs in the PJ Thomas Collection at the Aural History Archives of the Royal B.C. Museum mainly showcase indigenous songs of fishing, mining, logging and homesteading. Most were donated in 1975.

Thomas was influenced by the song-collecting of Edith Fowke in Ontario. He contributed songs to some of her books and to a 16-part CBC radio series entitled The Songs and Stories of Canada. Songs he gathered were reprinted in British Columbia Library Quarterly (July 1962), More Folk Songs of Canada (Waterloo 1967), Canadian Folk Songs for the Young (Vancouver 1975) and Singing Our History (Toronto 1984). Thomas' best-known song, Where the Fraser River Flows, was written by Joe Hill and first sung in 1912. Where the Fraser River Flows was also the title of his own CD. The CD entitled Phil Thomas and Friends: Live at Folklife Expo 86 includes the song Bank Trollers.

Until he died at age 86 on January 26, 2007, Phil Thomas remained active as a banjo player, singer and composer in the Vancouver Folk Song Circle, an organization that he and his wife Hilda Thomas (who died in 2006) co-founded with others in 1959. It later became the Vancouver Folk Song Society.


AWARDS:

Honorary Life Member of the Vancouver Folk Song Society
Honorary President of the Canadian Society for Traditional Music
G.A. Fergusson Memorial Award for excellence in teaching
Marius Barbeau Medal, Folklore Studies Association
Heritage Society of British Columbia's Personal Achievement Award.
Life Member of the BC Art Teachers' Association a

[Dale McIntosh of the University of Victoria published History of Music in British Columbia (1989), a reference guide to B.C.'s musical ensembles and major musical personalities from 1850 to 1950. With ethnomusicologist Wendy Bross Stuart, John Enrico published a 519-page study, Northern Haida Songs (1996), which situates Haida music in the context of the Northwest Coast and presents a collection of 128 songs, fully transcribed and analyzed, representing some 20 types of songs. For other B.C. authors who have written about music-from Mart Kenney and Dal Richards to Will Millar and Joey Shithead-see abcbookworld entries for Adams, Bryan; Adaskin, Harry; Anstey, Robert; Armstrong, John; Bachman, Randy; Baldry, Long John; Bates, Morris; Becker, John; Bradshaw, M. Doris; Brown, Heide; Bruneau, William; Campbell, Amy; Case, George; Cavoukian, Raffi; Chesher, Deborah; Chesterman, Robert; Childerhose, Buffy; Chong, Kevin; Clyne, Dorothy; Crich, Tim; Cunningham, Rosemary; Densmore, Frances; Duke, David Gordon; Forbes-Roberts, Ron; Gati, Laszlo; Giese, Rachel; Gothe, Jurgen; Gray, Martin; Gregory, Hugh; hagarty, britt; Halpern, Ida; Headrick, Paul; Hendrix, James Al; Hicks, George; Hryniuk, Angela; Hughes, Mary E.; Jackson, Lorna; Keithley, Joe; Kendy, Emily; Kenney, Mart; Kivi, K. Linda; Konieczny, Vladimir; Le Bel, Pauline Eulalie; Lee, David; McGuire, Ra; McLaren, Jean; Millar, Will; Mitchell, Joni; O'Connell, Sheldon; Pearce, Christian; Potter, Greg; Reid, Jamie; Richards, Dal; Robinson, Red; Saidman, Sorelle; Salloum, Trevor; Schafer, R. Murray; Schwartz, Ellen; Setterfield, Gwenlyn; Slim, H. Colin; Slyne, Dorothy; Smith, Bill; Soret, Mike; Stevenson, Richard; Swanton, John; Tenzer, Michael; Thomson, Robert S.; Thrasher, Alan; Tidler, Charles; Truax, Barry; Tyson, Ian; Varty, Alex; Walker, Carl Ian; Walter, Chris; Wooton, Carol.] @2010.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Songs of the Pacific Northwest

BOOKS:

Twenty-Five Songs for Vancouver 1886-1986 (Vancouver School Board, 1986)

Songs of the Pacific Northwest (Hancock, 1979; enlarged, revised edition, edited by Jon Bartlett, 2007)

[BCBW 2010]