Nova Scotia

CBU folklore professor adds to collection of songs about steel

A professor of folklore at Cape Breton University has been successful in his search for songs written about the life of steelworkers in Cape Breton.

Project turns up 'song poems' about steel workers' lives

CBU folklore professor Richard MacKinnon will soon release a CD entitled Cape Breton Songs of Steel, Coal and Protest. (CBC/Hal Higgins)

A professor of folklore at Cape Breton University has been successful in his search for songs written about the life of steelworkers in Cape Breton.

Richard MacKinnon, founding director of the the Centre for Cape Breton Studies, released a CD in 2012 called CBI Protest Songs, many of which revolved around tough and often horrendous working conditions endured by miners.

But considering the long history of steelmaking in the Sydney area, MacKinnon decided to search for songs on the subject.

"There weren't that many about steel, and I said, well, there has to be," he said.

As it turned out he was right, and he will soon release Volume 2, which he's entitled Cape Breton Island Songs of Steel, Coal and Protest.

Searching old newspapers such as The Steelworker and The Maritime Labour Herald he found a number of works often referred to as song poems.  

In some cases, MacKinnon farmed out these works to musicians who would add music to the lyrics.

John 'Slim' McInnis

He told CBC Cape Breton's Information Morning that one of the most prolific song poem writers was John "Slim" McInnis, who turned them out from the 1930s all the way until 1988.  

Toward the end, the steel plant was in decline and workers were being laid off and forced to head elsewhere to look for work. One McInnis song from that era, Trampin' Down the Highway, has been given a blues treatment by Cape Breton artist Angelo Spinazzola.

Another of McInnis's compositions, Steel Workers Lament, was recorded by the young Cape Breton recording artist Jordan Musycsyn.

This new collection also contains some mining songs, and even a couple from the female perspective, such as Daughters Awake. One from 1940 called Miner's Wife points to the woman of the house's role as money manager as well as home maker.

I'm speaking of the miner's wife, that girl of many cares,
With her magic gift for figures, with the pay she starts to share,
With a few cents to this one and that,
It puzzles one 'full sore' to see the way she sends each one with smiles
From both her doors

MacKinnon also includes some modern day compositions by Cape Breton artists such as John Campbelljohn (Sydney Steel) and Keith Mullins (Stronger than Steel).

The new CD will be launched on April 13 during the East Coast Music Awards in Sydney.

That launch will be carried on CBC Cape Breton's Mainstreet.



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