A new CD featuring 90 year old protest songs written by steelworkers and coal miners and set to new music by contemporary Cape Breton songwriters will be launched on Wednesday, November 23, 4pm to 6pm at the Lyceum, Centre for Cape Breton Heritage and Science, George Street, Sydney.
Cape Breton Island Protest Songs was produced and released by The Centre for Cape Breton Studies at Cape Breton University and features, among others, former coal miner and Men of the Deepssinger, Nipper MacLeod, various members of the Tom Fun Orchestra, Slowcoaster, Lady Slippers, Crowdis Bridge, singer/songwriters Carolyn Lionais, Breagh MacKinnon and Vic Tomiczek, fiddler Colin Grant, and CBU professors Chris MacDonald, Richard MacKinnon and Garry Leech.
Richard MacKinnon, Canada Research Chair in Intangible History and head of the Cape Breton Studies centre, says the recording project came about when he wrote an article for the scholarly journal, Ethnologies, on Cape Breton Island protest songs a couple of years ago.
“That article was re-drafted and included as a chapter in my book, Discovering Cape Breton Folklore,” MacKinnon says. “When I wrote the article I could only discuss 7 or 8 of the songs because of space limitations. Later, I began thinking that we have the facility to do audio and music recording with the Digitization Lab and the Rotary Music Room and I thought it might be a good idea to see if musicians were interested in this idea. I discussed it with Vic Tomiczek and he was excited about the idea and began talking this over with his fellow Cape Breton musicians.”
“Most appeared in the Maritime Labor Herald, a left-wing newspaper published in Glace Bay from 1922-1926 supported by leaders such as James B. MacLachlan. The only one that wasn’t written in the 1920s is one written by Vic Tomiczek, ‘Picket Line’, in 2008 about his father, a well-known trade unionist. The song fits in well with the songs of an earlier generation and shows that this song tradition has continued into the present,” MacKinnon notes.
Tomiczek recalls the process of selecting the material: “We went through the collection of about 150 poems and whittled it down to a workable number, then asked a bunch of our musical friends if they would be interested in participating. Much to our pleasant surprise, most of the musicians we contacted were very excited to lend their talent.”
The actual recording took place at the Centre’s recording studio at CBU during the winter and early spring of this year.
“The best part of the entire project for me was listening to the varied interpretations for the first time,” Tomiczek says. “We gave the musicians carte blanche to create whatever type of music they felt was appropriate and thus we’ve compiled a very diverse record. In choosing the poems, I tried to find something that resonated with my ideas of the songwriter, but of course I couldn’t have imagined the type of song that would result. Needless to say, I was blown away. We have such an amazing pool of talent on the island.”
MacKinnon hopes the CD will help Cape Bretoners understand and get interested in Cape Breton’s labour history.
“I have heard that many of the musicians are now playing some of the tunes in their sets. That’s great because, in a sense, it breathes new life into these 90 year old songs and allows the tradition to continue,” MacKinnon says. “The songs show that our forefathers and mothers on Cape Breton Island had to struggle to achieve many things we often take for granted; unions, the eight hour work day, pensions, a fair work place, a fair wage all had to be fought for by workers and their families. I have learned through these songs that the 1920s was an extremely difficult period to live in Cape Breton Island.”
Targett says the website, even in advance of the official launch of the CD, has been been getting a lot of online visitors.
“People have been sharing it all over Facebook, which is how about half of all visitors are finding their way to the site, i.e., from their friends’ recommendation,” Targett explains. “We can also see from the web traffic that people are taking their time on the site, on each time they visit, and they’re looking around…the website affords them the opportunity to learn about the stories behind the songs. Everything from the bios of the contemporary performers, to the historical context in which the lyrics arose. The project itself is about making a connection between these two things (the performers of today, and the songs of the past), and the website hopefully extends that potential for connection to the wider community.”
MacKinnon has hopes for creating similar projects in the future.
“There are still lots of great songs that deserve to be recorded,” he says. “There are also lots of great songwriters in Cape Breton Island. Many Nova Scotia unions have seen the value in this project and have supported us to allow this project to proceed. Unions such as the Cape Breton District Labour Council, Canadian Labour Congress, Canadian Staff Union, PSAC, NSGEU, Atlantic Canadian CAW and the Halifax/Dartmouth District Labour Council made this project happen. I have to give thanks to Tony Tracy of the Canadian Labour Congress, Halifax, who was instrumental in getting support fort our cd. Other support came from Canada Research Chair program, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Cape Breton University.”
The launch at the Lyceum will be broadcast live on CBC Cape Breton’s Mainstreet program and is also open to the general public free of charge. Copies of the CDs are available for sale at $15.00 at the launch and can also be purchased at the Cape Breton Curiosity Shop, Charlotte Street, Sydney.