various artists,
Songs of the Wooden Boat
(Atlantica, 1996)

I planned to pick up lots of music at the Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, but I bought my first CD en route from Halifax to pass the time while driving -- and my spontaneous purchase was a fortunate choice.

I'd stopped in Sherbrooke (singing countless choruses of "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now" in my band's rendition of "Barrett's Privateers" made stopping in that small seaside village a necessity) for lunch and found a copy of Songs of the Wooden Boat in a shop nearby. The selection of Nova Scotian musicians and the theme of sailing intrigued me enough to choose it over a wide range of similarly themed CDs on the shelves. And, sure enough, Wooden Boat was played for quite a few hours over the next few days, and it wasn't long before I was picking favorite songs and trying to memorize the lyrics while I drove.

But, while the music is sterling throughout, the album fails as a good introduction to Nova Scotia's rich musical tradition. The liner notes are almost nonexistent, so if you're curious about the background of Spencer Dawe, the reviled protagonist in the Barra MacNeil's "Chase the Man," or who wrote Terry Kelly's song "Fogarty's Cove," you'll have to look elsewhere. (Stan Rogers wrote "Fogarty's Cove," FYI. I have no idea who Dawe was.)

The album, according to text on the back cover, "celebrates Nova Scotia's great romance with the sea and speaks of haunting legends, ghost ships, rumrunners and mermaids -- and of loves lost -- vibrant images of our colorful past and rich beginnings." It seemed logical to assume that liner notes would tell us a little bit about that wonderful heritage instead of making us look for it on our own. Omitting background material on the songs is annoying; forgetting to credit songwriters is almost unforgivable.

But if Nova Scotian heritage doesn't interest you beyond the sound of its music, this is a great collection. And the tracklist reads like a Who's Who of Nova Scotia performers, with songs performed by the Barra MacNeils, Lennie Gallant, Rita and Mary Rankin, McGinty, Evans & Doherty, Stan Rogers, John Allan Cameron and more. Personal favorites include "Chase the Man" and "Fogarty's Cove," plus Gallant's "Tales of the Phantom Ship," McGinty's "Santiano/Sally Brown," Stan Rogers' "The Bluenose" and Evans & Doherty's "The Mermaid."

Failings as a cultural or educational resource aside, Songs of the Wooden Boat provided me with several grand hours of on-the-road entertainment in Nova Scotia and has been a pleasant reminder of that trip since my return.

[ by Tom Knapp ]