John Goss: Baritone, Art Advocate, Politician, and Marxist

Winn Tribune Jan 28, 1933.jpgJohn Goss (1894-1953) was an Englishman by birth, but for most of his later years, he made Vancouver his home. In the 1920s and ’30s, Goss toured in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada as a recital singer, gradually building a reputation as a world-class baritone.

Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities at the beginning of the Second World War, Goss was in Canada and found himself stuck here for the war’s duration. During those years, Goss toured across the country, but Vancouver was his home base.

He opened the John Goss Studio at 641 Granville Street and built on his reputation as a baritone to become a notable singing instructor. A choral group performed in the Greater Vancouver area under the name of the John Goss Studio Singers. screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-7-35-18-pmHe also received positive reviews for roles he played in local theatrical productions (playing the composer Schubert, for example, in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Blossom Time in 1942). In 1949, in fact, Goss accepted a verbal offer from the principal of the BC Institute of Music and Drama (BCIMD) – which was connected with the Theatre Under the Stars – to join BCIMD as a faculty member.

Goss was also political. As early as 1941, he spoke out at the Canadian Federation of Music Teachers’ Associations, urging amateur musicians to “organize to avoid this ‘sweated labor’ by various well-meaning organizations which offer artists nothing more than a cup of tea in return for their services” (11 July 1941 Lethbridge Herald).

In 1944, he ran as a candidate for the Parks Board as a member of the Labour-Progressive Party (the legal political party of Canadian Communists from 1943 to 1959). His platform advocated that a civic centre be built, that city parks be beautified, and that more libraries be established. He came in dead last among candidates. He ran in the B.C. provincial election the following year (in the posh Point Grey riding no less), and while he didn’t come in very last that time, he garnered less than 1% of votes cast.

Starting in 1944, he co-founded and later became president of a new organization called the Labor Arts Guild. The Guild was intended to promote interest in the arts among labour and interest in labour’s struggle among artists. A number of the members of the first executive of the Guild were members of the Labour-Progressive Party.

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“Aircraft Worker”. 1st Prize in BC at Work exhibition (1944?). This sculpture is still on display at the Museum of Vancouver. Author’s photo.

The Guild sponsored a number of ‘people’s concerts’. Its most notable achievement, however, was the mounting of two juried art exhibitions (in 1944 and 1945) titled British Columbia at Work. There was a single criterion for inclusion in BC at Work: the celebration of labour.

In 1949, Goss was evicted from the U.S. while in New York at a peace conference. The FBI made noises about Goss being a Communist sympathizer. He returned to Vancouver where he was under the impression that he had a job with the BCIMD faculty. Wrong. The BCIMD, together with many others in the city were not interested in a ‘Communist’ joining the staff of the Theatre Under the Stars group. There was no written contract between the board and Goss, and the Board made it clear that he could forget about working with BCIMD.

Goss left Vancouver for England the following year, with his reputation in tatters. He died there in 1953.

Selected Sources

  • Vancouver Art Gallery. Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931-1983, pp. 72-78.
  • Sutherland, Richard. Theatre Under the Stars: The Hilker Years. M. A. Thesis. 1993.

 

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