Becoming a songwriter wasn’t part of John Wort Hannam’s (BA/BEd ’96) plan when he began his studies at the University of Lethbridge, rather it was an unexplored part of who he was.
“Some people go to university because it’s a stepping stone to the job they want. I went to university because I wanted to learn more about the world and the place around me,” says Wort Hannam. “The fact that I went into education and became a teacher was not the reason I went to university. I went because I was just thrilled to learn new things.”
His spark for learning was fueled by a paper, written by Dr. Leroy Little Bear (BASc (BA) ’72, LLD ’04), he read for a contemporary native issues class he was attending at the then Mount Royal College. Intrigued and ready to focus, Wort Hannam wanted to know more about Aboriginal culture and signed up at the U of L. He counts his university years as a defining time. He met his future wife (Jennifer Burke, MSc ’06, BEd/BSc ’97) at the U of L, joined the cross-country running team and the track team, and succeeded academically.
While Wort Hannam put his University credentials to use teaching on the Blood Reserve, inside he nurtured a dream to write and perform songs. After nearly six years, he quit his teaching job to learn to play the guitar and write songs. He brought his dream out into the light where it flourished, fed by time, commitment and plenty of hard work. Now, at 48 years old and the father of a four-year-old son, he’s cut back from touring some 200 days of the year to about 50 to be there for his family.
When the University, thanks in part to a donation from Terry Whitehead (BA ’94), commissioned him to write a song to commemorate the U of L’s 50th anniversary in 2017, Wort Hannam knew almost immediately he’d use dreams as a lyrical feature. He also looked to incorporate light, in keeping with the University’s motto Fiat Lux, or let there be light.
“Light represents everything from enlightenment to hope. There are so many attributes you can play with as a songwriter with the theme of light,” he says.
Tanya Jacobson-Gundlock, University Advancement executive director, wanted the song to capture the spirit and essence of the U of L. She knew Wort Hannam to be a gifted storyteller — that he happens to be a U of L alumnus is an added bonus.
“Music has an ability to ignite and unite us all,” she says. “If we can ignite the dreams of the students who come through our doors and have them leave with a feeling of community and connection, then I think we’re doing our job.”
Wort Hannam’s songwriting process was like a miner panning for gold. He sifted through the University Archives, looking at photos and reading old issues of The Meliorist. Words or phrases, ‘nuggets’ as he calls them, that stood out were stored away in the back of his mind. While lyrics usually come first for Wort Hannam, this time the melody preceded the lyrics. Playing around with his guitar one day, he started humming a melody. He recorded it into his smart phone where it waited for lyrics. But day-to-day demands meant his self-imposed deadline of April 1 was going to roll by without a finished song.
“Some songs are a gift; they’re given to you, and other songs, you have to pull them out and almost beat them into submission. This one was a little bit of both. I decided at the end of March that I was going to book some time up at the Banff Centre. It would allow me time away from my daily routine,” he says. “I was given the keys to a beautiful studio that I had 24-hour access to, and a beautiful room that looked out at the mountains. I woke up whenever I woke up, I got up and I walked to the studio and just started pulling out sheets of paper and hammering away at it.”
He placed each completed page, like a miner lifting his pan out of the creek bed, on the floor and eventually had 42 pieces of paper in a line. Then he hunted for nuggets like a turn of phrase, a bit of writing, or a pattern, that might work into his rhyming scheme. He admits it’s an intense process and work he does best alone.
“It’s exhausting. I can only sit for a few hours. My head hurts as I’m going through the process. As I write things down I find I have only a certain amount of mental energy and I have to get up and walk around,” he says. “When I left the Banff Centre, I was tired, mentally and physically.”
The song, titled Let It Shine On, speaks about the dreams everyone has inside, waiting to come into the light, and being ignited on hallowed ground. Wort Hannam says the term refers not only to the hallowed halls of higher education but also the traditional Blackfoot land the University is built upon and Wort Hannam’s first impression of the coulees and river valleys of southern Alberta. He includes a line about the need to work together, as students’ learning is shaped by the voices of those around them.
“Western universities like the U of L are based on a European model of knowledge and discovery but the faculty and staff come from many diverse cultures, from First Nations to new Canadians from around the world. Each brings with them a different way of viewing the world,” he says.
Now that the most intense work has been done, Wort Hannam is looking forward to the next phase. Chris Morris (BFA ’07), technical specialist at the U of L, has helped record the song on campus in Studio One, and Leslie Ohene-Adjei (BFA ’16) is working on a music video. Jesse Plessis (BMus ’10), who is currently working on his doctorate at the University of Montreal, will be generating a choral arrangement of the song. Once complete, Let It Shine On will be a legacy for both Wort Hannam and the University.
“I feel very, very honoured that I was asked to do it. For me, this was never part of the plan. When I went to the U of L, I had no idea that I would only teach for six years and then I would leave and try to make a living writing songs,” says Wort Hannam.
Let It Shine On reflects both individual transformation and the University’s transformation over the past 50 years.
“We would like John to perform the song in our 50th year on many different occasions. The song will debut at our Founders’ Day Weekend in January and will live on at the heart of the U of L for many years to come,” says Jacobson-Gundlock.
Story by Caroline Zentner.