Education and Early Career
The eldest of three children whose father was a banker, Hemsworth grew up in Brantford, Ontario, in the 1920s. He played guitar and banjo and knew folk songs and popular songs of the day, such as “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie” and “Turkey in the Straw.” He graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1939 and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940. During the Second World War he was stationed in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where his interest in folk music was stimulated by exposure to the folk songs of the area, as well as by the music of the American folksinger Burl Ives. During this period Hemsworth sought out folk songs that were unfamiliar to him, such as “She’s Like The Swallow,” and studied printed Canadian folk song collections.
Career as Draftsman
In the postwar period, Hemsworth taught art, worked as a graphic designer and layout artist in the advertising business, and eventually concentrated on architectural drafting. As a draftsman for Ontario Hydro in the late 1940s and for the Canadian National Railways from 1952 to 1977, he travelled widely with survey parties in the northern wilds of Québec, Ontario, and Labrador. He settled in Montréal in 1952.
Guitar-playing remained a hobby for Hemsworth while he worked as a draftsman, and he soon added songwriting to his musical accomplishments. His experiences surveying the northern forests and observing the landscape and animal life, combined with the feel he had gleaned for the forms and sounds of folk music, inspired him to write “The Black Fly Song” in 1949, as well as “The Log Jam Song,” “The Log Driver’s Waltz” and others. Hemsworth had a total output of fewer than 20 compositions, yet many remain well known, including “The Wild Goose,” “Foolish You” and “The Story of the I'm Alone” (a calypso-style song about the sinking of a rum-running schooner). His songs incorporated a variety of styles and influences, and featured lyrics in English, French, Yiddish and Mohawk.
In 1955, Hemsworth recorded the album Folk Songs of the Canadian North Woods (FW 6821) which includes his songs “The Black Fly Song” and “The Shining Birch Tree.” The LP, coming as it did during the continent-wide folk music revival, introduced his work to a wide audience. His songs were subsequently recorded or performed by such folk music stalwarts as Omar Blondahl, Tom Kines, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Chris Rawlings, Stringband, The Travellers and others.
Hemsworth only occasionally sang his songs in public. For example, he performed a number of times at the Mariposa Folk Festival, for the McGill University Folk Song Society in the 1960s, and at Bishop’s University with the Mountain City Four (which included the McGarrigle sisters). He also made many radio and TV appearances and sang at other folk festivals. After retiring to Morin Heights, Québec, he was less active, but he gave occasional performances there. He also appeared at tributes to him at the 1991 Winnipeg Folk Festival (with Murray McLauchlan and the McGarrigles) and in Toronto in 1996. Often heard on CBC Radio, Hemsworth was the subject of the CBC TV series Adrienne Clarkson Presents (1992) and the CBC Radio program Rewind (2016).
CD and Publications
At the age of 79, Hemsworth released the CD The Songs of Wade Hemsworth (Blackfly Music) in 1996. A complete printed collection of his music, The Songs of Wade Hemsworth, with annotations, illustrations and discography, was published in 1990 by Penumbra Press. His songs have also been published in various anthologies.
Association with the National Film Board
The National Film Board featured Hemsworth’s music in four films: Log Drive (1957) features several of his songs, including “The Log Jam Song”; the McGarrigle sisters sang “The Log Driver’s Waltz” for the NFB animation short of the same title; he wrote “My Mother Is The Ocean Sea” for the NFB’s Sea Weed: An Approach to Marine Agriculture; and most notably, the comedic NFB animated short film Blackfly (1991) recounts Hemsworth’s experience as a northern surveyor and features him singing “The Black Fly Song,” with the McGarrigles providing backing vocals. Blackfly earned many awards and accolades, including nominations for an Academy Award and a Genie Award.
Hemsworth’s success as an independent songwriter and balladeer in the folk tradition foreshadowed the late 20th-century trend toward independent singer-songwriters. Although his output of compositions (fewer than 20) and recordings (one LP and one CD) was quite modest, its significance outweighs its numbers. His original songs, building on traditional folk style, epitomize the Canadian experience of the northern landscape. His iconic “The Black Fly Song” has been sung by generations of Canadian children around campfires, and was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.
According to Dane Lanken, who performed Hemsworth’s songs and is the husband of singer-songwriter Anna McGarrigle, “Hemsworth creates beautiful music, music that celebrates life lived fully, the fine old values of hard work and its rewards, the wilderness and its myriad wonders. It is... intensely Canadian music, created with a rawness and vitality that matches the wilderness it describes, captures it like a Tom Thompson [sic] painting.”
Personal Life and Family Connections
Hemsworth’s first wife, painter and writer Irene Heyword, died in 1989. He was married to musician Shirley Singer until his death in early 2002, following a stroke on Christmas Day 2001. Hemsworth’s great nephew, also named Wade Hemsworth, worked as an award-winning journalist with the Hamilton Spectator from 1987 to 2011 before moving on to a position in Media Relations at McMaster University.
Inductee (“The Black Fly Song”), Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2003)