For John Wort Hannam (BA/BEd ’96), writing a song for the University of Lethbridge’s 50th anniversary is a process not unlike that of a miner panning for gold. He’s been sifting through the University Archives, looking at photos and reading old issues of The Meliorist. Words or phrases may strike him and he stores these nuggets, as he calls them, in the back of his mind where they percolate, bubble and simmer until the day Wort Hannam sits down to write.
“My songs sort of stew inside my head a long time and when I get to the process of actually getting out a pen and a piece of paper, a lot of my thoughts are quite formed,” he says. “Getting them down is making a record of something that I’ve created in my head. Then the word wrangling starts. At that point, the melody starts to come.”
The U of L, with the help of a donation from Terry Whitehead (BA ’94), commissioned Wort Hannam to write a song for its golden anniversary.
“I knew John from my time on campus and thought he was the perfect choice — I love his music.” says Whitehead. “I can’t think of anyone better suited to bring the spirit of our University to words and music.”
The University chose Wort Hannam not only because he’s an alumnus; he’s also a consummate storyteller and accomplished songwriter who can put the soul into a song.
“I was thrilled, I jumped on it; there was no hesitation,” he says. “I feel the job in front of me is to create a type of a song that really captures why the University of Lethbridge is a special place for people who have been there and experienced the University.”
Wort Hannam already has some nuggets stored away, but they’re not something he’s willing to share. However, he does say a few things about what the song won’t be, starting with it won’t be a chronological history of the U of L.
“I guarantee that I won’t say the word ‘Lethbridge’ in the song. And I won’t say ‘50.’ And the word ‘university’ will not be in the song because it’s more about trying to capture how we grow and become illuminated,” he says.
And as for what the song will be about, Wort Hannam offers only a teaser.
“The song will certainly rotate around the whole Fiat Lux motto because obviously there are so many visual things to play with when we’re talking about 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.
Once the song has been finished, Wort Hannam will record it in the U of L’s digital audio arts studio, says Dr. Ed Jurkowski, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts. It will debut in 2017 and a video documentary about the creation of the song is also in the works.
“We’ve also talked about transcribing it for different media, maybe having a choral arrangement of the song, maybe a wind orchestra, maybe a small chamber orchestra version as well. But that will depend on the song itself,” says Jurkowski.
As an alumnus, Wort Hannam can identify with the ability of a university to enlighten. His first foray into post-secondary education didn’t go well. His high school study habit, which consisted of cramming the night before an exam, didn’t work at the University of Calgary and he was “booted out” after his first year. He then attended what was then Mount Royal College to learn some study skills and raise his GPA. In his class on contemporary native issues, one of the assigned readings was a paper by Dr. Leroy Little Bear (BASc (BA) ’72, LLD ’04).
“I found the paper really intriguing. I’ve always been interested in different cultures and I thought ‘If I’m going to learn about another culture, why not learn about a culture that originated in this land and predated European culture?” says Wort Hannam.
It wasn’t until he came to the University of Lethbridge that he was ready to be a student. He met his future wife (Jennifer Burke, MSc ’06) in his first semester and joined the cross-country running team and the track team.
“They were definitely years that defined who I am today,” he says.
After graduating, Wort Hannam taught on the Blood Reserve for five-and-a-half years. At the time, he wasn’t writing songs or playing music and he didn’t own a guitar. All he had was a little dream about writing songs and performing them. Many people laughed when he quit his teaching job to write songs, except his parents, who “didn’t even blink” at his abrupt career change. They had left the United Kingdom for a fresh start in Canada when Wort Hannam was eight years old. As a result of watching them craft a new life for themselves and their family, Wort Hannam says he’s never been scared to try something new.
“I made myself a promise. I said ‘I’m going to sit downstairs and I’m literally going to spend my day learning the guitar and trying to write songs. At the end of whatever UI (Unemployment Insurance) gave me, 32 or 38 weeks, if I have enough songs together I’ll record them somehow,’” he says.
He had a stack of songs by the time his employment insurance benefits ran out, and, with the help of a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, he made a record. Things took off from there. He taught upgrading courses part-time and started playing a bit, until he eventually stopped teaching altogether and played a lot.
Now, at age 47 and the father of a four-year-old son, Wort Hannam has cut back from being on tour 250 days of the year to being on tour for about 70. While he has no regrets, he does admit to missing the freedom to write songs whenever the inspiration strikes him.
And that could mean audiences, near and far, have something extra special to look forward to in the future when all those nuggets he’s been storing over the last few years find their way into songs.