By Allan MacInnis
Private pressing LPs often seem the realm of eccentrics and outsiders. The ones that gain enough of a following to get reissued tend to be singular, strange experiences that seldom mark the start of a lasting career. For instance, check out Vancouver Christian garage band the New Creation’s “Dig! (The Origin of Man),” a peppy pop song about an archaeological conspiracy to contrive a fossil record — an “assembly line of King Kongs” — in order to discredit the truth of God’s creation. It’s pretty weird, but that’s the way it tends to go with private pressings.
By contrast, Huckle’s first record, Upon a Once Time, has a fairly polished, almost mainstream folk feel, which is actually surprising, considering the conditions under which it was recorded. Huckle — real name Kelly Cavanagh — explained for an interview for US publication Ugly Things that most of the album was a “seat-of-your-pants recording” done after a sound check at Pender Auditorium for Perth County Conspiracy, whose tour west he had helped book.
The young Cavanagh — named Huckle by a friend, after a cat in children’s books by Richard Scarry — had come west from Toronto in 1973 to be part of hippie culture on Gabriola Island, living on a stump farm that he dubbed “Blue Sky Harvest,” and writing songs filled with references to island life, with frequent mentions of sunlight, wind, and water. The album has an earnest, back-to-nature feel, very much rooted in time and place — Cavanagh quips that some of it is “starry-eyed hippie stuff” — but it’s aged better than a lot of music from that period. Prior to it being reissued by Barcelona-based Mapache Records in 2014, the seriously rare LP — which had two pressings, totaling 500 copies — could fetch prices upwards of $800 Cdn.
Where did the title, Upon a Once Time, come from? Cavanagh wanted to give the album a “fairy tale” aspect, he explains in a call from his present home base in Victoria. “But what I did was switch it around, so it wasn’t normal.”
If visitors to Gabriola felt like life on the farm was like a fairy tale, in reality, it was anything but, Cavanagh says. “For me, it was fucking hard work, pardon my French. Everything was hard work there, and I basically, with the help of friends, took care of everything — took care of firewood, insulated the roof. We made it all look like it was a fairy tale, but it was really hard.”
With a small spring for water that dried up in the summer, and no electricity, it definitely felt like a “once time,” he says: “This is not going to happen again.”
One of the more anthemic tunes on the album, “Get Down,” was recorded live on Gabriola, the night after the Pender Auditorium show, with Huckle inviting the audience to “do away with this mass confusion” and “get down to what is real.” “That song actually came through when I was walking from the ferry dock on Gabriola, down the back roads to the farm, which would have been about a three, four mile walk in the pitch dark. I knew all the trails on Gabriola,” he remembers. “I could walk from one end of the island to the other, barely crossing a road. I also climbed tall trees. I climbed a tree once, was hanging out at the top, and an eagle flew into the tree next to me, and didn’t notice me for about five or ten minutes. I just didn’t move. Finally it spied me, and it really freaked: ‘what’s this guy doing up in a tree above me? What the hell?’”
In 1975, Cavanagh played with Sodbusters, a Salt Spring Island band whose own private-pressing LP was recorded by now-departed Vancouver Folk Festival mainstay, Si Garber. “It was a giant celebration,” Cavanagh remembers of the album.
After traveling to Central America with his girlfriend, returning briefly to Ontario, and touring back across the country with his musical partner Paul Gellman, Cavanagh again settled in BC, recording a follow up to Upon a Once Time, Wild Blue Yonder, in 1976 (also reissued by Mapache).
Cavanagh eventually gave up the name Huckle in the 1980s. “It just wasn’t working anymore. I wasn’t playing hippie music; I did three or four years of just being a guitar slinger. I also played bass for hire in different bands,” using his own name; and he played and recorded his own music under the name KC Kelly.
“If I go to Salt Spring, I get called by three different names,” Cavanagh says, “and immediately I’m made aware of how long I’ve known the person. If they call me Huck, I’ve known them a long time. If they call me KC, it’s been a while. If they call me Kelly, I just met ’em.”
The name changes probably haven’t helped people follow Cavanagh’s career, but one of Cavanagh’s KC Kelly albums — available as a download through CD Baby — seems particularly ripe for reissue. 2011’s Long & Tall Tales features longer narrative songs, both autobiographical and historical. “I’m very proud of this album, I think it’s my masterpiece,” Cavanagh says. “I don’t care if it didn’t succeed.”
Particularly of note is “Ballad of the Cedar Hill Fire,” which tells a true story about a fire that swept through Caravan Farm, in Armstrong, BC, when Cavanagh was playing guitar as part of a theatrical production. “I had not come up against something like that before; when there’s something going wrong, there’s usually something you can do about it. Not in this case, you just had to go, you had to vacate.”
Another autobiographical song on Long & Tall Tales is “Black Irish,” about being the “kind of Irishman who doesn’t turn into a blizzard of freckles in the sun.”
With the Mapache reissues drawing more attention to Cavanagh’s back catalogue, people are finally starting to notice Long & Tall Tales – including the promoter for Festival Hestiv’ÒC in the south of France, who has booked Cavanagh for next year. Cavanagh suspects that the song “Another Shore,” about the displacement of French-speaking Acadians from the Maritimes in the 1750’s, might have hooked him. “I lived in Nova Scotia, and I think it’s a story that’s not well known,” he says. “There’s ‘Acadian Driftwood’ by the Band, but I wanted to make it personal.”
Now in his early sixties, Cavanagh has “a whole new album’s worth of songs,” which he is releasing one at a time through his website, including “Take the High Road,” recorded with his Real Fantasy Band, and “Coconuts,” a Calypso novelty song about the dangers of sitting under coconut trees.
That song — somewhat unusual for the singer-songwriter — came from the time Cavanagh spent living in the tropics, playing music at a resort in Thailand.
“They would have to send guys up the coconut trees to cut down coconuts, before they killed somebody” — which happens, Cavanagh insists. “They get very excited — they get to swing their machetes and climb the trees, yelling at people to stay out of the way, and they’re throwing coconuts — ‘we don’t want to kill you, well maybe we do — come closer!’ It was just hysterical.”
To hear samples from all phases of Kelly Cavanagh’s career (or Huckle’s, or KC Kelly’s) go to www.kellycavanagh.com
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