In the 1960s and ’70s, a number of great songwriters came down from Canada, including stars such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot to lesser-known artists like Ray Materick, Bruce Cockburn, and Bob Carpenter. Though the name of David Wiffen has been wandering along the edge of oblivion for decades, there is no doubt in my mind that he belongs to this respected company.
Wiffen was not a Canadian by birth. He grew up in England and moved at the age of sixteen to Canada with his family. As befits a true folk singer, he learned the trade while hitchhiking through the country with a guitar under his arm. He played in several folk bands and accidentally recorded a live album in 1965. In the early ’70s, he showed his true talents on two solo albums: David Wiffen (1971) and Coast to Coast Fever (1973).
Even before the lyrics and the music fully register, it is the dark baritone of David Wiffen which commands attention. His voice has the depth of an experienced crooner, but also a raw, bluesy edge, and the intimate immediacy of a folk singer. It is a voice that can make you drift away without losing the ground under your feet. The modest hit “Driving Wheel” on his first studio album shows his extraordinary vocal skills.
Wiffen had some difficulties in making his peace with a world that refused to recognize his talent, and sometimes sought refuge in the intoxication of alcohol. The last verse of the frequently covered “More Often Than Not” — also on his debut album — is witness to this: “So pass the bottle. Now give it here. There’s so many reasons to drink it dry. Ease the pain, maybe even kill me. Have another one, here we go.”
The drink, lack of success and a back injury prematurely brought to an end a promising career. But on his second studio album, Coast to Coast Fever, David Wiffen once more showed his greatness. Produced by Bruce Cockburn, it is one of the best albums in the singer-songwriter genre. In addition to three covers — songs by Cockburn, Murray McLaughlan and Willie P. Bennett — it features seven powerful compositions of his own.
Wiffen never dealt in happy songs. He made music for a train-ride through the dark, for a winter’s evening alone. There is always a wistful note in his singing and writing; in this, he invites comparison to contemporaries like David Ackles or Jerry Jeff Walker. Yet when the world around us grows quiet, there is no better company than an album like Coast to Coast Fever. David Wiffen gives you the feeling that he has seen it all, that he has won and lost love and now travels onward — a drifting shadow with a voice that soaks up all the sorrow he sees — to his next station in the night.
NOTE: In later years, two more albums have been released on the True North label: South of Somewhere (1999) and Songs from the Lost and Found (2015). They feature a number of new compositions and many outtakes. The second album, in particular, is a great showcase of this unjustly neglected songwriter.
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