Origin: Toronto, Ontario
Active from 1953 to the 2000s, folk music group The Travellers were icons of Canada’s folk music revival. The first folk group signed by Columbia Records of Canada, The Travellers were best known for the patriotic enthusiasm of their Canadian lyrics for Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” The group influenced many in the folk music movement of the 1960s and 1970s and helped spread the messages of left-leaning social movements such as the labour rights movement. They made many popular recordings and often appeared on television and in concert, across Canada and internationally.
Folk music group The Travellers was formed at Camp Naivelt in Brampton, Ontario, during the summer of 1953. Founding members included Jerry Gray (banjo and lead singer), Sid Dolgay (mandocello), and the singers Helen Gray, Jerry Goodis and Oscar Ross. At first, they sang with the left-leaning United Jewish Peoples Order, with which they shared a commitment to the labour, peace and civil liberties movements. Then, piggybacking on the popularity of the folk music revival, The Travellers modelled their act after the popular American folk group The Weavers and were encouraged by legendary American folksinger Pete Seeger.
Under Jerry Gray’s leadership, The Travellers became a quartet. The members varied over the years; more than a dozen singers and instrumentalists were associated with the group. Helen Gray was replaced in 1954 by Simone Johnston. Johnston was replaced in 1969 by Pam Fernie and Fernie in 1974 by Aileen Ahern, who retired in 1990. Singer Oscar Ross left in 1955, replaced by Marty Meslin from 1955 to 1957. Jerry Goodis continued until 1961 and Dolgay until 1965.
Guitarist Ray Woodley was a member from 1961 to 1974. A second guitarist, Ted Roberts, was added in 1968. Bassist Joe Lawrence Hampson (spouse of Sharon Hampson of Sharon, Lois & Bram) joined in 1965 and drummer Don Vickery in 1972. The group’s music directors have been, in turn, Sam Goldberg (until 1961), Eugene Dolny (1961 to 1965) and Ted Roberts (beginning in 1968).
Career Highlights: 1954 to Early 1970s
From their earliest days, The Travellers were associated with the labour movement (see Labour Relations) and espoused left-leaning socialist beliefs. (“Traveller” or “fellow traveller” is a slang term for someone who sympathizes with the cause of communism.) Their earliest engagements were at Toronto Jewish organizations and labour functions. The group made its TV debut in 1954 on CBC’s Haunted Studio. They were also finalists in 1956 on CBC’s Pick the Stars. They were encouraged by Pete Seeger to perform Woody Guthrie’s music, which was blacklisted in the United States under the oppressive blanket of McCarthyism. The group members adapted Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” in 1954 and recorded it as a single in 1957.
They often performed for children in the late 1950s. In 1961, they appeared at the first Mariposa Folk Festival and toured Canada with Jacques Labrecque. In 1962, they toured the Soviet Union as part of a government-endorsed cultural exchange, performing 19 concerts titled “A Musical Tour of Canada.” A Canadian tour in 1963 was followed in 1964 by a royal command performance in Charlottetown and a tour in Britain.
The Travellers’ 1967 centennial tour of Canada involved more than 100 concerts, including performances in the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta. The group also performed during the opening of the Canadian Pavilion of Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. In the early 1970s, they entertained on Canadian armed forces bases in Germany and Cyprus. The Travellers were also popular on university campuses during the 1960s and early 1970s, corresponding with the years of campus unrest.
Career Highlights: 1970s to 2000s
The Travellers reduced their itinerary in the late 1970s but continued to appear at schools. They also performed annual children’s concerts during the 1970s at Toronto’s Seneca College. They played at political events and labour rallies through the 1980s, averaging 30 performances a year. Hampson and Roberts also performed as a duo and Roberts and Jerry Gray as solo artists, the latter specializing in Yiddish material (see also Jewish Canadians).
In 1980, the Travellers celebrated their 25th anniversary with a concert at Toronto’s Harbourfront that brought together many former members. In 1990, Gray, Ahern, Hampson, Roberts and Vickery were joined by Sid Dolgay for performances at the 30th Mariposa Folk Festival. The group appeared at Mariposa again in 2001 for the 40th anniversary of their appearance at the festival’s first year.
Since the 1980s, Gray has periodically performed with other musicians as Jerry Gray and The Travellers; in 2006, they performed with Hampson at a Canadian Auto Workers convention. In 2008, Gray and others hosted a tribute concert for Pete Seeger in Toronto, and in 2011 they sang at a concert in Markham, Ontario, to mark the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth.
In their early years, The Travellers sang traditional folk material in Yiddish and English. Their repertoire grew to include labour songs, traditional Canadian and American folk songs such as “I’se the B’y,” children’s songs, patriotic songs including “The Maple Leaf Forever” (with reworked lyrics), protest songs, some First Nations songs, and contemporary folk titles by Wade Hemsworth, Gordon Lightfoot, and others.
The Travellers began making recordings in the 1950s. In 1959, they signed with Columbia Records of Canada and produced seven albums during the 1960s. Their LP of labour songs, A Century of Song (1967), established their profile in the Canadian labour movement. Their 1980 children’s album, Merry-Go-Round, received a Juno Award nomination.
A compilation album of recordings from the early 1960s titled This Land is Your Land was released in 1999, followed in 2001 by a National Film Board documentary of the same name. The film covers the band’s early career and the folk music scene in Canada during the 1960s.
The Travellers and the band’s individual members were known for supporting the civil rights and labour movements, e.g., performing in 1963 with entertainers Harry Belafonte and Oscar Peterson in support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Syd Dolgay was inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival’s Hall of Fame in 2005. In 2009, Jerry Gray received a lifetime achievement award from the Ontario Federation of Labour for his support of unions.
The Travellers, along with such folk music specialists as Edith Fowke, Alan Mills and Wade Hemsworth, were icons of Canada’s folk music revival, which contributed to pan-Canadian cultural unity by popularizing regional folk songs across the nation. The first folk group signed by Columbia Records of Canada, The Travellers were best known for the patriotic enthusiasm of their Canadian lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land.” The song became a staple of their concerts and television appearances. The group influenced many in the folk music movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They also helped spread the messages of left-leaning social movements such as the labour rights movement.
Hall of Fame induction (Syd Dolgay), Mariposa Folk Festival (2005)
Lifetime Achievement Award (Jerry Gray), Ontario Federation of Labour (2009)
Joe Hill Award (Jerry Gray), AFL/CIO (2010)