Island musician scores a hit with Ballad of Bonnie Henry

A charity single about a provincial public health officer leading the fight against a virus with “an ungainly moniker” has given Juno Award-winning Qualicum musician Phil Dwyer one of the most unlikely hits of his career.

The past week has been a bit of a rollercoaster for the Order of Canada member, whose decorated career as a saxophonist and composer dates back to 1983. He can now add The Ballad of Bonnie Henry to his resumé, after penning the song in honour of the B.C. provincial health officer who sits at the forefront of the government’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the second song in recent weeks, following one by Sidney couple Gordon and Diane Campbell, that has been written about Henry.

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The Ballad of Bonnie Henry began as a poem that Dwyer wrote and posted to Facebook after a bout of inspiration. After several friends commented that his words should be put to music, he quickly wrote music to fit the cadence of the poem. He enlisted some friends and family to add touches of their own, and within a day he had uploaded the folk ballad to the music streaming site, Soundcloud. “Then it kind of took off,” Dwyer said.

“It was 48 hours from the time I started writing it to the time that it was actually published and on the air.”

Dwyer knew he couldn’t do it alone, so he asked some friends and family to help him with the recording. “I got the same response from everybody, which is: ‘Bonnie is great. Sign me up. I’m all in.’ ”

The individual parts of the song — which has been played more than 40,000 times since April 1 — were recorded remotely by singer and banjo player Tina Jones on Gabriola Island, fiddler Daniel Lapp on Pender Island and Dwyer’s bass-playing son, Ben, in Toronto. After the digital recordings were exchanged between collaborators, Dwyer took the tune to Nanaimo music producer Rick Salt for final editing.

The result is currently Dwyer’s most-played song on Soundcloud. “My next closest song for an original piece of music is 588 spins,” he said with a laugh. “And that took me a year to write and record, and cost $40,000 to make.”

It was during his Facebook livestream concert on March 29 that Dwyer, who is also a lawyer, first thought of asking fans to pay their respects to Henry. After he dedicated a song to Henry and the work she is doing, he felt a sudden sense of emotion.

“I found myself fighting back tears, which is something that was unexpected and relatively uncharted territory for me in concert,” Dwyer said.

“For me, and I would imagine many, many other people, there’s an emotional component to the current events, which we may or may not be acknowledging fully.”

Dwyer watches Henry’s daily updates on the virus. The Ballad of Bonnie Henry is his way of saying he appreciates her efforts.

“I think people need a rallying point,” he said.

“People need a common touchstone, something that we can agree on as a society. Over the last period of time, there seems to be fewer and fewer things that we can agree on and I think in this case, we are lucky we have the right person doing the right job and doing it in a way that is being universally recognized as a job well done, and done in a forthright but compassionate manner. Fortunately, her message seems to have really caught on, and it seems to be working.”

Dwyer is asking those who enjoy The Ballad of Bonnie Henry to donate to the COVID-19 Fund through the fundraising site CanadaHelps.org.

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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