A man and a woman holding nhands, while in a sailboat

Denise Wolda (Part 2 of 2): Coming home to Cortes Island

The course of Denise Larson’s life took a radical change in 1983, when she and two of her band members came to Merville. They were professional musicians promoting her third record. It was nice to get out of Vancouver, but Denise did not have any expectations of a small dance in the Merville Hall. Then Ron Wolda walked into her life. She had actually met him two years earlier in Courtenay, but at that time they both had other partners. Now they were single. Ron sat himself down beside her at the dinner being given for the musicians. The next morning, Ron took her out to see the home he built beside the ocean.  

Photo by Darshan Alexander Stevens Photography

Click here to access Denise Wolda (Part 1 of 2): From Farmer’s Daughter to Professional Musician

“We’re married three months later and I haven’t had to pay rent since. I’m very happy for many reasons, not just that one,” she said. 

“Ron is a phenomenon really. I’m not the only one who would say that. He’s just endless energy.  I’m 76, he’s 75: his energy is still just remarkable, as is his strength. That said, he agrees that it’s time to slow down a little and think a little more about other things like sailboats, but we would not be on Cortes Island and we would not live in a nice big house that he’s built were it not for Ron and  his hard work ethic. He’s from Holland. It’s got something to do with it. He’s a great fellow, and I certainly never regretted that he asked me to marry him, and I said yes.”

“He has made a good life for us, and I’ve certainly done my part, but together we’ve made a good team.” 

CC: How does music fit into your new life? Is Ron supportive? 

“ He was a great fan right from day one.  He has always supported me to keep it up. So I continued to write, and when I moved to Cortes, you can imagine how totally inspiring Cortes Island is to a singer, to a songwriter. I don’t have to make my living at it anymore. I have the luxury of playing for fundraisers, for the joy of it and hopefully for the appreciation of people, and without worrying about that.”

“I love our home, my life and everything about Cortes. I love the community. I love people’s commitments to feeding themselves as best they can. We have two big gardens.  We were blessed enough to get the old orchard site on Tiber Bay where Henry and Rose Tiber used to pick the fruit.  We pick from trees that started growing over a hundred years ago.”

Ron and Denise Wolda have been residents of the eco-community at Tiber Bay since 1994, but their connection to Cortes Island is two decades older. 

Denise’s sister and brother-in-law, Wendy and George Hermanson, bought into the Frabjous Day Bay Co-op in 1974. They brought Denise up to view the property.

Ten years later, when the Hermansons started to build a cottage, the Woldas came over to help out. Ron came across the newly formed Tiber Bay Co-op when he was looking for a mill to cut up some of the logs. He and Denise bought the property where they now live, but Merville continued to be their principal residence for another decade.

Another important chapter of Denise’s life opened after they became full time Cortes Island residents.   

While the two had not connected when they both lived in Vancouver, Ann Mortifee was a major thread in her life. Denise was living in the United States prior to the release of ‘The Ecstasy of Rita Jo’ in 1973. 

“These were songs written by Ann Mortifee. I was enthralled with her voice and her spirit. I thought if there’s someone like that in Vancouver, then it’s the place for me.”

However the two women did not meet when they were both living in Vancouver. 

“ Anne was already so famous. Our paths did not automatically cross. There were close encounters. Her piano player played on my Sage album. There were things like that, but I still hadn’t met her.

“Ron and I moved from Merville to Cortes Island in 1994 and he began building  our home.”  

“Anne had come to Hollyhock and was giving a workshop and Ron persuaded me to go.”

“Now, I fought him on it.”  

“He said, ‘Why don’t you want to go?’” 

“And I said, ‘Because I love her and she might not even see me!’ 

(She laughed) 

“But I went, she saw me and we connected. About a week later, she had decided she was going to move to Cortes Island and bring her son, who was my son’s age. A year later she was my next door neighbour. She bought into Tiber Bay when a site became available.” 

“We are closest friends now. We’ve done quite a lot of performing together and some writing together.  She has a part in my coming back to Canada because I was sort of led by her voice.”

“In that album, ‘The Ecstasy of Rita Jo,’ Paul Horn plays the flute. That’s when they first met, then way down the road, they got together. And so Paul Horn ends up living next door as well. The other part of this original sound, Anne’s voice, Paul’s flute, drew me to Canada, and then the two of them were living next door to me. They were together for about ten years. Paul passed on about nine years ago.” 

CC: Tell us about your music after you moved to Cortes Island.

DW: “About 20 years ago, I put out a CD called To Honour Joy.”

“I wrote the Linnea School Play songs for 15 years.” 

“The Linnaea School was an alternative school on the island (1987-2010) and it had a wonderful principal by the name of Donna Bracewell. Every year she would adopt a script from one of the classics, for example, the Ramayana, Scheherazade, King Arthur. She would adapt a script so that every child in the school, which was about 60 usually, had a part. Donna would do this over her Christmas holiday. She was such a hard worker.” 

“I would get the script at the beginning of January, and in about a week, I would write about nine songs. Then I would, a week later, go in and teach them to the kids. The whole thing was so intense and so incredibly much fun. We were all so serious about it. You would have thought we were on Broadway in New York City. Two months after I had written the songs, we were on the stage in the Gorge Hall. The tickets would be sold in hours,  not kidding. Lots of grandmothers, but not just grandmothers.” 

“The costumes were out of this world. Meinsje Vlaming was responsible for the orchestration of the costumes. She did much of the work, and she also had the parents involved. I mean, all the parents were involved.” 

“Certainly all the children were involved. To this day those kids are still walking up to me as adults and saying how those songs are still playing in their heads, you know, it’s quite marvellous and it was a wonderful opportunity.” 

“It was a lot of work because  I also made CDs and other people made DVDs from the productions.  I’ve got about seven plays that are packaged to be used by others, if need be. There were about seven different productions that I wrote the music for and this went over a period of about 15 years. Finally the Linnaea School closed, after Donna moved away.”

“At that point I did a little bit of singing in the public school.”

“I don’t have as much contact with those kids now that they’re grown up.”

CC: You recently did a song share with two of those kids who are now musicians themselves. Was Jemma Hicken one of your students?

DW: “Jemma was one of the students who learned  the songs from at least two of those productions and Josie Simpson remembers me coming into the public school. That’s very satisfying, I love it, and  I always love to claim that I’m the reason that they perform, and they’re polite about that.“

“There’s something else I really did want to talk about. Both my children are musical. Mikael (Larson) has a beautiful voice and writes. Paul (Wolda)’s a great musician, he’s done a lot of touring. He’s back on Cortes now and people know him as a percussionist, but he also has a great voice, and he writes.”

“It gives me great joy to hear them. There’s something lovely about this to me, because music is so nebulous, and yet if you see it in your children as well, then it  feels like it’s in the genes and there’s something physically real about it.”

“I wanted to talk a little about the current musical scene on Cortes. This is very different from when I moved here 30 years ago. There were always musicians on the island, but the getting together and the sense of there actually being a Cortes Island musical scene did not exist, as far as I’m concerned, until Rex Weyler and Rick Bockner did the initial and maybe the bulk of the work to get this ball rolling. Lovefest has been so important and the beautiful Hollyhock Lodge coffeehouse that happens over the winter, which gives us a place to be musicians in the wintertime as well.”

“This summer there’s a real musical happening. Lots of events in the Mansons area. It’s just lovely. And to me, of course, all of this and especially Lovefest feels so familiar. It’s like the old days when I was doing the folk festivals back in the 70s and 80s.  It’s wonderful to see it springing up here and to be able to be in community with people who are expressing their essence as you do as a musician.  We have the communion with the audiences, but it’s nice to have communication with each other.”

“The ‘song share’ August 6 at Manson’s was a great example of musicians getting together and sharing with each other as songwriters at the same time that they are sharing and presenting their songs to the audience, that was a great little venue.”

CC: I want to go back to your career. Even though you are no longer dependent on your music to make a living, you still get paid for some performances. 

DW: “Whenever I do get paid, I buy very special things with that money, that I can keep and look at.” 

“Well, I played at Seafest and made $50 a while back and I bought an amazing pendant that’s called a prayer pendant and the message with it was ‘Amazing Grace.’  It’s a connection with my mother who is now on the other side. When I saw it in the store back in Saskatchewan, I knew that that was what that money was meant for.”

“I got something from playing at the Hollyhock Lodge Coffeehouse on March 18. Anne and I played together, and my son Paul played percussion. I took that money and bought the shawl I’m wearing, as a matter of fact. Melissa had shawls that had just come in from Turkey. They’re not even labeled. This beautiful shawl is the last thing I bought with money earned from music.” 

“I’m so glad that I had the inner wisdom to pay attention to the poems and the songs that started to come when I was just a little kid in the hills and to really go with my passion and to not be afraid of the lack of practicality of it.” 

“My deepest satisfactions have come from the fact that I’ve stayed in touch with that side of myself, stayed in touch with the muse and with spirit. I’m deeply grateful for that.  It’s just built slowly over the years, from being 12 to being 76. Even though I’m not in the business anymore, I would still say the songs grow.”

Music credits for the podcast:

  • ‘Feel the Island’ from the CD ‘To Honour Joy’ (2001)- Ann Mortifee – back-up Vocals, Mark Dowding – flutes, Charlie Knowles – Bass, (Denise & Ron’s son) Paul Wolda – Djembe (ending), Zak Dennison – didjeridu (ending)
  • ‘No One Child’ – Mikael Larson – harmony vocals, Bruce Hipkin – key-boards
  • ‘Performance’ – Lachlan Clement on guitar

Top image credit: Ron and Denise Wolda on their sailboat – submitted photo

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