Protest Songs

When marches and street parades celebrating working class solidarity began springing up with increasing regularity at the turn of the 20th century, it seemed to provide “historic proof that the workers of the world were to unite in a common cause.” That’s how J. B. McLachlan biographer David Frank put it.

Here’s how radical union organizer J.B. McLachlan himself described May Day parades in Cape Breton coal-mining towns in the 1920s:

“The workers of this land are our comrades and brothers, the capitalists of this land our robber enemies. The complete solidarity of the former is our hope, the complete extermination of the latter our aim.”

An essential part of the labour movement — in times of struggle and celebration alike — were the songs of protest that miners and steelworkers sung as they gathered and marched. 18 of those songs, the only surviving parts of which were lyrics published in the Maritime Labour Herald in the 1920s, are now brought back to life on protestsongs.ca.

Richard Mackinnon from the Centre for Cape Breton Studies at CBU worked with local musicians — like Colin Grant, Ian MacDougall from the Tom Fun Orchestra, and Nipper Macleod of the Men of the Deeps, among others — to set the lyrics to music.

The result is a collaboration of sorts, across almost a century. (Although sometimes the struggles of the past don’t seem so distant.)

Disaster Songs!

Many web designers have started down the path toward “website that looks like an old newspaper”. But, finding it too cheesy, too tricky, or simply a poor match of form and function, have had to turn back. With disastersongs.ca, making a website that looked like an old newspaper made perfect sense. (And based on user feedback, others agree. Phew!)

Three academic researchers, including Dr. Heather Sparling from CBU, have mined the Canadian disaster song tradition and come up with almost 300 pieces. They’ve begun publishing their results, starting with songs about Mining Disasters, with Ocean Disasters, Airline Disasters, Lumbering Disasters, and Railway Disasters to follow.

The last underground mines in Eastern Canada closed in the 1990s, bringing an end to a way of life that had been a part of the region for over two centuries. Nova Scotia’s coal deposits in particular were among the deepest underground in the world, some extending far under the ocean, making them among the most dangerous to mine. Flooding, asphyxiation, spontaneous combustion, falling rocks, and “bumps” (underground earthquake-like events that resulted from the removal of coal and the lack of replacement support) killed 2500 miners over the years, maiming and seriously injuring so many more. This in addition to those who died from chronic illness including lung infection.

While major disasters were transformational and dramatic, the commonplace occurrence of injury or death in the normal conduct of mining was equally palpable for miners and their families…

The communities that grew around the mines were unlike most communities. The manner of exploiting coal required lots of community support in order to reproduce the daily labour of the thousands of men and boys underground. The dangers associated with the industry produced a close knit and interdependent community.

But dealing with death and injury on a regular basis also produced a wide variety of coping mechanisms; something necessary if men were to keep going into the pits in spite of accidents. Songs were a part of a coping-process, just as were various other forms of commemoration and memorialization of workers who lost their lives. Annual commemorative occasions, museums, commemorative plaques, statues to fallen miners, etc. abound throughout the region as a way of signifying the breadth and depth of the sacrifices made.

Company House Records

Company House Records is home to some of Cape Breton’s most well-known artists: Slowcoaster, Carmen Townsend, and The Tom Fun Orchestra. The new website is part of the indie label’s rebranding effort.

The label is named after the iconic houses built between 1850 and 1920 by mining and steel companies to house their workers. They now represent one of the most potent connections to industrial Cape Breton’s identity: labour movements, cooperatives, multiculturalism, community. Many miners and steelworkers were later able to purchase the homes.

Heritage Canada Foundation recently added the Cape Breton company house to its list of Top Ten Most Endangered Places. The list raises awareness about historically significant sites that are threatened with demolition, the goal being to prevent sites on the endangered list from making it onto the list of the worst heritage losses in Canada.

With coal mining and the steel plant gone, many company houses have fallen into disrepair from neglect or abandonment. But they may be saved, according to the Heritage Canada report, as advocates for the preservation of company houses work with advocates for affordable and assisted housing, for example through HomeMatch. Rebranding, indeed.

Beaton Institute Music

Cape Breton’s four distinct musical traditions – Acadian, Mi’kmaq, Gaelic and songs of the coal mining tradition – are featured in a new website launched yesterday by the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University.

MUSIC: Cape Breton’s Diversity in Unity features over 100 songs, more than 20 videos, and more than 175 photos from the Beaton’s archives. The digitization of the materials ensures their preservation while increasing accessibility to the public. The Internet is made for projects like this.

Each page includes info about the song, a short bio of the artist and/or performer, lyrics, translations, transcripts in the case of videos, and educators’ resource guides that teachers can download and use in their classroom.

For various reasons, they couldn’t use a content management system, so the site is pure old-fashioned HTML, hand-coded, from scratch, by me.

It was a pleasure to work with the project’s team which included the Beaton’s staff. The songs were selected and re-mastered by Allister MacGillivray. Music consultants were John Alick MacPherson; Janice Tulk; Dan Doucet; and Jack O’Donnell of the Men of the Deeps. Educational consultant was Eric Favaro. Christie MacNeil did pretty much everything else.