Nova Scotia

Men of the Deeps hits pay dirt mining for new members

The future of Cape Breton's iconic coal miners chorus is looking a whole lot brighter following a recent round of auditions.

Invitation to audition reaps rewards, ensures Cape Breton chorus won't fade away as members age

All members of the Men of the Deeps must have worked for two years in the Cape Breton coal industry. (Men of the Deeps)

The future of the iconic Men of the Deeps chorus is looking a whole lot brighter following a recent round of auditions.

There were fears the Cape Breton group might fade away due to the advanced age of many of its members.

But those concerns are behind them now, according to the group's musical director, Stephen Muise, after five new singers were accepted into the chorus.

He said 24 others were auditioned, many of whom have been put on a waiting or reserve list. 

"There were a lot of great voices," said Muise.

It was good to find out there are still a decent number of prospects who meet the membership requirement of having worked at least two years in the Cape Breton coal industry, he said.

"This is the only choir in the world where the second requirement is that you have to be able to sing," said Muise.

Jack O'Donnell directs the original Men of the Deeps at an event at St. Francis Xavier University in 1967. (Courtesy St. FX Archives)

There was quite a stir when the new members were introduced at their first rehearsal with the full group, Muise said.

"There was an excitement in the room that I haven't seen for a while."

Long-time member Billy MacPherson, 80, was thrilled to see the injection of "new blood."

"It's incredible. It's a breath of fresh air," he said.

One of the newbies, Mike Bates, 62, from the Sydney area, is still getting used to the idea that he's been accepted into the Men of the Deeps.

"I feel like I'm an apprentice," he said, adding he's excited to be given the opportunity to sing with an internationally known and much-loved group.

"I want to be part of that. It's a major commitment. These guys put their heart and soul into this," he said.

Mike Bates, who plays the violin, is one of five new members of the Men of the Deeps. (Submitted by Mike Bates)

Bates is one of four "standby" members. According to the group's bylaws, it can carry 28 "official" members, but since some regulars are often not able to go to every performance, the standbys will see lots of action, said Muise.

Muise is keen to put another of Bates's talents to good use. He plays the violin in the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association and he may some day be called upon to "rosin the bow" and accompany the chorus in some of their repertoire pieces.

Learning the group's huge repertoire will be tough. But Bates has proven he has the stuff to overcome challenges.

In 1986, he was in a terrible motorcycle accident and had his right foot amputated. While in hospital for several months he began fiddle lessons.

Then six years ago he was diagnosed with cancer. He said it was caught early and he had surgery, which was successful.

Now he's working toward what he considers his "badge" with the singing miners.

"I look forward to the day when they hand me my hard hat and my lamp," he said, noting that he can't wait for his wife to see him in full uniform.

"She says she always cries when she sees that — when they come out and they sing and they turn the lights on and they walk out which gets a lot of people."

Bates isn't sure when that will be, but according to Muise it will likely occur in June during Miners Memorial Day ceremonies when he expects all the new members will get their chance to go on stage.