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Toronto Historical Jukebox Plays the Sounds of Our Past

The creator of the Toronto Dreams Project celebrates our musical legacy online—and in bathrooms across the city.

Toronto’s music history is brimming with stories—tall tales and myths too strange and rich not to be true. “Sure,” you’re probably saying, “but every town from here to Hamburg claims the same thing.” Fine. But talk to Adam Bunch, creator of the Toronto Historical Jukebox, and you’ll see why this city’s a special case. Bunch is the force behind the Toronto Dreams Project and the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, both acclaimed works that record and riff on this city’s past. He’s also a music writer and buff of the finest kind. Since March 2013, Bunch has united his passions for history and music through the Historical Jukebox, a blog that delves into the sounds of Toronto’s past. There’s no shortage of material.

“Our city was one of the world’s greatest music cities long before Broken Social Scene and Drake blew up,” Bunch said. “Toronto produced some of the greatest swing, rock and roll, rock-a-billy, folk, funk, punk, soul, reggae, early hip hop.”

And Bunch has the music and the facts to back that up: each post on the Historical Jukebox blog includes an MP3 file of a song from Toronto’s past and a short but illuminating backgrounder on the song or artist.

By combing through music blogs, books (including the oral history of Toronto punk Treat Me Like Dirt, and the Yorkville-centred Before the Goldrush), and documentaries (Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories, and The Last Pogo Jumps Again), Bunch has assembled a catalogue that already stretches from the Depression-era “The Casa Loma Stomp,” to the MuchMusic hip hop of “Bright Lights, Big City.” And it keeps growing. Just this week Bunch added some ’70s reggae, ’80s New Wave, and early hip hop.

The Jukebox project is taking root offline as well: the Toronto Historical Bathroom Sticker Jukebox, adopting an approach similar to Bunch’s ongoing Toronto Dreams Project Sticky Plaque Division, places stickers commemorating local historical facts in public spaces—namely, public toilets at local music venues. Each Historical Jukebox Bathroom sticker has a URL and QR code that links to the blog, so that bathroom-goers can listen to the songs of the Jukebox. There are definitely worse ways to pass your time in the john.

Whatever forms Bunch’s music curating takes, it’s the characters of Toronto’s music scene, and their stories, that shine through.

“I grew up in Toronto going to see bands like the Rheostatics, who always stressed the importance of the history of Canadian music,” Bunch said. “Telling anecdotes on stage, singing about Neil Young, covering Stompin’ Tom…”

And for every yarn about the Hawks playing on Yonge Street, or Young and Rick James together in Yorkville, there’s a fascinating tale about a little-known personality from our past. We meet Shirley Matthews, for example, an ex-Bell Telephone switchboard operator whose 1966 Motown-esque hit “Big Town Boy” sold over a million copies—and Jackie Shane, an American-born drag queen who was plucked out of the audience one night to sing with Dizzy Gillespie protégé Frank Motley. Both Motley and Shane would become staples of the Yonge Street strip in the ’60s, and recorded a live album together at Toronto’s Sapphire Tavern.

The stories collected on Toronto Historical Jukebox portray a vibrant music scene always in the process of evolving. As Bunch said, “You start to understand how Buffalo Springfield’s Bruce Palmer could call Toronto ‘the most hard-rocking city of its time.’”

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