Tony TracyAn East Coast Trade Unionist

The Musings & Ramblings of an Over-Caffeinated Trade Unionist

Tony is a Halifax-based trade unionist, social justice activist & rabble-rouser who views caffeine as his best friend at all times of day and night. Tony can be found on Twitter at @Tony_Tracy


The Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council is organizing the largest LABOUR DAY celebration that Halifax has seen in many decades for this year’s 2011 event!

It is truly shaping up to be a fantastic event! A longer and more vibrant Labour Day March then in past years, followed by excellent speakers, a FREE BBQ, and a music concert.

There are several high-profile labour and political leaders who will be speaking on the day, including Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti.

I’m especially excited by one of the musical performances — some of the musicians from the Tom Fun Orchestra will be performing songs from the Cape Breton Protest Songs Project, which has found archives of many old lyrics & poems (songs) from the 1920’s and set them to music.

The lyrics to the music were found in the Maritime Labour Herald, the newspaper which was co-founded and eventually edited by Cape Breton’s militant labour giant James Bryson (JB) McLachlan. The first edition of the paper was published in Glace Bay in late October, 1921 with James B. McLachlan as the “dominant spirit,” and William Ulric Cotton as the first editor. JB McLaclan was both a labour leader in Cape Breton, elected as Secretary-Treasurer of District 26 of the United Mine Workers Union (UMWA), as well as a member of the Communist Party.

The Maritime Labour Herald was published every Saturday and was “devoted to the interests of Labour”, as it described itself. The majority of the shares in the paper were held by unions of the day and, until it folded in 1926 … it was to all intents a party paper, described on one occasion by Communist Party of Canada leader Tim Buck as “a Maritimes version of Lenin’s collective organizer”. The reference to the newspaper as Lenin’s collective organizer derives from a famous quotation of Lenin’s in 1903:

The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer.

Cape Breton poet Dawn Fraser had a major influence on the Maritime Labour Herald newspaper — thirty-four of his verses were published in The Maritime Labour Herald in the years between 1921 and 1926. Dawn Fraser’s epic poem “The Case of Jim McLachlan” likely explains J.B. McLachlan the best.

Professor Richard MacKinnon from Cape Breton University (CBU) poured through issues of the Maritime Labour Herald and found some one hundred and twenty (120) lyrics & poems that were suitable for setting to music. MacKinnon then enlisted the help of a great number of contemporary Cape Breton musicians to begin setting the lyrics to music and then to begin recording them. As of this time, eighteen (18) songs have been recorded by these musicians and they are expecting to release a CD in October. MacKinnon doesn’t plan to stop at one CD, however… he is hoping to record and release a full “box set” which would contain most (if not all) of the 120 lyrics that he unearthed.

A press release from the folks producing the music explains more:

New life for old Nova Scotia protest songs

SYDNEY — A cache of 1920s protest songs unearthed by folklore professor Richard MacKinnon at Cape Breton University is being recorded by local musicians.

With titles like Corned Beef and Cabbage and Tell My Friend the Prison Warden I Hadn’t Time to Call, some of the words and topics are kitschy and dated. Others have a ring of truth even today.

“They are very much a part of the time, a part of the labour history of Nova Scotia,” said MacKinnon, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Hard times or times of great change often prompt creative people to write verse or songs to inspire action or to lament the burdens of life.

The 1920s was a time of both hardship and great change, especially for miners and steelworkers in the labour movement.

“This was the way it was done and it’s very much a part of the oral tradition of this region,” said MacKinnon.

Many of the songs and ballads were lifted from old copies of the Maritime Labour Herald, a 1920s leftist newspaper published in Glace Bay.

“And that’s exactly how you find the old gems, by just being curious and digging into old books and hours in front of a microfiche,” MacKinnon said during a recent interview.

“One of my favourites is called Dirty Danny and it’s about a policeman who arrested a fellow because he stole some kindling to start a fire for his family,” he explained.

“Others were self-explanatory, like the one called The Scab, which, of course, was about those who cross picket lines.

“These songs are just full of passion because the writers were trying to change society, to make things better and to rouse the spirit of the workers,” MacKinnon said.

Although passionate, many of the songwriters didn’t want to use their real names, fearing backlash from the mining company or the steel company, so they would use initials or pen names to hide their identities.

While he has original music for some of the lyrics he has found, most are without a published melody.

“But I’ve farmed out some of the lyrics to local musicians to put to music and we’ve brought them in to the recording studio to make a CD.”

Many of the musicians are descended from the very miners and steelworkers who worked to bring about labour changes in this region.

“The songs will eventually be released on a CD and we’ll put together a website to promote the music.”

The CD is expected to be released by this fall.

Labour Day 2011 in Halifax will be the first public performance of these songs (a CD release is forthcoming over the next couple of months). This project is truly inspiring in many ways – it brings a tremendous working-class history from an important part of Cape Breton’s militant past into the hands of an audience composed of new generations of workers.

CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” did an interview a few months ago with Richard MacKinnon about the project which is worth listening to and can be found here:

MacKinnon also wrote a journal article (“Protest Song and Verse in Cape Breton Island“) which describes the songs and the history behind the music which can be found at this link.

This project reminds me a great deal of the Mermaid Avenue two album project of previously unheard lyrics written by American folk singer Woody Guthrie which involved boxes of thousand sets of complete lyrics written by Guthrie between 1939 and 1967, none of which had any music other than a vague stylistic notation, but were put to music written and performed by British singer Billy Bragg and the American band Wilco.

In the same way, CBU’s MacKinnon has unearthed about 120 songs (lyrics and poems) in the archives of an old newspaper called the Maritime Labour Herald which was published in Cape Breton between 1923 and 1927, and organized an assortment of talented Cape Breton musicians to set the lyrics to music and record them. I’m very excited to hear many of these songs performed on Labour Day by four of these Cape Breton musicians: Ian MacDougall, Albert Lionais, Shane O’Handley and Victor Tomiczek.

Following the Cape Breton Protest Songs, we will continue to be entertained in the afternoon by Joe Murphy & the Water Street Blues Band, who are old Labour Day favourites in Halifax, having played at Labour Day festivities for many years.

All this takes place on Monday September 5th!

10:30am — Gather with Sisters & Brothers from unions & community organizations at the VICTORIA PARK (Spring Garden Road at South Park Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia). Map Link

*** PLEASE NOTE THE GATHERING LOCATION AT VICTORIA PARK! This will be the first year that the Labour Day March will begin at Victoria Park before moving to the South Commons Triangle — please ensure to advise union members, Locals & interested organizations/individuals of this change for this year!

11:00am — Labour Day Parade March will start at VICTORIA PARK (Spring Garden Road and South Park St.) and marching to the South Commons Triangle, Bell Road, Halifax (bring your union’s flag and/or banner!)

12:00pm to 3:00pm — Labour Day Rally, Free Community BBQ Picnic & Music Concert at the South Commons Triangle with fun for the kids! Speeches including Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) President Ken Georgetti, Nova Scotia Federation of Labour President Rick Clarke, and Halifax Member of Parliament (MP) Megan Leslie as well as other special guest speakers.

The FREE Community BBQ will commence after the speakers at the same time as the MUSIC CONCERT that I mentioned above. Great times for the whole family!

More details can be found on the Labour Council’s Facebook Event Page and their website, of course.

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