Cancer put an end to Red Deer musician Arthur Samuel Barker’s life, but his musical legacy lives on — thanks to a little help from his friends.
Before Barker’s swift decline and death at age 69 in October, the central Alberta singer/songwriter passed on a last wish to his daughter, Asya. He wanted his latest album to be completed posthumously.
Asya passed this desire on to Barker’s musical collaborator and keyboardist Morgan McKee — who knew he had to make it happen.
McKee rounded up musicians Barker had enjoyed working with over the years to make his final dream a reality. Curtis Phagoo, Dan Barton, Brendan Rothwell were among the contributors to this emotional project, along with backing vocalists Mandy McKee (Morgan’s sister) and Mjaa Danielson.
“I don’t know how to put it into words, what this means,” said Asya. “To do justice to my father’s legacy like this, it’s very moving…”
McKee admitted finishing the extended play (EP) was difficult because recording a person’s last songs is much like reading somebody’s final words. “Music is a way of communicating…”
He had always appreciated Barker’s eclectic folk blues melodies, his poetic and humourous lyrics, and his kinetic personality.
“Art was probably one of the most interesting songwriters to come out of the Alberta music scene for a long time,” said McKee of the Caroline-raised musician, who had been on the regional music scene since the 1980s.
Nobody could predict what type of tune Barker would turn out next; everything from rollicking train songs, to quiet gospel tunes, to ballads about everyday people facing challenges worked their way into his repertoire.
“At moments it would occur to me, this is the last time I will be doing anything for Art… I would have to stop to take a moment. But knowing that he trusted us to do this, it was really an honour,” said McKee.
He had helped record Barker’s first album, Somewhere Under the Radar, in 2010. More recently, McKee had started collaborating with the frequent Ross Street Patio performer on his second and final album, Headed For the Promised Land.
Four of the six tracks on the EP had already been laid down before Barker’s health began to deteriorate in February 2020.
In June, Barker telephoned McKee to say he hadn’t been in any condition to record since he had been in hospital with pneumonia.
“I heard from his daughter in early fall that he had a terminal illness and didn’t want visitors,” recalled McKee. He never saw Barker again.
The musicians who volunteered their time and talents to complete the last tracks for Barker’s final EP had to work around some challenges, especially in laying down the tune Thick Smoke, Black Lightning.
McKee said the only vocal recording that Barker had done for that song was about the same quality if made with an iPhone recorder — but somehow the rough vocals worked.
The title tune, Headed For the Promised Land — which in a spooky parallel, was written on the theme of death before Barker knew he was dying — was augmented by a Sgt. Pepper-like cacophony of other singers, clappers, tuba sounds etc.
The result is “really cool, fun and uplifting,” the way Barker would have intended, said McKee.
Asya, an only child, has been fundraising on GoFundMe and taking donations to press some vinyl EPs. She has so far raised more than $4,500.
Asya said she’s “absolutely” grateful for the community support and is assured Barker’s final recordings are in good hands. “My dad always held these musicians in high regard. He used to say that he wanted to perform with people who would make him look good.”
Barker’s other legacy will be maintained by the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, which received a donation of his guitar, harmonica and a copy of his first album — which is still being sold at Long and McQuade in Red Deer.
The new album should be available for digital download early this year, and as a vinyl EP later in 2021.