Harmonizing words and melodies

Dr. Kevin Hutchings with a guitar outside at UNBC's Prince George campus.
English Professor Dr. Kevin Hutchings uses his musical talents to engage students and community members. His latest album is focused on the work of former governor general John Buchan, also known as Lord Tweedsmuir.

When English Professor Dr. Kevin Hutchings puts poetry to music, it gives him a new lens for his literary research and enhances his teaching toolkit.

“As a literature professor, I find that setting poetry to music helps me to gain an intimate familiarity with the literary work,” Hutchings explains. “Music is an excellent aid to memory, so making poems into songs enables me to memorize and internalize the lyrics in a way that doesn’t happen when I merely read poems as words on a page.”

Former governor general John Buchan, also known as Lord Tweedsmuir, became the muse for Hutchings’ latest creation. Over the period of a few years Hutchings wrote music for 10 of Buchan’s works culminating in his latest album released this past fall. John Buchan’s Poetry in Song is now available on YouTube and Spotify.

On May 18, Hutchings will launch the album with a talk and musical performance at the Prince George Public Library at 3 p.m.

For Hutchings, the intersection of literature and music goes beyond mere artistic expression. It becomes a bridge allowing people, including his students, to connect emotionally with the verses in a way that traditional reading might not facilitate.

“Many students who aren’t fans of poetry are big music enthusiasts, so when they hear a great poem sung, it can help to pique their interest,” Hutchings says.

The album dovetails with Hutchings’ scholarly work on Buchan.

Over the past decade, Hutchings has written a series of a journal articles as well as a chapter of a book focused on Buchan’s environmental advocacy and on his relationship with First Nations. In recognition of his research efforts, the John Buchan Society in Scotland named Hutchings as a lifetime member.

His latest article, “The Meeting Place of Two Worlds: John Buchan and the Poetics of the In-Between,” published in the John Buchan Journal stems directly from his musical interpretation of Buchan’s writings.

“After a couple of years of working musically with Buchan’s poetry, having played each song hundreds of times, I began to see themes and patterns in the poetry that had previously eluded my attention,” Hutchings says. “Aided by the musical engagement, these insights coalesced in the latest journal article.”

Hutchings first stumbled upon the Buchan’s literary legacy in 2010 while presenting at a joint meeting of the Centre for Canadian Studies and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. Hutchings was speaking about 19th-century Canadian colonial administrators and politicians who were also men of letters, but it was a conversation after his lecture that sent him down the path that led to his latest creative endeavour.

“After the talk, an audience member asked me if I had considered including John Buchan in my study, and when I responded ‘John Who?’ she told me he was the famous Scottish novelist who had become Governor General of Canada in the 1930s,” Hutchings recalls. “A little ashamed at my ignorance, I quickly obtained some of Buchans’ books — there are over 100 of them — discovering among other things that he had created the Governor General’s Literary Awards to promote Canadian literary talent.”

Hutchings delved in the John Buchan Archive during his next visit to Edinburgh and learned the former governor general had northern B.C. connections. Buchan made an official visit to British Columbia in 1937 and, during his travels, both the Babine Lake and Bella Coola First Nations made him an honorary chief. One year later, the provincial government established Tweedsmuir Park named in his honour, one of the largest provincial parks in B.C.

Buchan is known primarily as a novelist, but Hutchings wanted to bring more attention to his poetry, which is where the idea to create the album came from. In his free moments, Hutchings began to put music to the words, one poem at a time.

“At first, I didn’t plan to engage in an extended project, thinking I would work with just a poem or two, and just for fun, but after a couple of years I had done enough work for a five- or six-song EP,” he says.

Hutchings contacted local recording engineer Rick Irvine of Cheslatta Records, booked some studio time and got to work recording the songs. He continued to write more music, eventually completing the 10-song album.

John Buchan’s Poetry in Song is Hutchings’ eighth album. Previous recordings have included musical renditions of poems by the likes of William Blake, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Beyond the artistic venture, Hutchings sees his project as a gateway for people to engage differently with Buchan's works. While Buchan is widely known for his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps which Alfred Hitchcock turned into the 1935 film The 39 Steps, Hutchings aims to shed light on the lesser-known facet of Buchan as a poet.

“I hope that this album might remind Canadians who, like me before the above-mentioned trip to the University of Edinburgh, have never heard of John Buchan to consider reading his works,” Hutchings says.