One of the most popular folk trios of the 1960s was The Raftsmen, formed around Montreal natives Louis Leroux and Marvin Burke when they began playing together. They lured Toronto native Martin Overland from his group The Strangers, which also consisted of his sister Arlene and Leon Segal, at the beginning of the decade while they were playing the hottest clubs in Montreal.
With Leroux and Overland on guitar and banjo, and Burke handling percussion, they soon became staples on the folk circuit, enjoying long stints at The El Morocco and Bellevue Casino in Montreal, and the One Two Club in Toronto. Before long were making their way across the border to New York, and across Canada on regular trips with the likes of The Travellers, Ian & Sylvia, and Joan Baez.
They scored a deal with RCA with American distribution through Camden, and released their debut album, the Marcel Leblanc-produced DOWN IN THE VALLEY. It sparked a succession of albums with songs that over the next few years defined a genre and the times, like the title track, their cover of Woodie Guthrie’s timeless classic, “This Land Is Your Land,” “Shenandoah,” and the patriotic heart-string tugging “Something To Sing About.” Released on Apex Records and written by Oscar Brand, The Raftsmen made it a hit across the country leading up to the Canadian centennial in ’67.
The 1963 album recorded in Montreal, A NIGHT AT LE PAVILLON, went on to be considered a seminal live folk performance. Their album for the Canadian Talent Library that same year was for all intents and purposes a greatest hits compilation, capturing some of their biggest hits and most versatile recordings. “This Land Is Your Land,” Roy Rogers’ “Cool Water” (penned by Canadian Bob Nolan,” and the traditional prairies classic “Red River Valley” covered the more traditional aspects of North American folk music. But the record also contained an array of world influenced folk numbers, including “I Went To Market” (translated from one of the oldest bi-lingual tunes from Quebec), “the Ukrainian “Aye Te Tze Nye Te,” the Irish inspired “Kelligree’s Soiree,” and the BC classic, “Frozen Logger.”
Collectively, the played 15 different instruments, and sang songs in 13 languages. They played across North America during their tenure, and were staples on the folk circuit. But by ’66, Overland and Burke left and became session players.
For a couple of years, Leroux carried on with Guy Pilette, and in an effort to expand their sound, Donal Steven, who’d already made a name for himself as a 12 string guitarist and arranger. They adopted the name The New Raftsmen, and before long, changed it to The Raftsmen III. They toured constantly throughout eastern North America, and had a top 40 hit covering Gordon Lightfoot‘s “The Hands I Love.” Their only album, ON TARGET, featured Leroux writing many of the numbers, but also contained another Lightfoot classic, “Early Morning Rain.”
After the band finally folded for good before the end of the decade, Leroux toured with Nana Mouskouri for the better part of the next ten years, then became a highly respected Latin guitar player in session work, and then released a pair of instrumental solo albums. He also became a highly sought-after guitar teacher. Pilette moved to Florida and played around there, mostly at church and the occasional gig.
As folk music benefitted from the occasional revival over the decades, The Raftsmen found themselves on the occasional compilation album, with “Eating Goober Peas” and “This Land Is Your Land” making it to many of them. Overland and Burke both passed away – Overland in the late 1990s, Burke in the mid ’00s.