John Spyder MacDonald,
By Sea, By Land
(self-produced, 2000)

Nova Scotian entertainer John Spyder MacDonald, whose career has led him to radio, television and a singer's stage, presents a collection of songs written by his brother Alastair. The themes are maritime and historical -- and the music has a strong connection to the Celtic traditions of Nova Scotia.

MacDonald produced the record, with the help of friends John Meir and Dave Gunning, both of whom also play and sing on the record. MacDonald credits them as well with the original idea to do a record of Alastair's songs. They recorded it at Gunning's award-winning Wee House of Music (recently relocated to New Glasgow from Pictou, NS, and renamed Riverfront Studios) with a group of friends that included, among others, J.P. Cormier (fiddle, mandolin, banjo), Randy MacDonald (percussion) and Fleur Mainville (fiddle) of MacKeel, Richard Fortier (tin whistle), and Dana Grant (bagpipes).

Alastair MacDonald's lyrics are wonderful: ballads of the history of the land and sea of Eastern Canada -- including icebergs, ghostly sailors, mountain ceilidhs and builders of a nation. MacDonald's expressive voice lends itself well to the emotional content and adds drama to the stories of the songs. Throughout, well-placed harmonies fill out the sound.

If there's one thing I've learned during years of listening to traditional and modern Celtic music, and this has been reinforced by the songs on By Sea, By Land, it's that a song about a ship is never just a song about a ship. The emotion of "Bless the Ship Hector," chosen as the official commemorative song of Ship Hector Launch 2000 in Pictou, and "The Fireship," about a ship lost at sea in the Strait of Northumberland, hints at all the lives that would have been connected to those ships, at the struggle and the triumph. Another highlight is "The Pale Stranger," the eerie tale of a ship lost at sea and the ghosts it left behind. You can almost feel the moisture of the fog descending all around you.

In an interesting twist, MacDonald presents "Voyage of the Iceberg," the story of the iceberg that sank Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland in 1912: "A symbol you may picture of the Mighty Fall of Pride/Is an iceberg with Titanic's name, red paint scraped on its side."

He switches his focus to the land for "Headin' for Halifax," which should strike a chord with anyone who's left rural life behind to find work in a metropolitan area. A similar theme is presented in "Stonemason's Song," which features a beautiful a cappella harmony and the story of an immigrant's journey across the sea to become one of the men who left a legacy of stonework in "New Scotland." The traditional "Missus MacLeod's Reel" is presented here with Alastair's words -- it's a delightful fiddle tune that will set your feet to tapping.

By Sea, By Land is a good collection of songs -- a must-have for fans of stories about sea and land.

- Rambles
written by Rachel Jagt
published 15 March 2003

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