Érica Pomerance or the Free Folk of Quebec
We seem to have neglected to the point of slowly dismissing the force of folk, this unpredictable wake-up call fiercely anchored in the present moment, the warning shot that comes from the guts before being machine-gunned between 6 strings, that of the singers and the hippie bards from all over America in the 60s and 70s who did not sink into repetition, naivety or nostalgic ideals around a campfire. This machine kills... The Free Folk of Quebec, bohemian, awake and marginal, was nevertheless so much alive that we are surprised that an performer as emblematic as Erica Pomerance is not more often cited among the most convincing examples of the Sound of Quebec. The compositions of this true free electron of this scene, pioneer come to life, are inspired by her numerous travels, starting with her own province where she became one of the first English-speaking folk singers to dare to make the transition to a French-speaking register. Since no one is a prophet in their country, she is also one of the rare local artists to have been initially recorded internationally after having exported her talent to the New York underground scene. Hardly trivial!
Lights! Camera! Action!
Born in Montreal, Erica Pomerance grew up in a Jewish family in the the Cote des Neige neighborhood. Her parents were left-wing, did not regularly attend synagogue and in the 1940s and 50s were involved with the Communist Party of Quebec. Marginalized earlt on, the Pomerance family made a series of moves before eventually settling in Ville St-Laurent. Erica studied in English Protestant elementary schools system, as did most secular Jews, in order to avoid the omnipresent religious curriculum in the province's Catholic schools. Culturally mixed like her city, she already saw beyond the divide which then seems to have culturally divided the metropolis with the anglophones west of the Main and the francophones east of St-Laurent Boulevard... Fascinated by French-speaking culture , Erica enrolled in the Bachelor's degree in English and French literary studies at McGill University in 1962. The performances of emerging French-speaking singer songwriters in Québec had an impact on the student who encountered artists such as Gilles Vigneault, Monique Leyrac and Claude Gauthier. We soon found her in the cast of one of the musical revues of the university troupe of the Red & White Revue (Something for Nothing, February 1963) and soon in a small folk duo Fran 'n Erica she formed with her friend Fran Avni (Liberman), performing hits by Ian & Sylvia, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, among others.
“ I’d adopted Joan Baez's look, I sang like her and had even met her at her first concert in Montreal. I would meet up with her several times later on in New York and California. I worked in the summer of 1966 in Quebec at Chez Pollack, a department store, in order to perfect my French. On weekends, I played on Rue du Trésor beside a caricaturist, singing the repertoire of Baez… a look-alike!
With Liberman Erica also co-chaired the McGill Folk Music Society, a small c club promoting folk music on and off campus. The McGarrigle sisters were also members. She had already become friends with the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, in addition to learning about the different Blues and Jazz trends emerging at the time.
« We frequented all the folk clubs in the neighborhood: Finjan on Crescent, The Yellow Door, and the clubs managed by promoter Gary Eisenkraft: The Fifth Dimension on Bleury and later The New Penelope. Small, unpretentious venues, which suddenly could offer shows by legendary bluesmen like Reverend Gary Davis and Howlin' Wolf or introduce us to artists like John Hammond Jr, , The Paul Buttefield Bluesband and Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention... We did our part at McGill, booking the famous Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and we hung out with all these people. It was exhilarating. »
In 1963, Pomerance met Bruce Mackay, also part of the cast of the Red and Wirte Revue Something for Nothing. Her childhood friend Tanya Ballantyne Tree then married Bruce. The young couple had a love for cinema and folk music as did Pomerance “. I was interested in film directing, but McGill didn't really have a film department; there was only a film club for movie buffs. »
It was around 1966 that the three friends took advantage of a training course program for emerging cinematographers at the National Film Board (ONF/NFB). As part of the program, Tanya directed the famous documentary The Things I Cannot Change with Erica as assistant director. A few decades later, in the 1990s- early2000s, Erica and Ballentyne-Tree would produce several documentary projects together. The Ballantyne-Mackays remained within the NFB for several years, but Erica, a Francophile in spirit, was invited to join the intrepid Films Claude Fournier team the following year. A few months before the opening of Expo 67, orders poured in and allowed the aspiring director to supervise her first short films. In addition to creating one of the films presented at the Quebec Pavilion, Erica directed three 27-minute documentaries for the series “Cent millions of young people”, a co-production of France’S national broadcaster and Radio-Canada,which aried part of a series on youth culture in the spring of 1967. The themes she explored provide a faithful and mixed portrait of the artist: La jeunesse Juive à Montréal or Regarde, je vole which explores the consumption of LSD among youth! She soon on other Fournier productions such as the documentary on Robert Charlebois “À soir on fait peur au monde” andthe legendary film “Deux femmes en or”.
“It is what it is not” – Richard Heisler
During that period, Bruce McKay and Tanya Tree landed a recording contract in the United States with ESP Disk.. He thus inaugurated the catalog of the New York label ORO, a sub-division of records ESP, with engaged extrasensory folk, featuring the collaboration of non-conformist groups like The Fugs or The Holy Modal Rounders.
Back in Montreal Erica lived in a huge old house in Old Montreal on rue des Commissaires before the area became trendy and epensive. The urban commune house a motley fauna including the cartoonist Terry “Aislin” Mosher and the American blues singer and draft dodger Jesse Winchester, with whom Erica had a short-lived romantic relationship. When their small group was infiltrated by drug dealers with mafia connections and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)intervened, Erica's father gots her out of this mess and sents her to France to join her younger brother. MarK who studied classical cello at the Paris Conservatory. A front-line witness to the events of May 68, Erica spontaneously joined the students who occupied the Sorbonne and put her daily life into music on pieces like The French Revolution, The Slippery Morning or To Leonard From the Hospital. When she returned to Montreal several months later, the singer planed to travel elsewhere.
“ I couldn't sit still, like my parents in their youth, I was looking for the next revolution...” This is how she decided to try her luck in New York in the fall of 1968. There she found her friend the guitarist Richard Heisler with whom she sang in various cafés in Greenwich Village where she was noticed by Bernard Stollman, head of the ESP label (for ‘Esperanto’). This avant-garde producer had founded his anti-commercial label 4 years earlier, focusing mainly on marginal artists from Free Jazz and beat poetry, always under the banner “You never heard such sounds in your life”. After biring her first as secretary at ESP, Stollman soon offered the Erica the opportunity to record her compositions for an album in the company of Heisler and a cohort of musician friends including members of the underground groups Insect Trust and Octopus. Recorded in two acid- laced sessions in December 1968, the album You Used to Think encapsulates her rrecent creations to which are grafted improvisations without restraint, partially under lysergic influence. “The artists alone decide what you hear on their ESP Disk.” Inimitable, Erica thus established herself as a Quebec pioneer of the Free Folk movement, at the crossroads of free jazz, folk, psychedelic rock and hybrid mystical influences. A diamond in the rough.
Without imagining any promotional tour for her album, Erica and Richard Heisler escape to Paradise Island in the Bahamas to become yoga teachers with Swami Vishnu Devananda. You Used to Think was timidly published during their exile, but Vogue magazine promptly dedicated a full page with a photo to the new singer in its January 1, 1969 edition (Where Pop Music is Now). They compare her to Lotte Lenya, andin these pages she rubs shoulders with folk artists like Ritchie Havens, Joni Mitchell and Tim Hardin.
Pomerance recollects: “ My friend Leonard Cohen, upon hearing my record, predicted it was going to become a collector's album. He also predicted it wouldn't be a popular hit...and he was right! It has never had any airplay on Quebec radio. None. Not then and not now. A few American underground stations played it.” Yet the album has been the subject of numerous official reissues in Europe over the last twenty years, proof of the timelessness and transcendent singularity emanating from its performer. A vinyl collector recently wrote on his blog that this is the mostly costly album in his extensive collection!
Let the sun in
Erica already coveted the wish to travel to the West Coast and she settled for while with some of her musicians in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where she performed occasionally. It was at the same time as Woodstock on the other side of the country and Nixon had just been elected... strange times. The new American president was far from appreciated in the hippie community, as demonstrated by his ardent campaigns aimed at containing the young psychonauts with long hair who roamedthe jungles and coasts of Mexico in search of adventure, freedom, a little “Acapulco Gold” marijuana and other hallucinogens. On a trip to the mystical mountains of Ouaxaca at the beginning of 1970, Erica and her friends were arrested by the army who quickly extradited them to San Francisco, but her brother's illness (psychosis) then took her back home to Quebec.
Back in Montreal, she was informed of the imminent auditions for a Quebecois bilingual adaptation of the hit musical Hair. They were looking for credible young artists, bona fide hippies in the public eye... It was a tailor-made opportunity for the aspiring actress and musician who joined an impressive, shaggy cast including many local actors, singers, musicians like François Guy and Jay Boivin (Les Sinners) , Carlyle Miller (Ville-Émard Blues Band), Robert Ellis (The Medium), Marie Louise Dion, Sharon Lee Williams, Ian Sebastian, Kenny Hamilton (The Persuaders), Haitian musician Robert Villefranche and Richard Groulx, to name a few. Erica played one of the main roles. The Quebecois cast was even inducted as an adopted tribe into the Abenaki Nation which doesn’t hesitate to thumb its nose at authority figures. Curiously, while Hair was in rehearsal, external reality quickly met fiction when Prime Minister Trudeau authorized the War Measures Act, following the recent attacks by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) and the assassination of Minister Pierre Laporte. The musical took the stage of the Comédie Canadienne by storm on September 22, 1970 and was to be presented until April 1971. Its success was as phenomenal as it was ephemeral, having won over some 60,000 spectators in barely two months, at the rate of two performances per day. But the streets of Montreal were occupied by the Canadian Army and the police didn’t hesitate to target the cast of hippies, increasing the number of arrests without warrant. Mistaking Villefranche for a member of the Black Panthers, the police arrested him along with Erica and other A Hair cast members while driving in a red Volkswagen. The atmosphere in Montreal was soon no longer conducive to partying and love-ins. The premature end of performances of Hair was discreetly announced at the beginning of December 1970.
The tense political climate, driven locally by francphone identity issues coupled with the Quebec independence project advanced by the new Parti Québécois , quickly animated Erica's personal convictions: she would henceforth sing mainly in French. She thus joined friends and stage partners from the early 70s such as the sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jim Corcoran and Lewis Furey in this rare opening of the province's English-speaking artists to the world of francphone musical culture. Tightly entwined… but not entirely. As Erica recalls: “Some promoters, frightened by my song lyrics, refused to invite me back to their venues, even when the spectators asked for more. I identified as Jewish and in their eyes, I represented the Westmount bourgeoisie despite my parents' distinctly left-wing tendencies. I had to struggle constantly to be accepted as a Québécoise who had chosen to live in French. I felt like a foreigner in my own country, a bit like my Native American friends with whom I identified. I didn't have much of a nationalist streak, but I hung out with people who endorsed Québec sovereignty wholeheartedly.”
If my mother tongue was Abenaki,
I’ld reclaim the land that the Gauls stol from me.
- Excerpt from the song ‘Popcorn’ (never recorded) by Erica Pomerance.
Seeking to get closer to nature and some poetic neighbors, Erica moved with her boyfriend Denis Grenier to a country range in Wickham, near Dymmondville, an hour’s drive from Montreal.. Solo with her guitar, she continued to perform regularly on the outside terraces of Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal in exchange for spare change from customers and passers-by. That touristic neigbourgood hosted various lively clubs and cafes frequented by the entire underground community of the city. She also performed in other clubs such as such as La Grande Passe and the La Casanous. “The Rimouski singer Lawrence Lepage one day invited me to join the other musicians who were playing that evening at the club he managed, L'Imprévu. His brother the jazz drummer Cyril Lepage, my future Madelinot neighbor Georges Langford, and singer Priscilla were also on the bill. One thing led to another. I was barred from the clib for my Popocorn lyrics, but Cyril introduced me to the musicians of Jazz Libre du Québec with whom he played on occasion.”
Between 1971 and 1972, Erica joined a few happenings organized by the iconoclastic avant-garde group Variable Geometry. Recently recipients of significant funding thanks to the federal government's Local Initiatives Program, the Jazz Libre musicians made their action music a unifying event, politically engaged, ambitiously free and open to various artists. There were are concerts and benefit shows featuring documentary screenings, poetry, grass roots theater and eclectic musical performances. Erica was invited to perform with the jazz Libre at the Bronfman Center in Montreal on April 24, 1972: A key moment in her career where she was able to unite my Jewish roots with her Quebecois identity. On May 10, 1972 she played at Casanous, and also, without being announced, during the Great Workers' Day concert in early September at the Le P'tit Québec Libre in Sainte- Anne-de-la-Rochelle in the Eastern Townships,
At that time, Jazz Libre was made up of Jean “Doc” Préfontaine (saxophone), Yves Charbonneau (trumpet), Patrice Beckerich (drums) and Jacques Beaudoin (bass). From September 1 - 4, 1972, they brought together a roster of artists for continuous shows. The musical component included, among others, the groups Les Sinners, Les Champignons, and folk singer Marie Savard, When they cancelled at the last minute, Erica was called in to replace them at short notice! Préfontaine confirms:’ Erica is a comrade of the group, she is also one of the rare singers who has the freedom to do vocal improvisationm inventing words, sounds and trying to blend with instruments. “Although they lived intensely in the present moment, the Jazz Libre musicians nevertheless took care to record many of their performances for posterity in the early 70s. These magnetic tapes passed through several hands and organizations before ultimately being saved and rediscovered in 2015 by the archivist Mario Gauthier who immediately collaborated with the author and director of the Tenzier records, Éric Fillion, as well as the Tour de Bras label in order to digitize, document and reissue part of these performances in the 4 CD box set Le Quatuor de Jazz Libre du Québec – Political Music Anthology 1971-1974. On these same tapes that time had forgotten was the unpublished concert by Erica Pomerance, captured on the evening of Sunday September 3, 1972.
“I think I was pretty messed up at that time.”
Over the course of 4 songs that can be rediscovered like old postcards, Erica, armed with her guitar, improvises tirelessly and recycles her compositions, touching chronicles of everyday life. In these musical snapshots of a specific period in her life, she captivates her audience by revealing herself, whole and without artifice. J’ai mon voyage’ invites the public to smoke a little joint, just to be relaxed while making fun of Québec’s Prime Minister Quebec Robert Bourassa. The song seems to come the defense of the felquist Paul Rose (big bad guy of the century), denounces the mescaline offered by John Lennon & Yoko Ono while taking heavy shots at the greed and consumption that encompasse and suffocate us, even in the countryside.
The caustic humor that Erica injects into her lyrics, a quality already perceptible in her recordings for ESP, amplifies our reaction to the delirium of social injustices she frenetically depicts in her songs. Somewhat autobiographical without being one of her own compositions, Woodstock revisited (free style) follows as its title indicates, in the tracks of the song originally popularized by Joni Mitchell in 1970. After a few measures faithfully interpreted in English, Erica unexpectedly personalizes her French adaptation on her own experiences. She knows Woodstock: she was visiting there a few months before the legendary pop festival in August 1969! Revamping Mitchell's melody, she recalls her escapade there, along with some now famous friends and others who became Jesus Freaks, her days busking and ultimately, everything that has coalesced to bring her to the stage that September evening.
So I went to Woodstock to see what was there
There was a restaurant and The Band was playing . (...)
So I met Joan Baez and I met Leonard Cohen
And I met all the pop stars of our Nation.
We are stars, we are money
And we have to go back (sic) to the garden.
La Révolution Française continues the momentum by simultaneously updating her song The French Revolution, originally included on You Used to Think. The energy is intact and as contagious as ever in this explosive story with as backdrop the protest movements of May 1968 in Paris.
The French Revolution has crumbs in its socks
Like I always suspected
That’s why it lost many bums to the cops
Where are amply protected…
…This is simply the end of the beginning
of the end of the fun
Comprehend my friend?
We can actually smell the canisters of tear gas, but Erica doesn't budge, denouncing the pseudo-revolutionaries through the mist: you have an 8 to 5 job, but you justify it because it's with the counterculture magazine Mainmise ? Ah yes. Brutal.
However, there are those tales that hurt you even more... My dear brother/Medley trad, dedicated to Mark Pomerance is certainly one of the best. ,”My younger brother was a cello prodigy who went to study at the Paris Conservatory at the age of 17. He became schizophrenic after consuming too much LSD in the company of a false American guru who completely destroyed his own identity. Successively interned in various psychiatric hospitals, he took his own life a few years later in 1976 and I never sang that song afterwards. I even forgot having composed it.”
The fingering here seems more delicate although loose and Erica's candid and intimate tone is the one we use with our closest relatives.
Me, I'm looking for the voice you lost while running around the world
Do you like being mentally ill merely in order to return to the hospital?
Concluding that every man is an asylum, halfway through her poignant story, the performer moves away to invest in an improvised potpourri of a few songs with a traditional flavor at to close the recital. This Labour Day evening was rounded off by a rigorous Jazz Libre performance punctuated by the cello of Tristan Honsinger and the lyrical flights of Erica while the quartet revisits the workers' anthem L'Internationale before wishing all a good night.
The sun rises in the East
This recording also coincides in some way with the end of a creative and professional cycle for Erica, who shortly after “returned to the land” by moving to the Gaspé Coast and then to the Îles-de-la-Madeleinem where she taught, working in community radio and television while raising a family in a fishing environment. While her performancnes became more and more episodic after the birth of her daughter Nahani and her folk freak gradually gave into her passion for francophone lyrics and and traditional music, Erica founded the Association Singerf Songwriters of Eastern Québec with friends from the region, She performed as part of the Rimouski Autumn Festival at the end of the 1970s. She also gave a in at the University of Quebec in Rimouski in 1978 and appeared frequently at the Baro (rue de la Cathédrale . Rimouski artist Bruno Santerre created the concert poster, attended the show and at the same time immortalized on film 40 photographs of the performer which, 4 decades later, finally saw the light of day on this album. The following year, Erica opened for the Belgian singer Julos Beaucarne in addition to being seen and heard on the Place des Anciens-Combattants and then at the La Marée Chante Festival in Sainte-Luce-sur-Mer. In 1979, Erica participated in the group show Solidarité Québec-Chile and in 1981 in the singing tour Le Soleil se Lève a l'Est in the company of Gilles Bélanger and Claire Pelletier, a show captured and broadcast by Télé-Québec. For a time, she formed a duo with Claire Pelletier with whom she performed in the Magdalen Islands and the Gaspé. She participated for 4 years in the Madelinot musical revue Les Années Roses. She translated and popularising the song Pêcher aux Îles-de-la-Madeleine which became a standard and can be rediscovered with other of her songs on the albums Le Tour des Îles Volume 1-2 (Radio-Canada; 1999).
Along with regional musical activities in the region, in the 80s, Erica focused more on her docymentary film work. First as a director for the regional station Radio-Québec Gaspésie-les-Îles, in the following decades she developed her profession as a filmmaker, journalist and translator by collaborating on more than fifty documentaries and works of fiction. When the regional Radio-Québec stations closed in 1987, she left the Islands for Montreal and a decade later, gravitated towards West Africa. Her passion is matched only by her unwavering commitment to women’s rights to which she has dedicated several films and series such as Femmes de Métier (1985) Dabla! Excision (2003), Opération Survie (2010), Migrants of the Dunes (2016) and After the Coup, Malian Women Speak (2019).
Recently , she participated in a circle of musicians from the Islands as part of the weekly summer Grandes Marées evenings at the Gros Cap campsite, where everyone revives traditional tunes. Unique, authentic, close to the people, far from the smoky bars and clubs of yesteryear, we must admit that she has firmly rooted herself in Quebec soil to make HER scene. Whose street? We meet on Erica’s street.
Interview conducted in April 2020
Thanks to Erica Pomerance, Fran Avni and Eric Fillion
Figure énigmatique de la contre-culture québécoise, Erica Pomerance présente ici des compositions folk engagées et éclatés qui nous offrent une plongée dans un aspect méconnu de la chanson d'ici.
Entre les Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Rimouski et New York, cette saltimbanque beatnik promenait ses chansons avant-gardistes par leur désinvolture et leur auto-dérision. Elle apparaît aujourd'hui comme le chainon manquant entre les boîtes à chansons et le revival de "folk trash" des années 2000.
Si elle fit paraître en 1968 l'album You used to think (sur le label new yorkais de free jazz ESP), ses chansons francophones restaient inédites à ce jour.
released February 19, 2021
Paroles, musique, guitare et chant: Erica Pomerance
Enregistré par Diane Dupuis à la Commune du Petit Québec Libre, lors de la fêtes des travailleurs en septembre 1972.
Recherche et production: Éric Normand
Numérisation et mastering : Mario Gauthier
Entrevue : Sébastien Desrosiers
Merci à Eric Fillion et à Diane Dupuis