New Brunswick

Elvis impersonator delves into haunting songs from New Brunswick's past

A Fredericton musician is drawing inspiration from recordings at the Provincial Archives for a new compilation of New Brunswick folk music.

Mike Bravener finds tragedy, loss, joy and resilience in 19th-century music

Mike Bravener dressed as his Kings Landing alter ego Abraham Munn, a 19th-century New Brunswick songwriter. (Mike Bravener/Facebook)

The East Coast songbook is replete with some pretty iconic folksongs.

Nova Scotia has its Farewell to Nova Scotia and Barrett's Privateers

Newfoundland and Labrador has I'se the B'y and  Sonny's Dream.

Acadians have Ave Maris Stella and Réveille

But when it comes to English songs that truly represent New Brunswick, it's hard to think of any that are quite as famous.

That's the inspiration behind Fredericton musician Mike Bravener's latest project.

A group gathers on a doorstep in Metepenagiag in 1953 as Louise Manny, seated, in white hat, and Helen Creighton, leaning, taking notes, record Mi'kmaq stories with Chief John Augustine, centre and Mary Sanipas, seated at right, (Smith Studios, Sackville/New Brunswick Provincial Archives NB P225-498)

Bravener is known as an Elvis impersonator, but he's now working to revive some much older music, songs that originate closer to home.

"When you listen to them, I find myself almost seeing ghosts," Bravener said.

Bravener is recording a compilation of New Brunswick folksongs that date back to the 1800s or earlier.

"It's like I'm transported back in time, when pioneering people worked the woods, or worked in the shipyards, or worked the fields at home."

"Somehow it's warm feeling. It's haunting. It's listening to our forefathers describing what they experienced as daily life."

Bravener started exploring New Brunswick folk music for a job at Kings Landing Historical Settlement. 

He was playing a character named Abraham Munn, who was born in Holtville, near Boiestown, in 1858.

Mike Bravener, top left, said he hopes his upcoming recording will inspire New Brunswickers to visit the Boiestown cemetery where Peter Emberley, whose tragic death inspired a folksong, is buried. (MIke Bravener/Facebook)

Munn wrote the melody to one of New Brunswick's most famous folksongs.

Peter Emberley is a lament based on the true story of a young man who died in a logging accident in the Taxis River area of central New Brunswick. 

Munn also wrote a song about the infamous Dungarvon Whooper, the wailing ghost of a murdered lumber camp cook, said to have haunted the Dungarvon River area in the mid-1800s.

Bravener played both songs for a patron at Kings Landing one day and was inspired by how well they were received.

Beaverbrook showed interest

"All of a sudden, lights went on and bells started ringing," recalled Bravener.

He decided to commit himself to learning more New Brunswick folk music.

Much of what is known about that music comes from recordings commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook in the late 1940s and gathered by a woman named Louise Manny.

Her nearly 800 recordings are all at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

Bravener has heard about 100 of them and committed 20 or 30 to memory.

It's endearing. The people that sang these songs, they weren't trying to be the best singers in the world. It's imperfectly perfect.- Mike Bravener

He describes the collection as a gold mine of stories about the people of New Brunswick — stories of tragedy, loss, joy and resilience.

"My heart now is just so tied in to these people that I read about and I sing about, and I have this incredible appreciation for just how tough New Brunswickers are," he said. 

"We're here because of the sacrifices these people made. These people have formed who we are, and we are a great people. … We are an incredible people."

As for the sound, Bravener described it has having a "folky-country" feel, with Irish, Scottish and English influences.

"It's endearing. The people that sang these songs, they weren't trying to be the best singers in the world. It's imperfectly perfect."

Jamboree performers with instruments circa 1958: George Hector seated in front with banjo, Herbie Sullivan on bass, George Hooper on accordion, Bunny Sparks on vocals and guitar, Bashful Butch Roy on lead guitar, Norm Hamilton on piano and Lionel Poirier on fiddle. (New Brunswick Provincial Archives NB P498-6)

Some of Manny's recordings have been released on two albums by the Smithsonian label Folkways.

But they don't have backup vocals or instrumentation.

And Bravener said there's no other recording where you can find 12 New Brunswick songs in a single collection.

Bravener plans to release his compilation in March.

He said he is trying to stay true to the melodies and arrangements but also give them a more modern, contemporary treatment.

with files from Information Morning Fredericton


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