Maria Dunn Keeps Classic Folk Sounding Fresh on 'Joyful Banner Blazing'

BY Donald TeplyskePublished Jan 28, 2021

Contemporary folk music holds a mirror to society and allows consideration of events outside ourselves. A storyteller through song for more than 20 years, Edmonton's Maria Dunn has been drawing on family bonds, social justice, history and interpersonal vignettes to propel her perspective. 

Utilizing Celtic folk traditions as inspiration, Dunn — who has received Juno and Canadian Folk Award nominations — channels her creations with intimacy, insight and wonder. Extend a straight line from Hazel & Alice and Shirley Collins to Joan Armatrading and Kirsty MacColl, and you'll arrive at Maria Dunn. Like the finest troubadours, Dunn is the vessel through which others exist, a sense of revelation never too far away.

Modulated, classic approaches prevail on Joyful Banner Blazing, her seventh album. Shannon Johnson's fiddle offers notes of hope or desperation, depending on the need apparent. The appealing "Ontario Song" receives an injection of banjo from Curtis Appleton, and a flavouring of pedal steel from Jeff Bradshaw accents the album's sole cover, an affecting take of Ron Hynes' "From Dublin with Love." 

Longtime collaborators remain: Johnson (producer, violin), Jeremiah McDade (horns and whistles) and Solon McDade (bass), while Dunn contributes tasteful acoustic guitar and accordion. The prominence of horns — trumpet, saxophone, and trombone — in select spots is refreshing.

Dunn reveals universal connections and innermost insights as well as any artist. She does this with eternally fresh vocals and keen observation, through a variety of moods and tempos with concise, poetic lyrics that remain within tradition while embracing gentle pop flair.

Dunn breathes life into "beautiful fools" with whom we emotionally engage. The title track celebrates an aunt's life of service, but also recognizes the youthful foundlings to whom she provided encouragement. "Secondhand Skates" speaks to simple pleasures, and a community's pride when a beloved member rises above. 

A Dunn recording isn't complete without pro-labour struggles crafted as sing-along; "Heart in Hand" captures the turmoil of labour strife, specifically sacrifices made by Edmonton slaughterhouse workers seeking fair measure in the face of Peter Pocklington's avarice.

Whatever her inspiration, Dunn injects songs with personality and conviction. "Declan's Song (The Good Life)," "Don't Think You Are Forgotten," and "Love Carries Me" are sparkling ruminations of love, remembrance, discovery and gratitude for the bonds of family as we traverse the challenges of daily toil.

Joyful Banner Blazing is another masterful recording from Canada's traditional folk standard-bearer.

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