BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
At her most prolific, Nancy White was writing three to five topical satire songs a week and performing them on CBC Radio’s public affairs show, Sunday Morning. But nobody could maintain that pace indefinitely. When I talked to her in 1979, White at age 34 was burned out and ready to quit. “I wrote a song about burnout and, ever since then, I’ve had a lot of social workers in my audience,” she joked. She had been billing herself tongue-in-cheek as a “civil service songwriter” because of the relative security of the CBC job, and now she wanted a change.
“My brain hurts,” she told me. “You don’t go into show business because you want to do the same job for a million years. I’m starting to get tired of my own sense of humour.”
Her sense of humour had served her well since White came to Toronto from her native Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1970 at age 25. She had previously worked briefly as a journalist but got out of that business quickly because, she joked, the only question she could ever think to ask was, “Well, what do you think of the Island?” She did, however, write the first published newspaper review of the musical Anne of Green Gables, predicting – as it turned out correctly – that it was “destined for great things.”
In Toronto, White wrote and sang satirical songs in coffeehouses, cabarets and theatrical revues. That brought her to the attention of a Sunday Morning producer who hired her to become the musical equivalent of an editorial cartoonist on the program. Her job was to skewer anybody and anything in the news – the Pope, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Mounties, the Senate – and to do so with a big smile on her face.
“The first year I was on, it was wonderful,” she told me. “But like everything else, it’s not quite so wonderful any more. Maybe, after I’ve been out of it for a while, I’ll feel like doing it some more. Right now I’m just tired.” She was planning to exercise a six-month opt-out option in her CBC contract “to see if I can still write anything more than one minute and 10 seconds long.”
She was on a concert tour of Canada and relishing the opportunity to try out her new material in front of a live audience instead of in a radio studio. “I have a lot of fun doing the comedy stuff,” she said. “But musically it can be kind of boring. The songs have a short shelf life and are a pain to rehearse. Sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘Is there any point in practising this because I’ll probably never sing it again?’”
She was surprised at how mixed the audience reaction could be at her concerts. When she sang a song about Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed accepting free flights from Air Canada and CP Air, one woman in the audience said – loudly enough for White to hear from the stage – “How dare she come out here and sing songs like that.” A man next to her replied, “Because that’s what she does, lady.” Some audience members also hissed when White dedicated “to all the cowboys in Alberta” a song about Roy Rogers’s desire to be stuffed and mounted when he died (“Trigger Mortis”). And a few booed when White said she was going to “save Canada by singing a song in French.” But they lightened up when they discovered that the French ditty, which White did in the exaggerated emotive style of Edith Piaf, was just a harmless little novelty number about dustballs.
“Regional sensitivities are so weird,” said White. “I don’t care because I don’t have any axe to grind. But it seems to me that if you don’t want people from outside to think there’s cowboys out here, you should stop selling those boots and hats in the souvenir stores.”
The negative audience reaction, however, seemed to be largely outweighed by the positive. “I’m the perfect Canadian satirist; I’m wishy-washy,” White said with a smile. “I don’t want to hurt anyone and I want everyone to like me.” She said she wasn’t worried about losing the security of a weekly cheque from the CBC. “I freelanced for a long time so, for me, it’s really unnatural to have a weekly salary.”
As well as getting away from the CBC, White wanted to get away from the type of material she was doing for the CBC. She wanted to show audiences she had more to offer than just a well-developed flair for comedy. She had a number of serious songs about love, life and motherhood – “songs that are actually three minutes long” – that she was now adding to her repertoire. But these, she acknowledged, were proving to be a tough sell, especially when audiences expected her to be funny all the time.
After we spoke, White spent four years away from the CBC before a Sunday Morning producer lured her back in 1983 to write and perform a few songs about the Tory leadership campaign eventually won by Brian Mulroney. After that White continued writing for the CBC program for 11 years, though not as frequently as before. And she came to accept that as much as she wanted to show off her serious side, she had to satisfy audiences who wanted only to hear her witty takes on the issues of the day. She talked about this in a 1984 interview with The Globe and Mail during which she repeated much of what she said to me in 1979:
“To some degree, this is a case of give ‘em what they want. I like to think I’m a more versatile songwriter than this, and that this doesn’t fully represent my capabilities. I have a serious side too. I supposed if you’re considered serious, people respect you more. But they like you more if you’re funny.”
In 1994, the Sunday Morning producers told White they wanted her off the show. She joked that she would now be able to sleep in on Sunday mornings. “If they told me before I did my last show, I could have stocked up on CBC stationery,” she quipped to the Toronto Star. But she was genuinely hurt. “I was on the show longer than anybody else. They’re revamping it and I was part of the old regime.” She planned to spend three weeks performing in a cabaret at the Charlottetown Festival, and said she would be investigating other writing and performing ventures.
Being back home in Charlottetown seems to have rekindled a spark for White. It inspired her to focus on a writing project far removed from satire. She and two collaborators began working on a musical sequel to Anne of Green Gables based on two other books by Lucy Maud Montgomery that White had loved. They workshopped the show, Anne and Gilbert, during the late 1990s and saw it make its professional debut on PEI in 2005. It had two stars from a Toronto production of Mamma Mia! playing the lead roles. By 2012, Anne and Gilbert had become a regular summer fixture on PEI and also toured Ontario. White, then 67, told the Star she was still keeping her hand in as a cabaret performer but mostly considered herself semi-retired.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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