Keith Bartlett: A consummate musician

In this series of articles, Dr. Richard Hiebert tells the stories of the Battlefords' great dance bands from the 1940s to the present.

I met Keith Bartlett for lunch March 28 at the Kihiw Restaurant in the Gold Eagle Casino. I was able to conduct an extensive interview at this time – great story. We discussed Keith’s extraordinary career as a musician from the time he was a small child on the farm near Harris to the present, and we discussed aspects of his life as well. I think I got a good sense of Keith the musician as well as Keith the man. And, of course, one cannot be separated from the other.

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In addition to the interview, in order to write Keith’s story, I also used a couple of passages from an article in Prairie North magazine (winter 2010) titled Ain’t Gonna Fall Back (article and photos by Lionel Hughes). And, in order to show Keith’s range of styles and remarkable diversity as a musician, I included two links that will allow the reader to access Keith’s recordings and music videos (both studio and live) online. In addition, I copied a large amount of information off Keith’s studio door that has to do with his music teaching. In part, this will give the reader an idea of the large array of instruments Keith can play and teach.

At the outset, Keith remarked that, “Parents often don’t understand the 'gift' that some children have – the gift of music. Parents need to support their children.” Fortunately, Keith’s parents recognized early that young Keith had a gift – a talent – for music. This is to say that Keith’s parents got it. They knew something was going on with their son and the music.

Keith grew up on a farm on the banks of Eagle Creek near the tiny hamlet of Feudal, north of Harris towards Perdue.

Keith’s father, a farmer, although not formally trained, was a gifted musician. He was blessed with a wonderful voice and could sing harmony. His hands, however, were too large to play piano. Keith’s father sang in a rural United Church choir. He didn’t read notes, but he sang all of the harmony parts.

Keith’s father noted when Keith was three that his son was fascinated and absorbed with music and he did everything he could to foster this interest. He taught Keith and his brother Glen how to sing harmony. When they were out on the tractor, they would align their voices with the sounds of the engine, the transmission and differential, all of which had a different pitch. As Keith put it, “Dad would stop everything for music.” Keith’s dad gave him a slide whistle when he was three, and later a harmonica.

At age five, Keith was allowed to lounge on the counter in his pyjamas and listen to CBC Radio for hours – variety music, big band, jazz and music from other countries. Keith explained to his mother that music has rules but with jazz, “… they threw the rules up in the air and played with them as they fell.”

Keith’s father took him to places where there was good music – to the neighbours’ who played music socially. Keith learned about music from these experiences.

During Keith’s and his brother Glen’s childhood years (ages six to nine), the boys performed in the Associated Canadian Travellers amateur hours that were broadcast live. The ACT travelled around the country putting on shows in both larger and smaller communities. The shows were well organized and orchestrated. Piano accompaniment was standard practice. Little Keith and Glen sang lead and harmony and were quite a hit. Keith remembered singing Bless This House and Bendemere’s Stream (an Irish song). In fact the Bartlett boys were so good they made it to the provincial semifinals and provincial finals in Saskatoon. When Keith got older, he played guitar for an ACT Amateur Hour in Rosetown. Singing and making music made Keith and Glen happy.

When he was 13 years old, a neighbour lent Keith a guitar – a catalogue guitar with the Lone Ranger and a palm tree on the front of the body. The strings were a half-inch off the neck making it difficult to press them down. Keith practiced, and learned, on this borrowed, cheap guitar hour after hour, until his fingers bled.

When Keith was 14, his father bought him a guitar – an SS Stewart arched front, hollow body electric. Ernie Thomas, an electrician from Harris (described as a genius by Keith), made the young musician an amplifier from a used television set complete with a jack to plug in the guitar and volume control. Keith’s father built a cabinet with a speaker for the amplifier. Ernie also installed a jack in the Bartlett`s television set so that Keith could plug in his guitar and play along with television shows like Tommy Hunter and Chet Atkins specials.

When Keith was in Grade 9, he got to know a retired couple in their 80s who had played in a band. Keith's dad would drop him off at the couples’ place on a Friday evening and come and get him on Sunday. Keith and the old folks would play music all weekend. Keith told me, “They taught me so much; I absorbed it all like a sponge.”

At age 15, Keith began playing with local family dance bands. It was all old-time music – polkas, fox trots and the like, and 1930s and ‘40s Benny Goodman type swing music. Everyone played by ear. Wages were low – $5. Keith would bribe his brother – offer him 25 cents to milk the cows. The reason was that Keith thought that milking cows would stiffen his hands making it difficult for him to play. Keith's dad didn't see it that way.

Keith’s father bought him a car when he was 16 – a 1953 Pontiac, two-door hard top with buckets and leather seats and lots of chrome. Never mind that the car had rolled down a hill and hit a pole. Keith was ecstatic. Now he had wheels and could get around. Owning a car meant that he could stay after school and play music with his friends. Keith also played guitar in school musical performances.

Keith and his friends soon formed a rock and roll band, the Tempests. They played for teen dances in the small communities in the area and became quite famous and in high demand locally. They were enterprising too, renting halls for $20 and putting on their own dances.

Keith graduated from high school in Rosetown in 1963. He attended university full time from 1963 to 1968 and graduated with a degree in English and a professional “A” teaching certificate. Keith freely admits that university wasn’t his thing. It was a cover. A “polite social cover” as he put it. Keith was offered a job at Bedford Road Collegiate in 1968 teaching high school English but quit before he started because it would interfere with his music. What Keith was really interested in was music.

During his university years, he was totally involved with music. He and his rock band, the Pawns, played campus gigs and toured the province playing for dances in community halls and arenas to large crowds. The group’s first recording was made in the basement of the credit union – a lunch room with lots of reverb. It was great musically, but hard on university life. The group played for the Jubilee Gala (Gala Night Under the Stars) in 1965, hosted by Lorne Greene and backed by the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. They also did a weekly television show for CFQC (Teens on TV). With another band, Eagle Creek, he played the first Winnipeg Folk Festival and connected with the likes of Ian and Sylvia, Murray McLauchlan and Bruce Cockburn. He also collaborated on musical scores for CBC such as co-writing for the nightly television show 90 MINUTES LIVE with Peter Gzowski. And he produced music with Sylvia Tyson on her radio show, Touch the Earth.

After graduating from university, Keith left the band and headed for Toronto. Keith was a musician before everything else but the ‘70s was more about reflection and finding himself than about money and success. He didn’t stay in Toronto long, but returned to Saskatchewan and the farm near Harris – back to his roots. He formed a new band, Eagle Creek. Keith moved to Saskatoon from Montreal in the early ‘80s. He started a family and in addition to playing night clubs and bars, he drove cab, taught English as a second language, counselled and taught music.

Keith worked as a social worker for the Department of Social Services from 1983 to 1988. He was engaged as an adult educator and counsellor and was based in the Sturdy Stone building in Saskatoon. During this time, Keith continued to be heavily involved in the music scene in Saskatoon and played in a band in the city’s night clubs. He also taught music.

In 1990, Keith was asked by the International Baha’i Community to go to Liberia in Africa. He was commissioned to record and produce a music festival (and guest play) in a country that was racked by a 10-year civil war. It was a dangerous assignment. The purpose of this exercise was to bring unity to historically warring tribes, of which there were 14 in Morovia and Liberia. While he was in Africa, Keith determined that he should move to North Battleford.

After returning from Africa, Keith prepared to leave Saskatoon. He relocated to North Battleford in August of 1990. At first, he lived in Saskatoon during the week and spent weekends in North Battleford until he made a complete move. Keith also lived for periods of time in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Keith noted that he was always a Saskatchewanian at heart, always had a Saskatchewan driver's licence and health card, and always returned. His reason for coming to our fair city was to nurture the Baha’i faith community, and the Battlefords community as a whole, to engender unity and the oneness of mankind.

Although he continued in his role on behalf of the Baha’i community, he also found employment as a teacher-counsellor with the Vantage Vocational Centre. Keith worked as an adult educator, helping socially disadvantaged people ready themselves for employment. These were not easy times for Keith. He was a single dad with a family of three daughters and a son to raise and educate.

As Keith pointed out, “I’ve been a musician all my life.” And, he was a musician first and foremost. So it wasn’t long before Keith connected with a few like-minded souls and formed a band – Keith Bartlett and the Ice Cream Headaches. The other members of the band were Don Tatchell on drums, Jack Tatchell on trumpet and Bob Hildebrand on bass guitar. The band had a distinct edge because Keith could play jazz. The Ice Cream Headaches played at the Gold Eagle nightclub as well as banquets, wedding receptions, city functions and concerts.

People noticed Keith’s musicianship – his remarkable talent and versatility. It wasn’t long before he was teaching music out of his home. Keith noted that one has to learn how to teach. You have to be patient. If your students don’t get it, you have to figure out why, and how to reach them. Keith teaches guitar, fiddle, piano, five-string banjo, instrumental accompaniment, drum circles (hand drums, djembe, bongos, tabla), harmony singing and even arranging for song writers. Instruction is individualized from beginner to advanced – tailored to each person’s learning style. A unique feature of Keith’s instruction is that he offers live online video classes on Skype and Facebook. Keith teaches in his studio – room 90, Door 5, at the Don Ross Centre. I’ve been there. It’s nicely arranged and comfortable. His students like it.

During most of the ‘90s, Keith was a full-time musician and music teacher.

At the present time, life is good. The family has grown up and moved into successful careers. Keith’s son William lives in Vancouver and works for a company, Industrial Light and Magic, that makes Star Wars movies and the like (he must have some of his dad’s creative DNA). One of Keith’s daughters is a writer in Toronto (more DNA). The two remaining daughters live in Saskatoon. One is employed in human resources at Federated Co-op, and the other is a painter and the area co-ordinator for junior youth programs. All of the family is musical. Keith and his family occasionally get together to sing and play music. They’ve even performed together.

Keith has toned down a bit. He doesn’t play in a band anymore. But he is in demand as a musician to play for banquets, functions, occasions, anniversaries and so forth. A short time ago, I was privileged to hear Keith play background piano at an open house at the Chapel Gallery. And, he provided the music (guitar and vocals) for a teachers’ wind-up supper at the Northland Power Curling Centre. It was excellent in both cases. He also teaches two days a week in his studio at the Don Ross Centre.

For three years on Friday nights, you could relax and listen to some good music at Club 101, Keith’s coffee house, which was located just downstairs from his studio. It’s likely that Keith would have picked up his Gretsch hollow body electric guitar, which was designed by the legendary Chet Atkins, and which he has played since he was 21. But when the City of North Battleford suddenly raised the lease rates in the Don Ross Centre by five times, Keith decided that it was time to close the coffee house and move out his audio and video production equipment, and to concentrate on what was most important to him.

Now that he has the time, Keith has embarked on an ambitious project – composing and arranging music that has been flitting around in his head for decades, and documenting the musical journey and narrative of his life. All of it will be digitized and include photographs, videos, audio recordings, journal notes, experiences in Ecuador, Africa and the Canadian North, CBC projects, education, multimedia initiatives, blogs and history. Keith has a studio set up in his home in Cut Knife. His life’s work will be well-received. You can access Keith’s audio recordings at https://www.reverbnation.com/keithbartlett and his studio and live performances at https://www.youtube.com/user/keithbartlett.

During the interview, it was clear Keith was deeply philosophical and committed to a moral template that guides and gives meaning to his life. He related to me that, “God wishes to be known for His beauty. A human being is a seeker of beauty. If you ascend the ladder, you can see more clearly – worship of beauty, healing, spiritual transformation. It’s not vanity. There is a two-fold moral purpose: first, your own transformation and growth, and second, the transformation of society.”

There is beauty in music. Most people have music in them. A very few don’t. It’s a gift, but one that must be nurtured. Keith is an extraordinary musician who plays many different instruments, and sings. But he is more than that. Keith sees the order and beauty in music. He feels it. He expresses it. And he shares it.

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist

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