- Prairie Bohemian: Frank Gay's Life in Music by Trevor W. Harrison
By Trevor W. Harrison. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015. ix +217 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $25.00 paper.
In Prairie Bohemian: Frank Gay's Life in Music, Trevor Harrison weaves multiple accounts of Frank Gay's life as a luthier, musician, and local character, together with his own personal memories. Using these personal accounts along with interviews, transcriptions, and family photographs, Harrison strikes out to distill fact from the mythologies and the anecdotes concerning Gay in Edmonton's music community that have been circulating for years. Harrison tends to indulge in speculation throughout the book rather than letting the accounts of Gay's life speak; at times the narrative is a little disjointed with what seems like unnecessary detail and too many anecdotal snippets. However, this does not entirely detract from the strengths of the book, such as the quotes from Gay's contemporaries, other guitarists, people in the music business, and visitors to his garage; for example Dave Hamel and Evelyn Popwich's accounts (38, 41). While Harrison warns the reader of the possibility of false memory (ix), these colorful personal accounts are what inspired the author's interest in his subject.
Through Harrison's exploration of Gay's life, Prairie Bohemian also illuminates the social and musical history of the prairie towns and cities that Gay called home. His upbringing in rural Saskatchewan is documented in the early chapters, and Edmonton's musical-social history is woven into the account of his adulthood in the city, providing glimpses of the places and people that came in and out of Gay's life, and the dive bars and classy hotels like the Hotel MacDonald that still exist today. As an Edmontonian, I found especially interesting the history of the Ninety-Seventh Street and Chinatown neighborhoods, Gay's south-side 1960's bungalow (93), and Gay's travels across Canada, migrating east early in life but returning to the prairies. While documenting Gay's history, Prairie Bohemian also provides an account of the built and social history of Edmonton in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Harrison's effort here is an enjoyable read that includes compelling images of his subject. Harrison compiles fact, mystery, and multiple personal retellings of Gay's life into one volume, and, while attempting to separate fact from fiction, he comes to the somewhat comforting conclusion that no life, here Frank Gay's, is totally uncomplicated (181). Despite Harrison's struggle for accuracy, he does not try to reconcile the various personal perspectives, lived experiences, and memories shaped by emotion and time. Harrison presents his version of fact but also allows other accounts to exist side by side. While this lack of firm, fact-based conclusion could be unsatisfying to the reader, Harrison's account of Gay's life, awash with personal, emotional, and creative struggles, reminds us that speculation and subjective exploration of a life can be as valuable as the fact-finding mission that began it all.