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Jerry Gray’s mother asked him: ‘Fun folk music ken men machn a lebn?’

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From 1955 to 2012, The Travellers were Canada’s pre-eminent folk ensemble. (Right to Left): Jerry Goodis, Jerry Gray, Simone Johnston, Sid Dolgay. (Photo: Discogs)

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In 1971, I was short-listed and ultimately hired to manage the Public Relations division of the hottest ad agency in Canada, Goodis Goldberg & Soren Ltd.(GGS).

After the usual pre-interview pleasantries, agency co-founder Jerry Goodis asked if I’d ever promoted an author and books. Before I replied he said in his rapid fire style, “Let me tell you about what will be the first book ever written about the Canadian advertising industry, by me, a Canadian who has lived it.” Published in 1972, the book was titled Have I Ever Lied To You Before.

But rather than telling me about his book, he began to reminisce about his singing role as co-founder with Jerry Gray, of Canada’s foremost folk group, The Travellers.

“It all started at Camp Naivelt”, a secular Jewish camp in Brampton, ON, Goodis told me. His family and the Grays had summer cottages. As teenagers they performed at Saturday night concerts and campfire hootenannies. With a new world-socialist/left wing, labour and Yiddish repertoire, they also played at several union and Jewish organizations.

Jerry Gray was born in Toronto in 1933 to Hershl and Mary (nee Shapiro) Grizhbutsy. The family changed their name to Gray when they arrived in Canada from Europe in 1929.

As the Camp’s swim director, Gray “was recruited by the Jewish Folk Choir’s accompanist Fagel Gartner in 1952 at age 18 to join a choir.” They performed 17 concerts in 22 days from Vancouver to Montreal. “Upon my return in 1953,” Gray said, “five of us formed The Travellers, a moniker taken from The Lonesome Traveller folk song written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.” The group included the two Jerry’s, sister Helen Gray, Oscar Ross and Sid Dolgay. Gray played a 5-string banjo; Goodis, Helen Gray and Ross sang; Dolgay played guitar.

Their first gig at Naivelt (Translation: New World) saw them share the stage with Pete Seeger in 1955 “who sang two songs which impacted our careers,” Gray said.” One was Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, recorded by The Weavers but never released because it was blacklisted by McCarthy, as were Pete and Woody. Pete suggested that we use the song any way we could.” 

Over the next five years, the quintet toured Canada extensively. They performed This Land is Your Land with new Canadian lyrics which  “became our theme song, and we sang it everywhere – concerts, TV and radio shows, beer commercials and we cut an album in 1957,”added Gray.

In 1957, they sang on CBC-TV’s Pick The Stars, defeating comedian Rich Little in the semi-finals and coming second in the final performance. They signed a contract with Columbia Records Canada in 1959, recording seven albums over the next six years.

In 1961 they headlined the first Mariposa Folk Festival with subsequent performances from 1962-64.  Gray performed at Mariposa 21 times over the next 50 years.  

Gray told me that his sister left the group in 1955, “got married and had an early pregnancy and was replaced by Simone Cook who retired in 1970.  Oscar Ross left to become a mime in 1956 and was not replaced.” Incidentally, Oscar became an award-winning art director who I worked with at Goodis, Goldberg & Soren.

As Goodis noted in his biography, he “left with a tearful eye’, joined Sam Goldberg to co-found GGS.  From 1953-61, Goldberg had been The Travellers’ first artistic and business manager. Goodis was replaced by guitarist Ray Woodley who stayed until 1980. Goodis, who died in 2002 was reputed to be “Canada’s foremost marketer”, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

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Gray explained, “So Goodis missed this great gig in 1962 – a Canadian government cultural exchange (that) saw us perform for a month in Moscow, Vilna and Kiev. We told the sponsor we’d sing some Yiddish songs but the Soviets said ‘that would not be appropriate’. We went to the Canadian embassy and reconfirmed that our signed contract placed no restrictions on our repertoire. Many Jewish concert goers told us that our performances were the first Jewish songs on Soviet stages they had ever heard.”

But there was trouble brewing with their accompanist Sid Dolgay who took a very pro-Soviet position regarding Yiddish songs in the program and argued with Jerry Gray’s aunt in Vilna. This among other things saw Dolgay voted out of the group in 1965. Joe Hampson took his place until he died in 2006.

The Travellers headlined a Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to open the Festival Theatre in Charlottetown which launched the 1967 Centennial celebration, followed by a tour of Britain and a performance at the Palladium.  That year they also appeared at a Dr. Martin Luther King fundraiser in Toronto, performing with Harry Belafonte to a crowd of over 3,000.

By the end of 1965, all the original Travellers had left the group, with Gray remaining “until the group’s demise in 2012.” At this writing, Jerry Gray is the last living Traveller. 

Gray is more than a musician. He enrolled in Dentistry at the University of Toronto in 1953 and graduated five years later. During that time he taught himself to play a banjo given to him by Pete Seeger.

“When I graduated, I asked my mother about two careers and which one I should choose. She replied in Yiddish, ‘Fun folk music ken men machn a lebn?’ (Translation:  Can you make a living singing folk music?). Not the first time I disagreed with my mother as I forged ahead on a two career path. Over time, my dental practice really took second place and after a number of years, I returned to showbiz beginning a 25+ year career lecturing at universities and colleges and with continuing gigs with the group.” He created a music and illustrated history of protest and labour music called FOLK which he “has been teaching in Florida every winter since 2001, until the Covid pandemic hit last year.”

(Right to Left) Ray Woodley, Jerry Gray, Harry Belafonte, Simone Johnston, Sid Dolgay

By 1969, The Travellers had recorded 16 LPs in London, Moscow, Nashville and Toronto studios, but none were eligible for the Juno Awards, which didn’t begin until 1970.

“We also began doing two concert weekend performances in Toronto for children, launching the first such album The Travellers Sing For Kids, again not eligible for a Juno because “there was no Children’s category”, Gray added. “But, our album sold over 50,000 copies in Canada long before Raffi, and Sharon Lois & Bram.”

In the 1970s and 80s The Travellers sang for “every Canadian labour union and at political rallies for the three major federal political parties during the Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker and David Lewis years, with some 50+ concerts at international conventions, performances at Canadian Army bases and a new repertoire including the  original ‘folky’ material augmented by new numbers.” He also began a Yiddish music series with his son James Gray in Toronto’s Earl Bales Park, also playing at Klez Canada concerts and other festivals.

Sony Music Canada reissued a new CD, The Best Of  The Travellers in 2001The National Film Board produced a documentary called This Land which premiered at the 2002 Canadian Jewish Film Festival.  The Toronto Musicians Association also honoured the group along with recognizing jazz giant Moe Koffman posthumously.

Jerry Gray’s Yiddish and labour roots were ever-present throughout his career as he was recognized with an OFL Cultural Award  by the Ontario Federation of Labour in 2005. 

In 2010, at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, he conducted the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s encore song – the Canadian version of This Land – a fitting tribute today for a Lonesome Traveller with 69 years on the road.

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communication.  He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary (Photo)

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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