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Is folk-music business an oxymoron? Not as much as you'd think, says Concordia grad who's living the dream

Music exec Aengus Finnan, BFA 92, explains why folk still strikes a chord
April 4, 2019
By Doug Sweet

Aengus Finnan Aengus Finnan in the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth hotel room where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged one of their two famous bed-ins in 1969. | Photo: Morten Fog

If your notion of folk music begins and ends with a bearded, barefoot guy in a tie-dye T-shirt finger-picking a guitar and singing about love, life and The Man, it’s time to grow the vision.

For Aengus Finnan, BFA 92, folk music is expanding into a global movement, as part of a massive renaissance, the torch having been passed from the hippies of the ’60s to the fresh faces of today and tomorrow. It is thriving. It is embracing an ever-larger international audience and cast of performers.

A Dublin import who, at the age of 4, settled in the late ’70s with his parents on a co-operative farm in rustic south-central Ontario, Finnan emerged from years as a touring musician to be executive director of the Kansas City-based Folk Alliance International, the world’s largest folk-music organization, “seeking to preserve, present and promote folk music.”

“There is a continuity with the past, but there is absolutely a renaissance afoot in terms of the number of artists and traditions and countries and cultures for whom folk music is a living tradition,” Finnan said, taking a pause from overseeing the organization’s 2019 annual convention, held in Montreal in February. “It’s not trapped in time in a black and white photograph of what folk was; it’s ever-evolving.”

The night Gordon Lightfoot nearly died

Canadians might have heard of Finnan because of one song in particular, which he wrote the night the legendary Gordon Lightfoot almost died from an abdominal aortic aneurysm. It was September 7, 2002.

The tune, simply titled "Lightfoot," found its way onto a 2003 tribute album called Beautiful: The Songs of Gordon Lightfoot, where musicians from Cowboy Junkies to The Tragically Hip performed songs by the ever-prolific master.

“I sat down in my basement apartment and reflected on the influence he had on me personally, going back to childhood. The first record that I remember listening to, that genuinely changed my view of the world, was a Gordon Lightfoot record.”

The specific song was Lightfoot’s evocative "Affair on Eighth Avenue," from his 1968 album Back Here on Earth, although Finnan first heard it on a greatest-hits compilation.

“I was transported. I left our farm and I wasn’t 7 years old anymore, I was a young man in love standing outside a perfume shop in the rain looking at a bottle with a memory of what that perfume smelled like on the nape of the neck of a lover who had left. There were emotions that flooded into me through those songs that were beyond my years. I was acutely aware of the marriage of melody and the poetry of lyrics, and the power that had to teach. It gave me history; it gave me insights. It taught me about love and loss and regret.”

“Lightfoot” was the only song on Beautiful not written by the musician himself.

“That was one of the deepest honours of my life,” Finnan said.

And, yes, Lightfoot liked it.

‘Concordia made me look outside my experience’

Aengus Finnan, BFA 92 Photo by Doug Sweet

When it came time to choose a university, former farm boy Finnan was drawn to Concordia.

“What I liked about Concordia was that it had spunk. It was a deconstructed experience of university. It wasn’t a precious campus —you had to navigate the city,” he said.

“Concordia was instantly cosmopolitan… There was immediately intersection across ages and language and cultures. It felt like people were coming into the university from very different angles.

“It struck me that in that space, the breadth and depth of demographics was real. It felt international as a result. So it made me look outside of my experience. It was impossible to stay in your bubble. I think that kind of provocation at that age is important.”

The folk-music business: an oxymoron?

Even after five years as executive director of the Folk Alliance, Finnan hasn't forgotten a road musician’s often tough, lonely life — he spent a decade touring, sometimes sleeping in the back of his van with only his guitar for company.

His experience helped him shape the three priorities the Alliance needs to tackle: diversity, inclusiveness and internationalism; mental health and addiction in the music industry; and equity, with a goal of 50/50 gender parity.

His own deftly played music ranges from Celtic-sounding laments for lost love, to twangy trucker songs straight out of middle America, along with some unabashedly Canadian ballads that could have sprung from the pen of poet Robert Service.

When he’s asked whether the “business of folk music” sounds like an oxymoron, he has some ready answers.

“As custodians of a community, we collectively need to ensure that there is a healthy ecology, that artists who are choosing not to work in other fields, and not to have access to the retirement plans and the opportunities that come with a more traditional, salary-based economy … that there is a structure and a way for them to be able to do what they are best at, to do what they love, to inspire people in communities and have the means to support their family and one day retire, proud of their careers as professionals.

“I feel there’s a way that we can support artist entrepreneurs to help them flourish.


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