A Stroll down Memory Lane

This is the extended version of my life story, detailing pretty much everything you never wanted to know about me. The shorter, more musical version is called “Strait of Georgia.”

I’ve been composing songs for longer than I care to mention, but I’ve only been performing them in public since retiring from my last day job, teaching history, in 2007. So, if I can’t lay claim to being a New Age singer-songwriter, at least I can say I’m an old-age one. I have five children and more grandchildren than you can shake a stick at—but then you wouldn’t want to shake a stick at my grandchildren anyhow, would you?

My father was an immigrant to Canada from the first Yugoslavia, the one that had a Serbian monarch. He went by various names during his long life; the one I like best was George Brunette, his party name when he belonged to the Communist Party of Canada in the 1930s, riding the rails across the country in search of a job, sleeping in hobo jungles, agitating for workers’ rights. The pseudonym didn’t protect him from the billy-clubs of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who, then as now, were no less intent on curbing demonstrations than on solving crimes.

My mother was the youngest of six siblings and the only one to be born in Canada, rather than a shtetl in Kiev, after her family fled the Cossacks and their pogroms. Any of her aunts, uncles, and cousins that stayed behind likely perished in the Holocaust. She met my dad at a night school in Toronto, where they studied Russian and dreamed of world revolution.

When I was a toddler my parents moved to California. There I spent a childhood that was probably happier—it was certainly freer—than that of most North American children nowadays, when levels of parental anxiety seem to bear little or no relation to any statistically plausible threat.

In the summer of 1956, when I was eleven, we spent a couple weeks on the remote little peasant farm in Herzegovina where my father was born. It was like getting into a time machine and going back 1000 years: no electricity, no indoor plumbing, not even a road to get there—you had to take a train to the nearest stop, then walk for an hour or so. An extended family made up of my grandparents, aunts, an uncle, and several cousins produced almost everything they needed without any modern equipment. To make clothes and blankets they started by raising the sheep. To separate their grain they used horses to trample it. You can imagine what kind of impression this made on a kid from Los Angeles!

On top of all this, my grandfather was a kind of singer-songwriter, no less. In the evenings everybody would gather on the patio, the women sewing and knitting, the children stringing tobacco leaves to dry, and listen to Grandpa singing mournful ballads about the war, accompanying himself on a gusle (a one-stringed Serbian instrument played with a bow). The singer-songwriter gene skipped a generation, but then I not only inherited it but have since passed it on to a son and a grandson.

As a teenager I ran away to a beatnik coffee house and got crushes of astronomical proportions on Nina Simone and Joan Baez. But the Vietnam War intervened. My political awareness at the time was about as deep as a puddle of mouse piss, but I did understand that I had no personal quarrel with the peasants of Southeast Asia—folks not so very different, I reckoned, from the peasants in my own lineage.

Nonetheless, as an unmarried high-school dropout, I was a prime candidate to be sent off to kill these people and/or be killed by them. Under the circumstances, the Fraser River suddenly seemed ever so much more attractive than the Mekong. So I made my way to British Columbia, where, save for a couple of brief interludes, I’ve lived ever since.

Here’s the thing, see. For no apparent reason, the gods decided to smile on me, and that certain someone forsook her big, beloved Saskatchewan skies for the more frequently dreary and constricted ones of the wet coast. We landed in two ramshackle hippie pads within a block of each other in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood, then known as Haight-Ashbury north (it’s gone upscale since). Our paths crossed. It was lust at first sight … at least on my part: she took a bit of convincing. Luckily for me, the first love song I wrote for her—appropriately titled “Starla”—proved just the ticket.

That was in 1973, and I’ve never needed to write a love song to anyone else since. We were shacked up within a couple of months, married within six. We raised our kids, chased our rainbows, paid our dues. Now Starla follows me up various mountains and I follow her across various prairies: a life I would swap for no other.

I plied a number of trades during the child-rearing years that came as thick and fast as dandelions on an unkept lawn—logging, carpentry, cab driving, furniture making. When our nest emptied out I took a less demanding job selling cameras. But then the halls of academe began to beckon something awful, and I succumbed to the allure of alphabet soup. BA, MA, PhD … well, I might have completed the PhD if my committee had only been willing to accept my lefty folk opera, Das Kapital: The Musical, in lieu of a dissertation.

Oh, well. The MA sufficed to land me sessional lectureships at half a dozen colleges and universities. I taught the histories of Europe, Latin America, the British empire, slavery, migration. The work was challenging but rewarding, although not in a monetary sense: my perfectionism meant that I invariably ended up working full-time for part-time wages. This went on for ten or twelve years while the classes gradually got larger, the stacks of unmarked papers soared skyward, and my blood pressure followed in hot pursuit. A nervous breakdown seemed increasingly imminent.

Meanwhile, Vancouver had grown from a laid-back town in Canada’s lotus land to something approaching a megalopolis. Starla and I had never really fancied life in the fast lane, and now traffic was going twenty clicks over the limit even in the slow lane. People started honking at us. We packed our bazillion or so books into liquor-store boxes and went into semi-retirement in the comparatively sleepy and still charming little city of Victoria, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Starla has retired after decades of teaching high-school English, though her volunteer activities for various worthy if largely hopeless causes keep her almost as busy as before, and I’m finally pursuing my lifelong but hitherto sorely neglected vocation as a songsmith.

This brings me back approximately to where I started out on this somewhat aimless ramble down memory lane, so it seems an advisable place to end.

Even nicer strolling

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Starla and Peter in the earthly paradise. Lake McArthur, Yoho National Park.
Tags: Peter Brunette, musician, songwriter, singer-songwriter, folksinger, folk music, country music, roots music, bio, biography, autobiography