“Life is all chance,” says Holmes Hooke. And when you take a good look at him, you know he’s had more than a few chances, and has plenty of stories to tell about them.
The Irish accent comes from his first 21 years in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. The rich baritone comes right from his chest, and is warm enough to entice one to draw nearer and listen longer. There is much to hear
The surface is simple, almost to the point of blandness — for the first forty-odd years.
Hooke leaves school at fifteen and learns a trade: he apprentices as an industrial sewing machine mechanic. A bit of a sly move, in that “there were 500 women in the factory, and five guys,” the 70-year-old says with a twinkle.
Hooke moves to the big city — London — where he meets and marries Peggy. The two leave England for Toronto in 1971, where Hooke works in the “rag trade” in one form or another for a couple of decades. He also realizes he can attend university for as little as $800 a year, so he figures he’ll study English literature “just for the learning, the reading, the studying,” he says. He writes “a 50 page essay on the heroic couplet,” and receives an Honours B.A. from York University.
Here’s where the story swerves, and the magic steps in. Chance. When he was in his early forties, Hooke and a few friends decided to put together a traditional Irish band on a lark for a St. Patrick’s Day party. “I converted Don Mills rockers to celtic music,” he says. “It was that time in the 80s when Irish music was everywhere, and we were very successful.” He recalls the “absolute joy” of making music, of sharing four-part harmonies. The brief glimpse of local fame.
The band lasted about as long as the Celtic trend did, and broke up around the same time Riverdance left town. But those two years gave Hooke a taste for the stage. While he was done with performing music, he was entranced by the world of spoken word performance. “Sing? Nah. Recite? Okay.” Hooke started writing spoken-word poems, and performed them all over the world.
“Every time I sit down to write I never know what will happen. I’m a rhymer, not a poet or a writer,” he says. “I embrace the adventure.”
His poem “Plant a Tree” became a huge hit, and brought him to stages and schools, weddings and funerals. “I would perform the song — it’s interactive, so everyone would do it with me — and then we’d all trundle outside and plant a tree.” It even took him to a youth detention centre, where he admits he was a bit frightened. “These young tough guys, muttering amongst themselves. I thought they probably hated the whole thing. And then at the end of it one guy approached me and said, ‘Hey, I really like your poem.’ That was one of the best moments ever.”
And there are so many more of these moments, these sparks of magic, in Hooke’s life.
While travelling as a spoken-word artist, he was given emcee jobs. This led him into and around folk festivals. And, as chance would have it, into rather important jobs in the folk music world.
Hooke was the artistic director of the Eaglewood Folk Festival, and the Vital Spark folk club. He has a closet full of awards for his songwriting, poetry, dedication and talents. And so he got to know Hugh Carson, a folk music artist. Hugh died tragically, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. His brother Richard introduced himself to Holmes at an event, and told him about his dream of opening Hugh’s Room, a folk club like no other.
Ever-intrigued by newness, Hooke visited Carson at the new space. “He said, ‘Hey would you like to be the host here?’ I said, ‘Well, what’s it going to be?’ He said, ‘This is it.’” Hooke laughs. The place was a bit shambolic at that point, and was set to open in two weeks. He asked Carson what musicians he had committed to play. There were none. “I asked him who he would want to play the opening. Richard said his dream was Jesse Winchester. I called Jesse, and he was miraculously available.”
The club seemed to have a veil of luck around it. “It just kept on like that,” says Hooke. Carson gave him a wish list, and everything fell into place. “You kind of get hooked, like fishing when you throw out the line,” he says. “In the first year it was me chasing after everyone (to get them to play at Hugh’s Room); in the second year they were chasing after me for the chance to play there.”
For twelve years Hooke booked the acts at Hugh’s Room, as the cozy 200-seat venue rose to dizzying and legendary heights in the music world. “Every night is a story,” he says. He tells a beautiful one about folk legend Odetta.
“When Peggy and I were married, she had very little to her name. One of her few treasures was the album “Odetta Sings the Blues.” I was determined to book Odetta at Hugh’s Room,” Hooke says. He worked tirelessly with the singer’s managers, and finally negotiated a deal that wasn’t ideal for the club, but made his own dreams come true. Little did he know what chance had in store. “Halfway through singing Amazing Grace, Odetta paused, looked out into the audience, and said, ‘Does anyone want to take the next verse?’ Peggy (a performer in her own right) took up the song and… she has the most amazing voice.” Hooke sheds a tear for the memory.
Odetta became an annual regular at Hugh’s Room, and she and Hooke had their how-are-you-doing check-ins in the club’s green room — which was not much more than a dressing table, mirror and toilet, but served as a great backdrop for many deep conversations.
Richie Havens played regularly at the club. Hooke tells the story of chatting with the singer who became the poster child for Black rights after his opening performance at Woodstock. “We were talking about how he was perceived as the Black ideal, demanding freedom, so full of anger and angst. Richie said it was a total misunderstanding. His band was formed just before the concert at Woodstock, and only knew a few songs.” Hooke continues, “Richie said he was ready to leave the stage when the stage manager signalled him to keep playing, because the next band wasn’t ready. So he was just vamping, filling time,” and that song and that performance branded Havens as a freedom fighter. “We sat in the green room at Hugh’s, and he said, ‘Holmes, I didn’t even know being black was a thing until I was 16.’”
The years at Hugh’s Room were full of highs and lows. The lows were mainly to do with a complicated amount of infamy, in that Hooke was perceived as a wish-granter for musicians hoping to get a break into the industry. “I was on my way to a show in the States, and the customs officer pulled me over,” he recounts. “He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I book the acts at Hugh’s Room. The officer reached back into his shack and pulled out a CD of his music and gave it to me.” He laughs. He tells of riding the subway in Toronto and “CDs just appeared out of nowhere.”
He’s not an anonymous man, Hooke. He’s a ribbon of a person, all long, thin limbs, with a large waft of white hair and a soulful beard. So he was well known and apparent to the people in the music community.
“I had 6,000 CDs,” he says. “They never collected dust because there were always more for the pile.” Interestingly, occasionally a CD would contain one of Hooke’s own poems or songs, interpreted by another artist.
The highs, though, were very high. Odetta. Havens. Joni. Mickey (as in Rooney). Hooke says, “I felt as if all of those performances, all of that talent padded the walls and filled them up, made them just a bit thicker.” He also felt the spirit of Hugh Carson helping him along. “I realized early on that I was actually doing Hugh’s job. And I felt he was with me every step of the way.”
After 12 years of booking and hosting at the club, Hooke decided to move on. “There are two perspectives on how I live my life. Either I’m not that focused, or I’m always looking for the next thing,” he says. “You can’t survive without some real passion, and sometimes you exhaust a passion and have to move on.”
That move included a physical one, to Niagara-on-the-Lake. “Chautauqua is a great place. There’s always someone nearby doing something impressive,” he says.
Hooke has had a lifelong passion that can’t seem to be exhausted: trees. He looks at them as friends, and at their loss as the death of a relationship. Which explains his most recent endeavour. Hooke and his neighbour Leslie Frankish mounted a massive project two years ago, cataloguing every tree in Chautauqua. Neighbours, they had bonded over the diminishing tree canopy in their neighbourhood, and decided to make a presentation to Council and do what they could to remedy the situation.
The result is the Niagara-on-the-Lake Tree Fund, which has seen dozens of trees planted in Chautauqua, with more on the way. Niagara College is involved, helping to nurture more than 70 saplings Hooke raised from acorns collected from healthy local trees. Frankish and Hooke were recognized with awards from the Town, and Communities in Bloom.
Those certificates are proudly displayed, not kept in a closet.