A Life's Story
June 18, 2022
Barberâs love of Manitoba prairie lives on in family and song
By: Jim Timlick
Try as he might sometimes, Del Barber can’t shake the voice in the back of his head when he is working on a new song.
Truth be told, the Manitoba-born and Juno nominated singer/songwriter probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
That’s because the voice he hears belongs to his dad, Boyd, who died last September at the age of 72.
A talented musician in his own right, Boyd was a huge influence on Del and his music. In fact, it was Boyd who taught Del to play guitar and the duo were constantly writing songs together, many of which made their way onto albums such as Del’s much-praised Prairieography.
“I can’t imagine I would be a songwriter without him,” the younger Barber says. “I can’t imagine I’ll ever be able to shake his ability to tell me when I didn’t have it right… or how much his favourite songs mattered to him.
“To this day, I can’t really write anything without thinking about what he would think. His voice is still in my head, 100 per cent. It’s consistently haunting, for better or worse. Mostly, I love it. It’s a pretty careful, guiding and wise perspective. He had a pretty direct way of talking and I agree with him. It’s allowed me to figure out how to write about other people’s worries and tap into those images and characters. I pretty much owe him everything for that.”
Boyd Barber’s own story reads like something out of one of the seemingly endless supply of rootsy songs he was always writing.
He was born in Brandon on Oct. 25, 1948, to parents John Raymond and Betty Jean Barber. As a youngster, he and his parents and his six siblings (Allison, Molly, Kitty, Deidre, Dixon and John) moved to Hoyt Lakes, Minn., where his dad landed a job as an electrician with the Erie Mining Company.
Boyd used to return to Manitoba every summer to spend time with family in the Carberry area, something Del says inspired his dad’s love of the Canadian prairies.
After graduating from Aurora High School in Minnesota, Boyd moved back to Manitoba. The war in Vietnam had begun and his family urged him to return north to avoid being drafted by the American military as many of his classmates had been.
It’s a memory that haunted Barber for the rest of his life.
“I don’t think anyone from his high school class survived Vietnam.” Del says. “The graveyard in Minnesota is full of his high school classmates.
“We visited many times in Hoyt Lakes. It was pretty emotional for my dad to go back. My dad felt a strange sense of guilt that he didn’t fight, but he was also proud of the fact that he didn’t go.”
That sense of guilt, and a lack of other career options at the time, prompted Boyd to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy in the late 1960s. He was serving on the HMCS Kootenay in 1969 when it suffered a massive explosion while on an exercise off the coast of the United Kingdom. That explosion, and the ensuing fire, killed nine crew members and injured 53 others including Barber. It remains the worst peacetime accident in the history of the Canadian navy.
While the physical wounds from the incident would eventually fade, the emotional scars Boyd suffered lingered for many years.
“My dad suffered from pretty severe post-traumatic stress. Sometimes I’d come home late at night and I’d hear screaming in the house and it would be my dad having night terrors,” Del recalls.
“Eventually, my dad and his shipmates started to talk to one another about what happened, with the advent of Facebook and the internet. They all started sharing these stories and the issues they were having. It was an amazing sort of therapeutic group in a way and it allowed my dad to finally get a proper diagnosis.”
After leaving the navy, Boyd moved to Wisconsin where he met his wife, Jean Doucha, and they were later married in Winnipeg in 1975. The couple had two children, Del and his older sister Rachel, and they were married for 46 years prior to his passing. They loved to travel across the country together and vacations were often scheduled around concerts and music festivals.
Although Boyd enjoyed a good time, Del says his dad had one of the most solid work ethics of anyone he’s ever known.
He earned his ticket as a journeyman industrial mechanic and worked as a millwright at a number of different job sites over the years including the Cullaton Lake Gold Mine in Nunavut, Versatile, the Behavioural Health Foundation, Health Sciences Centre and Temro Industries.
Despite the long, hard hours he worked, Barber’s commitment to his family was never in question.
“I think both my mom and my dad were tenacious workers, but were also pretty focused on being parents,” Del says. “My dad was always around to bring me to hockey practice or baseball or band or choir. There was absolutely no question of his commitment to us. I’m hoping that’s one of the things I get from him for my own kids’ sake.”
Chris Toews first met Boyd at a rally behind the Manitoba legislature in 1968. They soon became fast friends, a friendship that would endure for more than 50 years. They would often get together to play guitars or discuss events of the day. Despite his blue-collar background, Toews calls Boyd one of the deepest thinkers he ever met.
“When you go into a conversation with most people, it’s often pretty light-duty. With Boyd it was usually quite deep and intellectual and I think that’s why we enjoyed getting together,” he recalls. “He loved to discuss complicated issues. It was always very interesting.”
Toews also remembers his friend’s generosity. One day he was working in his garage when Barber showed up out of the blue. He presented him with a brand-new, $800 electric guitar that Toews still has to this day.
“That’s just the way he was. He was such a generous guy,” he says.
Those who knew Boyd also fondly recall his ability to crack people up, even in the darkest moments. Del remembers one such conversation with his dad shortly after he was diagnosed with lung cancer about six months before his death.
“When he first got his cancer diagnosis he told me, ‘I guess I won’t be buying any green bananas,’” he says, laughing. “He always wanted to make us laugh. He had this sense of humour where he could balance the comic and the tragic.”
Although he never pursued a professional music career, there were few things in life Boyd was more passionate about than music. Del says one of his favourite musical memories of his dad was when he and a group of fellow musicians performed at his and his wife Haylan’s wedding.
As for that voice in his head, it’s not likely going away any time soon. Del has a binder full of songs that his dad had been working on before his illness from which he continues to cull ideas.
“His perspective (as a songwriter) was so needed. He was a working-class guy who was extremely bright and well-read. He understood character and how to create a great image though words and melody. That’s the type of song I want to hear and something he championed.”