Gary Callahan with Plain & Simple,
Death on the Ice
(Newsflash, 1996)

Remember "concept albums"? In some ways they were the precursors of the "concert" album of musicals, and this exciting new album from Gary Callahan could be a very good example if there was a producer out there interested in staging a show.

Two pre-conceptions and vested interests must be addressed first. Newfoundland is home to many people who emigrated from my area of Ireland so some distant cousins MIGHT be involved (but I am not aware of such a conflict). Secondly, seal culling has a very bad press but the people commemorated in this album were, like the fur trappers of early North America, making a living in a dangerous world -- a very different situation than we have today.

The first seven songs on the CD were written to commemorate 77 Newfoundlanders who died agonising deaths and the survivors who suffered greatly on the ice floes in 1914. For two days, 120 men were stranded on shifting ice in a blinding snowstorm. Cassie Browne tells the story of the sealers in more detail in the book Death on the Ice, which inspired these songs.

Track 1, "Death on the Ice," gives the basic tale in prose, song and sound effects with great power. The next six tracks take various aspects of the story and give them a very moving narrative. The track listings are self-explanatory -- "Who Was to Blame," "All for Love of Jessie," "Crying in the Harbours" and "What Happened to the Southern Cross?" -- and each is a story in itself. Callahan gives them added impact with a voice reminiscent of Johnny Cash.

In addition to the songs based on the tragedy there are a number of other tracks, which complement this album. "The Pleasures of Man" is a track which traces a common folk theme as does "Where Has All Our Freedom Gone?" The CD finishes with a fiddle medley of traditional tunes.

Listening to this CD reminded me of the true spirit of folk music. It has good solid tunes, sad stories, social comment and, most importantly, despite the sad subject, it is a joy to listen to.

The story and the music -- with a little expansion -- would make fabulous folk musical similar to Tolpuddle Man and A Day's Work, which were well received on UK tours by the company Fieldwork some years ago. I would urge anyone interested in Newfoundland, the sea, social history, good music or a tale well told to seek out this album. If there is a playwright out there, consider it as a project.

[ by Nicky Rossiter ]
Rambles: 25 June 2001