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Joan Sullivan: A N.L. treasure trove

Book cover
Book cover - Contributed

The Music of Our Burnished Axes:
Songs and Stories of the Woods Workers of Newfoundland and Labrador
by Ursula A. Kelly & Meghan C. Forsyth
ISER Books
$28.95  466 pages

It’s often noted that Newfoundland culture is embedded orally, conveyed and disseminated by storytelling, and of course music. Collecting and anthologizing “traditional song repertoires” has been a folklore practice for decades, at its most basic involving simple transcription and preservation. More specifically, the discipline of ethnomusicology is the study of music from the perspective of the people who make it. “The Music of Our Burnished Axes” is a result of that. And this volume is particularly significant for its focus on woods workers, loggers, as opposed to, say, sea-faring melodies. 

The format includes three essays: “Lumbering and Logging in Newfoundland and Labrador: A Historical Backdrop for Occupational Culture,” and “The Occupational Songs, Recitations, Poems, and Stories of the Woods Workers of Newfoundland and Labrador: An Introduction,” both by Ursula A. Kelly, and “Musical Features of the Songs and Tunes of the Woods Workers of Newfoundland and Labrador,” by Meghan C. Forsyth.

But the bulk of the book — almost four hundred pages — contain “Songs and Tunes,” “Recitations,” “Poems,” and “Narratives and First-Person Accounts.” The appendices include lists of titles and first lines, and there’s a glossary of terms (“cookee — A cook’s helper”; “shanty man — A lumberer or logger: possibly an Anglicization of the French (worksite), from chantier de bùcheron for lumber site or lumber woods.”) The references and index each run about a dozen pages, and there’s a healthy sprinkling of black and white illustrations, mostly photographs (from archives and families) but also maps, cartoons, and advertisements.

The book’s title comes from its first song, “A-Lumbering We’ll Go.” The lyrics and scores are laid out, and then contextualized. As the Notes explain, “This rollicking song describes logging activity on Red Indian Lake ... also known as “The Logger’s Boast,” and was likely learned from Canadian lumberers who immigrated to Newfoundland to work in the sawmill industry in the late 1800s.”

 “The Ballad of Constable Moss” is “About a brave young policeman who up in Badger fell/His name, as you remember, was Constable William Moss/And those who knew and loved him will keenly feel the loss...” Moss’s death happened during the 1959 IWA strike, and was ultimately levered by then Premier Joseph Smallwood into a roadblock to a progressive, protective unionization. Contemporary photos show the RCMP and Newfoundland Constabulary presence in Badger.

This is followed by Tom Cahill’s satirical “IWA Strike,” and Clara Stevens’ pro-Smallwood “The IWA Strike.” As this shows, the composers, when identifiable, are credited and given short bios. When Cahill wrote this (for the 1959 Corner Brook revue Home Brew) he was a journalist at The Western Star, although he and three cohorts would later resign in protest of pressure to support Smallwood’s agenda. Many people know Cahill’s name as he went on to become a popular playwright and producer, but Stevens is more incognito: née House she was “a well-known songwriter of Bellburns ... Kenneth Peacock collected this song from Stevens in 1959 but chose not to publish it, claiming it was similar to ‘The Logger’s Plight’.”

The “Recitations” are similarly treated, as are the “Poems.” It’s all lively, thorough stuff. And the final section, the “Narratives and First-Person Accounts,” is especially enriching. They cover a variety of topics, like “sweeping” the logs, or “My Time as a Forester in Scotland.” Here’s some words from “Anonymous” in “From Halls Bay to Badger”: “My story dates back to 1923, when I was the first woman to travel the Halls Bay line with my two small children, Norma, 2 years, and Charles, 5 months. This was a trip I want to forget.

“My husband had secured a contract in the lumber woods and I persuaded him to let me go along. So, after he had gone to Badger and built our cabin, he came back for me at Pilley’s Island, Notre Dame Bay. There, with the other men who were walking to Badger to get work in the lumber woods, I got aboard a small motor boat which took us 18 miles to South Brook My husband had come from Badger by house and carriage ... My husband tried persuading me to go back by the same boat, but that didn’t work. I had come from Chicago just three years ago and Pilley’s Island was a lonely spot for me when my husband wasn’t there ...”

 “Burnished Axes” is a strong, stirring composition of voices. What a resource; what a trove.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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