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Cape Breton University puts out CD of protest songs

A professor helps to revive a Cape Breton Island tradition.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | FEB 06 2012

A Cape Breton University professor is bringing back the protest-song tradition to Cape Breton Island. Richard MacKinnon, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Intangible Cultural Heritage and is director of the Centre for Cape Breton Studies at CBU, uncovered about 120 of these songs while doing research for an article in the journal Ethnologies. The songs were written largely during the 1920s, a time of particular hardship and labour strife on the island.

A while after the article was published, Dr. MacKinnon took another look at all the material “and I thought, gosh, I should do something more with that.” That’s when he got the idea: Cape Breton has lots of talented musicians, so why not have them record some of these old protest songs and compile them on a CD?

He approached local musician Victor Tomiczek, who was excited by the idea. They selected about 20 songs, circulated them to fellow musicians “and we were amazed at what they came back with.” Some of the songs were meant to be sung to the tune of a particular hymn or melody, but for most of them there was no music, only lyrics.

Dr. MacKinnon says he envisioned fairly simple arrangements – a musician and an acoustic guitar. “But the musicians started coming in with more complicated arrangements. So, on the CD we have everything from an a cappella version from a coal miner who sings with Men of the Deeps to others with a full band.”   The songs were recorded at a studio at CBU.

An interesting side benefit to the project is that many of the musicians are now playing the songs in their sets. “They’re bringing these songs to a whole new audience,” says Dr. MacKinnon, who notes that many of them still resonate today. “The Shutdown,” for example, talks about the effects of plant closures on working people and their communities, a situation that the town of Port Hawkesbury is currently struggling with. Another, “Go West, Young Man,” deals with the ever-present issue of young people leaving the area for brighter prospects elsewhere.

The CD, Cape Breton Island Protest Songs, is selling well on iTunes and at local music shops. There’s also a website, protestsongs.ca, which includes historical references, photos and other resources. Any profits, says Dr. MacKinnon, will go towards a second volume. “We’re getting lots of requests from other musicians who want to participate.”

Songs used in the sample (in order of appearance):

  • Dirty Danny, by Nipper McLeod
  • Picket Line, by Victor Tomiczek
  • Stand up for Justice, by Ken Chisholm
  • The Shutdown, by Garry Leech
  • Go West Young Man, Go West, by Steve Fifield
  • The Old Song Resung, by Breagh Mackinnon
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