Songs of Work & Protest
at Our Lady of Fatima Church,
Sydney River, Cape Breton
(9 October 2012)

After an 8-inch Canadian -- no jokes, please -- pizza and bruschetta at the Yellow Cello in Baddeck, we got turned around after clearing Kelly's Mountain and confused by the various Sydneys (North Sydney, Sydney Mines and Sydney itself) before finally finding Sydney River and Our Lady of Fatima Church, where Songs of Work & Protest was already moving along.

We arrived to the standing-room-only performance just in time to hear a lone member of the Men of the Deeps sing "Dirty Danny," all 11 verses, about a harsh company policeman and the poor worker arrested for picking a piece of kindling from the ground.

The first half of the show involved a diverse selection of talent from Cape Breton, all young songwriters and composers who sampled poetry published in the 1920s in a labor newspaper printed during the mining struggles of that era. The songwriters -- Ben Furey, Colin Grant, Albert Lionais, Carolyn Lionais, Ian MacDougall, Breagh Mackinnon, Shane O'Handley and Victor Tomiczek -- put those words to music in a year-long project sponsored by the Centre for Cape Breton Studies, creating new protest songs from lyrics borrowed from the past.

Those songs, recently released in a special CD package, were presented in concert form for the first time this evening, and although I missed the first few selections, the remainder of the show was a treat. The stories were stirring, the music exemplary and the historical tie-in for the show made it all the more memorable. The songs were presented in a shifting lineup that kept the performance fresh and handily showcased the performers' diverse vocal styles.

The second half of tonight's show was a high point on the Celtic Colours schedule: Men of the Deeps, a chorus of active and former miners that has been singing together for close on five decades. I've seen them before, at past festivals, and I was looking forward to seeing them again.

They did not, of course, disappoint. They never do.

Two dozen strong, they entered the mostly darkened room, headlamps blazing and wearing the clothes of their trade, to enthusiastic applause, and they immediately launched into one of the group's trademark songs, "30-Inch Coal." It is, as assistant director Stephen Muise remarked, the second requirement of this chorus that its members are able to sing. The first is that the have worked in or around the mines for at least two years.

The chorus was formed in 1966, coinciding with the opening of the Cape Breton Miners' Museum in Glace Bay. Some of its current members were with them from the start, including director Jack O'Donnell.

They are, he noted, the only North American coalminer's chorus, although they do have some peers in Europe.

Some of their songs are fast and fun, others slow and despairing, drawn from an endless cycle of work, with no hope for something better. All are steeped in the history of Cape Breton's coalmining culture, and their presentation here carried an emotional punch. But, as serious and, in some cases, tragic as their selections were, the concert was presented with rough and ready good humor and, despite the subject matter, some of the songs were filled with a rousing sense of hope.

Jackie MacQueen sang the popular selection "Rise Again," a tune the chorus had sung many times with Raylene Rankin, whose recent death was strongly felt at the festival this week. The finale, "Working Man," brought the earlier troupe of songwriters back for more, and their harmonies added exciting layers to the song. O'Handley's gravelly voice was especially fine here, and the miners paid tribute to the younger generation by loaning several of them headlamps for the song, which they seemed proud to wear.

It was another moving night.

review by
Tom Knapp

1 December 2012

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