When Coal was King
at Boardmore Playhouse,
Cape Breton University,
Sydney, Cape Breton
(11 October 2005)

Tuesday, the first day of semi-nice weather at Celtic Colours 2005, found us Sydney-bound. Cape Breton University played host to a varied array of talent in "When Coal was King."

While Wagmatcook's "Bards & Ballads" show has 'til now been an annual tradition in my selection of CC destinations, the presence of the Men of the Deeps on the CBU playbill -- the group's only appearance at the festival this week -- was an irresistible draw in the other direction.

Bushy-bearded Wally MacAulay, a former coalminer turned singer-songwriter, got the show rolling with a rough-hewn version of "Little Beggarman." Hunched over his instrument, he played guitar like the instrument was fighting back.

Wally sang songs he'd written about his grandfather, himself a lifelong coalminer, and a homeless man who'd begged for precisely enough money to buy his friend some bread. With earnest lyrics, Wally's gravelly vocals have a bit of grit from a hard day's labor or a long walk down a dusty road. He ended his portion of the show with "Fathers & Sons," a song about the family business of carpentry.

Next, Kathryn Tickell introduced her style of music from the coalmining region of Britain's Northumberland. Kathryn, proficient on both fiddle and Northumbrian small pipes, was supported by guitarist Ian Stephenson, fiddler Peter Tickell and Julian Sutton on melodeon.

The Northumbrian pipes skirl with a mellower sound than their Highland counterparts. After some livelier tunes, Tickell proved their emotional power with a solo lament inspired by her grandfather, who worked in the pits.

Then Tickell swapped pipes for fiddle, demonstrating handily that, while more famous for her piping, she's certainly no slouch with a bow and strings. Tickell obviously could give up either instrument and remain a star on the strength of just one.

But it was the third portion of Tuesday's concert that pulled me to Sydney, and the Men of the Deeps did not let me down. The men, uniformly dressed in blue-grey coveralls, mounted the stage with headlamps ablaze, the lights playing over the walls and the faces in the crowd as they sang "30 Inch Coal."

Led by conductor Jack O'Donnell, the only non-miner in the group, the choir put out a lively, deeply moving show celebrating the good times and bad times of a miner's life. Not all of the songs were mine-centric, however; "Matthew's Voyage," for instance, was about the ship that brought John Cabot to the Maritimes for the very first time.

The choir included 25 singing miners, some of whom also played instruments: two guitars, a bass, a harmonica, mandolin, banjo and piano, usually played one or two at a time, or not at all when the group sang a cappella. Thumbs hooked behind the broad black belts that was a part of each man's uniform, Men of the Deeps sang songs including "Immigrant Eyes," "Coal Town Road," "No. 26 Mine Disaster" and "Down Among the Coal." Whether in full chorus or solo voice, the group never failed to raise goosebumps when they sang about danger and death in the mines.

It was 1720 when the North American coalmining industry got its start in Cape Breton. "The Ballad of Joe Hill" was preceded by a narrative story detailing the life of the union organizer's life and legacy. The men stood in a loose formation on dark risers, clutching their belts and many of them bouncing or swaying as they sang. One imposingly large member of the group interjected a bit of humor into the proceedings, spinning yarns and telling jokes couched as a bit of history about mining communities.

The light-hearted song "Are You from Bevin" raised spirits, while "A Mining Town No More" brought them low. "Coal is King Again" celebrated the resurgence of mining that followed the oil crisis in the 1970s; "Who knows, maybe coal will be king again," O'Donnell said, noting the similarity of conditions today.

While not as atmospherically spectacular as a performance I saw in Whitney Pier's gorgeous Holy Redeemer Church a few years back, the CBU concert was every bit as moving. Of note, several founding members of the choir in 1966 are still performing now, including the group's oldest member, Johnny MacLeod, who couldn't resist a bit of stepdancing during the show and whose son, Nipper MacLeod, is also a featured performer of the Men.

"We're probably the only choir in the world for whom the second requirement is an ability to sing," the conductor quipped. First and foremost, he explained, is actual coal-mining experience.

The men are all doctors, he added, noting that CBU had honored the entire group some years back with honorary degrees.

"Who are They?" was a recitation of a poetic ode to the profession. For "A Working Man I Am," the miners reignited their headlamps, creating a sea of lights in the darkness. Following a standing ovation, the group closed the show with "Their Lights will Shine," memorializing 26 miners slain in a devastating accident in 1992, and "Rise Again," a song of immense optimism, hope sustained through children and songs.

It was impossible to leave Tuesday's performance without feeling a little dread for a life spent digging for coal, as well as admiration for those who performed the needed work despite the many hardships. The Men of the Deeps are an inspiration, proving that it is indeed possible to rise again.

by Tom Knapp
19 November 2005