A National Treasure - Urban Carmichael
Byline: William Thomas
Like undiscovered precious metals, we have a lot of national treasures in Canada, enjoyed only in the confines of their respective regions of origin. Urban Carmichael is one such special commodity that the province of Prince Edward Island has hoarded his whole life long.
A natural born entertainer, his lightning wit and engaging guitar has made this Islander a legend on the East Coast entertainment scene, ranked #7 on Coast Life magazine’s list of “The 40 Reasons We Love Atlantic Canada.”
But mention Urban Carmichael’s name anywhere west of New Brunswick and people think you’re talking about some art museum in the city.
Urban Carmichael is just flat-out funny. Just listen to his song titles: “My Karma Ran Over My Dogma” “Female On The E-mail,” and “I Can’t Take You To The Prison Dance Cause They’re Hangin’ Me Tonight.”
Urban comes cloaked in a wonderful down east disguise - ball cap, checkered wool jacket and baggy jeans - so that you think you’re dealing with a country bumpkin until he sparks up playing with two thumbs over the top of the guitar and the quick quips come at you in waves. The audience responds in kind laughter that builds on awkward silences and ends with a crescendo of hysteria amid the odd hoot and holler. It is after all, an East Coast crowd.
Born into a family of ten kids with two beds, Urban likes to say his mother used to put them to sleep in batches. A good Irish Catholic lady, Urban describes his mother as the woman “who used to call the bingo numbers in Latin so the Protestants couldn’t win.” With no TV, Urban grew up listening to Don Messer’s Jubilee on the radio and making up stories and parlor music with his family. And he just never stopped, entertaining everywhere and everybody on the island mostly for free, in community halls, clubs and kitchens. In 1990 Urban set some sort of record playing at eleven benefits on St. Patrick’s Day. And this from a man who likes to say: “I’m not clinically lazy but I’ll get out of doin’ what I can.”
I doubt that Urban ever thought much about the rule of comedy - seeing what everybody sees and handing it back to them with your own cockeyed spin on it. But he used it like he cooked up that recipe himself. In his high boyish voice with the strong East Coast dialect, Urban ponders the ordinary with an extraordinary eye for the obvious.
“I’m watchin’ one of them old war movies,” he begins, “and was wonderin’ why those Japanese Kamikaze pilots always wore helmets.” It takes a second to see it his way and then yeah, helmets have never been proven to save lives on suicide missions.
“And I’m in the grocery store and I’m lookin’ through the dairy section and I’m wonderin’ who the fella was that put the ‘best before date’ on the sour cream.”
“And I’m in Stedman’s lookin’ for a Valentine’s Day card and I came across one that read: “I love you only. Be my Valentine.” And they were sellin’ them ‘five for a dollar’.”
“So crooked,” he says of one lawyer, “the man could sleep on a corkscrew.” “So crooked he could follow you into a revolvin’ door and walk out ahead of you.”
Homespun down east humour is never better on stage than when Urban, with his battered guitar, performs songs he or his father wrote about “fishin’, fightin’, getting’ tight and starin’ at the sky.”
Urban Carmichael is the island, his songs and stories epitomizing a place with a past of poverty and sadness that somehow survived on potatoes, fish and a skewed sense of humour.
Nothing puts the history and humour of Prince Edward Island into proper perspective like the true story Urban tells about the night the circuit doctor was called to a remote farmhouse where the wife was about to give birth.
The only man of medicine for all of Queens and Kings counties, the doctor arrived to find a nervous group of neighbours and the pregnant woman laid out on the kitchen table by a local midwife with blankets, towels and hot water nearby. The problem was it was pitch black and the farm had no electricity. The farmer down the road was quickly summoned and he pulled his tractor right up to the kitchen window with the headlights trained on the table. Soon enough the woman gave birth to a baby boy and the midwife cleaned and bundled him up when all of a sudden there’s great commotion back at the table. The doctor raced back in just in time to receive a second baby emerging in the headlights of the idling tractor. Twins! No sooner was the second baby washed and swathed than more yellin' in the kitchen brought the doctor on the run and yet another baby come crying into the world. Triplets!
It was then that an old timer in the group hollered: “For gawdsakes, turn off the tractor... I think it’s the light that’s attractin’ them!”
As one family friend once said: “He could make a dog laugh.”
Sadly, I’ve never met Urban Carmichael, just stumbled across his life’s work during a week in PEI last fall. And what a wonderful discovery it was - Urban being a true national treasure that far too many Canadians never got to enjoy.
Urban is not well. And those PEI benefits that he used to star in, now honor him. “I’m stubborn and I’m holdin’ my own,” he said in a recent interview.
“I’m within field goal range of taking it all the way, spiritually,” he says. The angels do not know what they’re in for, Urban.
William Thomas is the author of seven books of humour including Never Hitchhike On The Road Less Travelled. Signed copies of his books are available at www.williamthomas.ca