Bennett made you feel he was on a spiritual and artistic search

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Folksinger Willie P. Bennett was a Juno Award winner and one of Canadas finest writers of folksongs.

Folksinger Willie P. Bennett was a Juno Award winner and one of Canadas finest writers of folksongs.

He began his career back in the 70s, and though he never achieved renown commensurate with his talent, aficionados have long ranked him with Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan as seminal influences on folk music in this country.

His songs, which blended country, blues and folk music, were often covered by other artists.

Back in 1995, Colin Linden, Tom Wilson and Stephen Fearing, well established Toronto performers all influenced by Bennett, formed a kind of Bennett cover band (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) named after one of the songwriters better known songs.

Other famous Bennett songs included Music in Your Eyes, Down to the Water, and Come on Train.

Since 1995, he had been a mandolin and harmonica sideman in Fred Eaglesmiths band, The Flying Squirrels.

In 1998, Bennett released a solo album, Heartstrings, which won him a Juno Award for Roots and Traditional Solo. The album boasted such top drawer guest artists as Cockburn, Prairie Oyster, Amos Garrett, and the late Graham Townsend.

Bennett died late last week at his home in Peterborough. He was 56.

Its an understatement to say Ill miss him, said musician Sneezy Waters, who played with Bennett in the 1970s.

He had such a way of turning a phrase - and hed go lyrically to places that I hadnt heard anyone else go. And he was such a driver with that guitar and that harmonica. What he could do just blew so many people away.

Only his fellow musicians had any clue about how good a teacher Bennett was, Waters said.

I remember, after concerts, sometimes asking him questions about writing, and in about half a sentence, hed be right in it, talking in language I could understand and really knowing how to address Sneezys brain and sensibilities. Without even trying, he was a mentor.

Juno Award winner Lynn Miles said Bennett absolutely ranks up with Cockburn and all the other leaders from the 70s. I learned so much about songwriting and singing from him. He treated profound subjects in very simple and clear ways and his singing was very free and very strong.

His work made you feel he was on a spiritual and artistic search.

Bennett had suffered a heart attack last summer, but seemed to be nicely on the mend, said Paul Monette, who sings under the name Lonesome Paul.

Monette, a friend of Bennetts for the past decade, attended a concert Bennett gave several weeks ago at the National Library and spoke with him backstage afterwards.

He was laughing and seemed in fine form, great spirits. I had no sense that there was anything wrong with him at all.

Monette said Bennett incarnated the idea of the Canadian singer-songwriter as well as anyone.

In the folk world, he was just a bright light. I remember seeing him standing on a hill at a folk festival - and he just embodied the singer-songwriter spirit, the kind of person youd like to sit around a fire with and exchange songs and stories.

Organizations: Roots, National Library

Geographic location: Toronto, Peterborough

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