Phil Thomas – 2003

This year we honour two individuals who have much in common, although they come from different ends of the country: Anita Best and Phil Thomas. Both have published major song collections, both have worked long and well outside the academic establishment (although their work is well respected in university circles), and both are singers and well-known public advocates for traditional song.


Phil Thomas has been called both “the Cecil Sharp of British Columbia” and “the B.C. Pete Seeger”. The former phrase pays tribute to his role as the industrious pioneer of folksong collecting in the province, the latter to his ubiquitous presence in clubs and schools and on campuses, toting his long-necked banjo and popularizing Canadian traditional song. He began collecting at the age of thirty in 1951, and for the next twenty-five years laboured to rescue from the brink of extinction an invaluable legacy of British Columbia and Western Canadian song. Combining social history and folklore, his Songs of the Pacific Northwest (Saanichton: Hancock House 1979) reflected in its comprehensive notes the pioneer spirit of the working people of British Columbia. It was a landmark in the effort to recover and study the history of popular music in the province. Mr. Thomas is currently working on a second, enlarged edition of Songs of the Pacific Northwest. His collection of field tapes is now deposited in the BC Aural History Archives in Victoria, and his collection of folksong books (now exceeding 6,000 items and unique in Western Canada) has been donated to the Special Collections library of his alma mater, the University of British Columbia, where it bears his name.


Over the course of a long and productive life he has made his mark in several fields. He was awarded the G.A. Fergusson Prize, the highest honour the BC Teachers Federation can award, for creative work in art and drama. In 1959 he was a founder and is now an Honorary Life Member of the country’s longest running folk club, the Vancouver Folk Song Society. He has served as President, Corresponding Secretary, and in various other capacities on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Society for Traditional Music, and is now Honorary President and Life Member. He has also been an active and longstanding member of the British Columbia Folklore Society, one of the several organizations and individuals that nominated him for the Barbeau Medal. This award recognizes and celebrates Mr. Thomas’ fifty years of involvement in the collection and publication of Canadian vernacular song, and his groundbreaking work in preserving, contextualizing, and popularizing the traditional music of his native province.


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