Strikes, lock outs and harsh working conditions at the steel plant, the many duties of miners’ wives, union struggles to win a living wage, and the feelings of workers and their families when their steel mill or coal mine shuts down: these are just a few of the stories told in a new CD being released by Cape Breton University’s Centre for Cape Breton Studies. The CD, entitled “Cape Breton Island Songs of Steel, Coal and Protest ” has been two years in the making.
This new cd is Volume 2 in the Cape Breton Island Protest Song project that began when Cape Breton University professor Dr. Richard MacKinnon unearthed dozens of songs about steel, coal and protest written from as early as 1910 and as late is 2015. The first Volume was released in 2012; this Volume 2 will be launched Wednesday, April 13, 2016 at the Centre for Cape Breton Heritage and Science, Lyceum, George Street Sydney from 4-6pm with CBC’s Mainstreet’s Wendy Bergfeldt broadcasting the celebration.
The music to some of these songs was long lost. Local artists were asked if they would help bring these songs and the stories they tell, back to life. They enthusiastically jumped on board, writing and arranging the music and then recording the resulting creations. Furthermore, MacKinnon found songs written by contemporary composers, some who were former steelworkers and miners, who express their attitudes and feelings in their creative compositions. An accompanying web site www.protestsongs.ca provides much historical context for the songs; it also include numerous bonus tracks as not all the recorded material could fit on one cd.
The artists are diverse. They include everyone from former coal miner and Men of the Deeps singer, Nipper MacLeod, to members of the Yarnells , Slowcoaster, Tom Fun Orchestra, and singer/songwriters Jordan Musycsyn, Breagh MacKinnon, Norma MacDonald, Ernest Laidlaw, Kev Corbett, Alicia Penny, Yvette Rogers and Jerome Aucoin. Other performers include protest folk singer Leo Feinstein, former steelworker/ songwriters Hugh MacDonald and Tom Mills, well known Cape Breton Island composers Angelo Spinazolla, KeithMullins, John Campbelljohn, Dwayne Cote and Colin Grant. CBU professors Chris McDonald and Richard MacKinnon record tunes as does well-known songwriter, storyteller and playwright, Ken Chisholm. The results are eclectic and exciting.
The oldest song is 116 years old, composed by Patrick J. Lynch just after a long, bitter strike in 1909. “Arise Ye Nova Scotia Slaves” discusses the battle for union formation when the UMWA was trying to represent the Cape Breton Miners. The song was originally recorded in 1940 at a UMWA union convention in Ohio by coal miner/ singer Bob Stewart from Glace Bay; Nipper MacLeod sings the song on this cd. We have one song, “Daughter’s Awake” composed in 1923 by Becky Buhay, that is essentially a feminist call to action. One tune, “Steelworkers Lament,” composed by steelworker John “ Slim” McInnis and sung by Jordan Musycsyn, for example, talks about the harsh working conditions at the steel plant. A steelworker is reflecting the hardship he has encountered for years at the plant right at the time he is about to collect his pension. “Down at Sydney Steel,” by contemporary blues man John Campbelljohn, discusses the attitudes and feelings of steelworkers and their families at the time the steel plant was shutting down.
Support for the project came from Cape Breton University Research Grants and CBU Work Placement research bursaries for students. The CDs are available for sale at $20.00 at the launch and can purchased online at the web site through cdbaby and itunes and at the CapeBreton Curiosity Shop, Charlotte Street, Sydney.