The Born Freelancer on The Legacy of Max Ferguson
This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.
CBC Radio and TV personality, writer, world music lover, satirist, and fellow freelancer Max Ferguson died earlier this month (March 7th, 2013) at age 89. You’ll be forgiven if you aren’t entirely familiar with his name or reputation; he retired from the public airwaves back in 1998. But during his professional life on the CBC (1946-1998) he became one of this country’s most beloved national radio “stars” and – although he would hate and deny the description – the satirical conscience of Canada. I would further posit that the beginnings of his career as a freelancer also hold relevancy to the problems we freelancers suffer today. But more about that in a moment.
In the beginning there was Rawhide
Max Ferguson’s CBC Radio career began in December 1946 at CBC Halifax. There he quickly assumed the on-air guise of old curmudgeon “Rawhide” in order to hide his true identify when forced to play music decidedly not to his liking. A chance “one-off” local on air masquerade had turned into a national radio obsession by the time he retired the character in the early 1960s. In addition to his Rawhide character, Max played a multitude of other comical characters who would stop by every day and inhabit his listeners’ imaginations with various outrageous stories and situations. All this was performed live and usually ad lib. “Rawhide” himself appeared to be respectful and kindly but around him swirled a vortex of imaginary dissenters, troublemakers and subversives. No carefully planned audience research or market testing could have come up with such a uniquely successful radio series; it was the culmination of talent, timing and sheer good luck that seemed to resonate with post war attitudes.
Listening to tapes of the old “Rawhide” show today (samples available online at CBC Radio archives) the humour seems rather gentle and whimsical and at times downright literary. The latter no doubt reflecting Max’s own higher education and respect for the teaching profession. However it was not viewed as such at the time – the show even came in for criticism in the House of Commons for its irreverence and shocking bad taste. Although not yet fully formed political satire, the Rawhide show would frequently turn its focus on national institutions such as the CBC itself, lambasting its shortcomings and holding up to light its personalities and peccadilloes. But the humour was almost always affectionate; you sensed Ferguson cared about the things he attacked most frequently, admonishing through wit and satire those icons most sacred to the Canadian national psyche in order to help improve and perhaps inspire them. The distinctive “Canadiana” quality of his comedy even merited the release of three specially commissioned LP records of his “Rawhide” sketches on the Folkways record label of New York, a label better known for documenting authentic Americana folk music and jazz.
Political cartoons of the air
By the early 1960s Ferguson had had enough of the Rawhide character. He actually spoke of the fear of turning into Rawhide for real one day! And so he embarked on a new challenge of daily morning shows on CBC Radio, ably assisted by legendary CBC announcer Allan McFee. This new series of half hours ran throughout the rest of the 1960s and into the very early 1970s. (Later that series would be replaced by another more laid back afternoon version which took Max into the late 1970s). In addition to unusual world music selections (called “ethnic” music in his day) Max would create one, two or sometimes even three topical sketches daily. He did this using his well-honed ability to mimic contemporary politicians and popular figures of the day – along with his astonishingly creative imagination – playing all parts in essentially ad lib live to air sketches based upon contents of each morning’s newspapers. The remarkable NFB documentary “Max in the Morning” captures Max doing this show from Toronto in the mid 1960s at the height of his creative powers and popularity. (Audio samples of his work available online at CBC radio archives.) So you see, long before there was Rick Mercer, “22 Minutes” or even “Air Farce”, there was Max Ferguson creating his daily “political cartoons” of the air. They were tiny, perfect audio miniatures puncturing the pomposity of politicians and perfectly capturing and holding up to light the public anxieties and concerns of his day. His influence on subsequent Canadian broadcast satirists is undeniable. In fact, I’m sure I once read that Air Farce member Don Ferguson – no relation to Max – admitted that his impersonation of former PM Pierre Trudeau was actually his interpretation of Max’s famous impersonation of Trudeau! So valued were these sketches on the national airwaves that during a brief fallow period between his morning and afternoon shows, ever resourceful freelancer Ferguson continued to supply the CBC with the sketches alone which were then broadcast during local shows across the country.
An impressive fan base
As far as I can tell from my research Max was perhaps this country’s first consistently popular broadcast political satirist. (I’m not including newspaper political cartoons, which have had a long distinguished history of satirical invective in this country.) Before the 1960s, politicians were treated on air (at least at the CBC) with a respect and obsequiousness that today seems positively Victorian. Max came along and, using his impersonations, showed them to be very human and very, very fallible. And yet his humour was never malicious. Former Prime Minister Diefenbaker was a huge fan and would often take time to write to Max and congratulate him on his latest sketch involving (the then former PM) “Dief” in some ludicrous audio escapade or another. Today when many politicians seem unable to distinguish between themselves and other entertainment personalities it is hard to appreciate that just a few decades ago such behaviour was revolutionary. Yet Max heralded that revolution in a typically Canadian way – using his satire to keep politicians just slightly more accountable and this country just slightly better tempered about its daily goings on. I would posit our appetite for broadcast political satire today is a tradition first most widely popularized by Max.
I have no doubt that Max could have gone south of the border to further his career using his humour and incredible vocal abilities but he chose to stay here in his adopted home, Canada. (Born in England he had come here as a very young child.) In his own way, I believe he was a great nationalist – at a time when it was not out of fashion to be so – because fundamentally he believed in Canada. He never said so in so many words but his actions spoke loudly enough for him as did his characters. He loved this country and through his work helped Canadians define our own identity by reflecting back through his satire our own stories, our own politicians, our own strengths and weaknesses; as opposed to watching or listening to comedy from elsewhere that keeps us invisible especially to ourselves. I think both his Order of Canada as well as his Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in Broadcasting (among so many other distinctions) clearly reflect his importance to the cultural life of this country.
World music devotee
Some time during the late 1970s it seems Max had had enough of the daily grind of the sketches and took an early self-imposed “retirement” from the CBC – not the first! – only to return eventually to preside over a revamped weekly “world music” type of show without any topical sketches that would see him out to the end of his national radio career. Using this approach he was again just ahead of his time, forging new understanding and appetite for what was then considered unconventional styles of music. “World music” not then having the instant cachet that it does now, nor the multitude of outlets available to play it. Even so, Max still managed to present the music with his accustomed nimble wit. There were still many lighthearted moments shared between himself and long time on air foil, staff announcer (and notorious CBC legend) Allan McFee until the latter’s retirement due to ill health.
Throughout his long freelance career Max wrote two books (including his Leacock Medal for Humour award-winning autobiography); a number of radio plays; appeared frequently as a regular host and guest on television; utilized his gift for vocal mimicry on TV cartoons and many other shows such as the outstanding CBC Radio satire series “Inside From the Outside” – penned by Murray Soupcoff, Rick Salutin, Eric Nicol, SCTV’s Dave Thomas and others; and yet never stopped being an essentially modest, decent man; unfailingly honorable and thoroughly professional. Before he finally retired for good in 1998 I wrote him a long overdue “thank you” letter (no doubt along with thousands of his fans) for all his years of giving such imaginative pleasure over the air – even though I had really only discovered him towards the end of his long career and retrospectively on tape and in print. He replied with a handwritten note, gracious to the end and genuinely appreciative of my appreciation! I’m told he was courteous enough to always reply to his fan mail throughout his career, cognizant of the debt he owed his fans for that impressive career in the first place.
A preliminary assessment
So Max Ferguson has passed on and life goes on. But pause a moment to reflect on his role in making political satire just that much more acceptable and accessible to all of us today in this country; in the process of making our politicians seem just that much more human and fallible; in bringing the diversity of multicultural music to a wider national audience; and in making a generation or two of Canadians perhaps just that much more inclined to look at ourselves with humour and a greater pride in who we are and what we can do when we put our minds to it.
When I began this tribute I mentioned that the origin of his freelancer status still has relevancy today when so many of us are faced with increasingly draconian contracts and unacceptable demands for hard earned rights to be rolled back. Here is that story. For the first eight years of his life at CBC Halifax and later Toronto Max toiled away as an anonymous staff CBC announcer (as well as providing his “Rawhide” show for free). Faced with increasingly unacceptable demands from management, both in terms of lack of money as well as unacceptable terms of engagement, Max chose to quit. He walked away from a comfortable, secure yet thoroughly undervalued situation on principle only to return as “Rawhide” as a freelancer on much better terms much more to his liking. He stayed a freelancer for the rest of his career. And so you see in order to gain anything, he had had to walk away and be prepared to lose everything. Not an easy decision for a man with a family to support at the time. But he did it (describing it much more comically in his autobiography, “And Now Here’s Max”).
Is there a lesson in his story still relevant to the rest of us today? I believe so. Because I know for certain if you don’t study history you are doomed to relive it – and will never truly be able to move forward as a result. And so, goodbye Max, thank you for teaching us how to laugh at ourselves and also for reminding us that standing up for ourselves is something we Canadians do exceedingly well…