Ben Caplan Recontextualizes Refugee Tales on 'Old Stock'

The old-timey effort, which first evolved from a play of the same name, seeks to illuminate our times through the century-old story of Eastern European migrants.
Ben Caplan Recontextualizes Refugee Tales on 'Old Stock'
Photo: Jamie Kronick
Those who speak in dog whistles against immigrants and refugees may very well assume that a white, small-town fellow like Ben Caplan would concur. But aside from resolutely disagreeing on moral and political grounds, the Halifax-based folk star also balked at former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's pandering to "old stock Canadians" on the federal campaign trail in 2015 for another reason.
"By all rights I'm supposed to be in that category of old stock Canadians," Caplan tells Exclaim! "But my dad wasn't. My grandfather wasn't, and my great grandfather certainly wasn't." Caplan says Harper's contentious comments inspired the name of a musical he co-wrote, as well as then ensuing new LP, fittingly called Old Stock. The former PM's phrasing, of course, caused an uproar during the campaign, and has reverberated in this rising alt-right era ever since.
That leaves Caplan, whose grandparents were children of Eastern European Jewish migrants, to wonder: "Where do you draw the line? Suddenly: 'Oh it's ok, you're now in the in club. But them, over there? Fuck them.' It just seems so absurd and false to me. It made me want to make a play, and made me want to write these songs."
Specifically, the songs on the newly released Old Stock tell the story of a pair of Jewish Romanian refugees who fled to Canada, fell in love, and got on with their lives, even as they contended with anti-Semitism once again in their adopted home. The music incorporates aged Eastern European elements like squealing fiddles and accordions. And both that sonic styling and the album's lyrics first stemmed from a play of the same name that Caplan co-wrote with Christian Barry and Hannah Moscovitch, the latter of whom drew on scraps of stories left over from her ancestors' trek from Romania to Halifax in 1908.
In order to provide a suitable sonic backdrop to the concept album's narrative, Caplan and his collaborators utilized the Klezmer style and instruments that fit that bygone era, before pushing through those old conventions with modern ingenuity.
"My motivation was to mine these old world sounds, take the clarinets and the accordions, the melodies of a Klezmer violin, but to not treat them as museum pieces, to not believe there's a static tradition I have to be faithful to," Caplan says of the way his band throws in haunting new flourishes to a bygone playing style.
Caplan says he and his collaborators dug into that century-old period of mass migration because of a desire to "think about the contemporary refugee crisis, and to think about the humanity of those who are going through very similar experiences today."
So what do those current refugees, be they Syrian or from other locales, think of the play and the new album? Caplan recalls how, after several curtain calls, audience members would approach him: "Many of them talked about the weird repeats of history that seem to be reflected in the play, where just a hundred years ago it was one group, and now it's another group.
"We seem to have short memories."
Old Stock is out now on Rhyme and Reason Records.