David Wiffen, one of Canada’s most iconic singer-songwriters, has released an album of rediscovered music dating from 1973 to the early eighties. The longtime Ottawa resident’s eclectic songs have been recorded by everyone from Tom Rush to Anne Murray to The Black Crowes.
“Songs from the Lost & Found” was released in early February, and on March 21 Wiffen gave a rare personal appearance at Ottawa’s Compact Music store, where more than 60 fans gathered to meet him.
“David’s new CD has been the number one seller in the store since it was released,” said Compact Music owner Ian Boyd, who noted the album has outsold new releases by Bob Dylan and Diana Krall in his store.
Record reviews across North America have been positive and Wiffen will soon be the subject of a major article in England’s leading music magazine, Mojo.
After learning of the new album, musician Tom Wilson quickly arranged an April 9 tribute concert at folk venue Hugh’s Room in Toronto that sold out in days. The eclectic lineup includes established performers Murray McLauchlan, Cowboy Junkies, Lynn Miles, and Lee Harvey Osmond, as well as up-and-coming acts like Scarlett Jane and Liam Titcomb.
Most of the tracks were produced by Wiffen’s friend, the late Richard Patterson, who like Wiffen and Cockburn, was a member of Ottawa bands The Children and 3’s a Crowd. After Patterson passed away in 2011, master tapes that were thought to have been lost were found among his extensive musical collection. Wiffen was amazed when record producer Ian McLeish presented him with digitized versions of tunes from these historic sessions.
Seventeen of these songs are available on the appropriately named new CD. There’s an engaging traditional folk ballad, finely crafted original tunes, and two covers, all recorded with a variety of musical ensembles. The selections showcase Wiffen’s emotive baritone vocals. A dozen of the tracks are previously unreleased material, while five are alternate versions of songs from his 1999 album “South of Somewhere.”
The new release helps to round out Wiffen’s impressive body of work comprising four other solo albums, including his most popular recording, “Coast to Coast Fever,” produced by Cockburn and released in 1973.
Making Musical Connections
Born in England, Wiffen came to live in Toronto with his family as a teenager. Early in his musical career he lived in Calgary and Vancouver. He settled in Ottawa in the mid-sixties where he made strong musical connections with the likes of William Hawkins and Sneezy Waters, with whom he remains friends. After developing a solo career, Wiffen also performed in Ottawa as an opening act for performers including Chris de Burgh, Anne Murray, and Juice Newton.
While Wiffen’s career slowed down after “Coast to Coast Fever” came out, interest in his work has always been there. It is a testament to the sheer strength of his songwriting that a diversity of recording artists such as Tom Rush, Eric Andersen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Anne Murray, Cowboy Junkies, The Black Crowes, and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds have covered his material.
And Wiffen may well be the only songwriter to have had songs recorded by both Harry Belafonte and Harvey Lee Osmond!
Although he no longer performs, the 73-year-old Wiffen is happy with the attention the new CD is garnering for his work. It is particularly gratifying to him that younger musicians are picking up on his music. Bands like Harlan Pepper perform his most frequently recorded song, “Driving Wheel,” and the female duo Scarlett Jane includes “The Fugitive” in their repertoire.
Many find they connect emotionally to “Songs from the Lost & Found.” Ottawa artist and musician Arthur II, for example, said he cried when he first heard it. Wiffen’s wife Joanne related a story about her friend whose mother attends a daycare program for Alzheimer’s. Her friend began playing the album every morning in the car as she drove her mother to the program. She was delighted to report her mother becomes animated and responsive when she hears Wiffen’s music.
Wiffen is aware of this quality in his music. “They say that to elicit any emotion is a good sign in art, so I guess I’m doing it, so that is good,” he says.
Joyce MacPhee is an Ottawa writer and editor.