Local culture is lived and ubiquitous: stories, sayings, jokes are all so common that there is no point in writing them down, and time is thought better spent on rarer or disappearing things. Only when one turns and sees that these once commonplaces are going—or gone—are they thought worthy of preservation, and we rush to salvage what is left. The folklorist’s trick is to identify those things that are in active circulation and document them before they start to disappear, which means folklorists often study the present-day things that no one thinks are worth paying any serious attention as often as they do the “grand inheritances” of the past.
My particular area of research is popular culture as it occurs in small markets: if folklore is loosely defined as face-to-face communication, I study that kind of communication but within a group slightly larger, requiring some sort of mediation – printing, recording, whatever – to transmit its performances. Popular culture is sometimes thought disposable, but figuring out why it was successful in its day provides insight into the worldview of those who both produced it and supported it.
I have been working for the last year with two collections from the Archives of the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University: material donated by the family of the late Lloyd MacInnis, perhaps now best known as the CBC reporter closest to the scene of the Springhill Mine Disaster but prior to that a radio and television host for CJCB; and the collection of (my friend) Charlie Stephen. They overlap, as MacInnis was one of the hosts of CJCB Radio’s “Dish Pan Parade,” which begat the Cape Breton Songs contest, and Charlie’s mother, Aileen, was a frequent contributor to the contest. He has done a remarkable amount of his own research putting the contest into perspective. Jane Arnold, the archivist, brought them to my attention, as she did Paul ‘Moose’ MacKinnon’s donation of his Old Trout Funnies and the Cape Breton Liberation Army.
The songs from the contest are remarkable artifacts of the time in which they were written. Peter at the Meter, perhaps the most famous entry, emerged in response to the introduction of traffic meters in 1947, which were in turn because of the heightened congestion on Charlotte St. and the downtown in general, a consequence of the post-World War II boom in car ownership due to the end of rubber rationing. Other songs speak to the conditions of the county jail, the transit system, the closed Post Office in Whitney Pier, and the interminable wait for a fixed link across the Canso. They were socially aware and responding to the changing city-scape of its time: they were also light, frothy, and silly. One doesn’t need to deny the pleasure and humour of the songs and only parse them for profundity, but it is good to consider that one of the reasons they found a warm reception was that they expressed ideas that were in active circulation.
An archive is a repository of one-of-a-kind or limited material, much of which may seem like ephemera but when it is removed from its immediate context becomes a cipher for that time and place. The Beaton Institute’s mandate for collecting Cape Breton materials gives it a focus, and its sheer size gives it remarkable breadth. It is one of the most important cultural resources on this Island.
On Thursday, April 27, 2017 I will be presenting some of my research in a talk for the Old Sydney Society at the Lyceum. Some of the recordings have been lost, so if you have memories of Dish Pan Parade and the Cape Breton Songs (or can sing them!) I would love to hear from you.