Men of the Deeps,
Coal Fire in Winter
(Atlantica, 1996)

Some albums are so packed with power, they're hard to describe. Somehow, I need to convey just how special this one really is.

Men of the Deeps is a choir of miners, working and retired, from the depressed industry of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. When I first heard of the group's existence, I imagined a chorus of rough, poorly trained voices joined together in enthusiastic but unremarkable song. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Coal Fire in Winter is my first exposure to this group, which had existed (with a somewhat fluid membership) for 30 years at the time of this album's release. Despite so many years together, touring throughout Canada and around the world (including the People's Republic of China in 1976 and Kosovo, Yugoslavia in 1999), this is only their third CD recording. Based on this sample, the band is woefully underrepresented on disc.

Most of the songs relate, as you'd expect, to mining, miners and miners' kin. You might expect mostly boisterous, lively songs to hold off the darkness below ground, but these songs are mostly slow, soulful, full of romance, light and life. There's often a sense of the tragic in the songs, the knowledge that these men and their sons are likely trapped by circumstances in the miner's life, but there's an amazing amount of hope and joy here, too.

I was surprised when the first track, Jimmy Rankin's "Tramp Miner," began with a solo voice (Fred Gillis) and a fairly standard folk-band background. Where, I wondered, was the choir? Well, they came in quickly enough for each chorus, but it still wasn't what I considered a choral recording. Never fear, that came soon enough.

"Coal, Not Dole," by Kay Sutcliffe, features the trio Mickey MacIntyre, Jackie MacQueen and Jerry Forbes, is a short but touching anthem to their declining industry, with moving lyrics such as "They'll never realize the hurt / They caused the men they treat like dirt." Next, Bobby Roper leads the way on Leon Dubinsky's "Billy, Come With Me," a soulful lullaby to a miner's son rendered with achingly beautiful solo vocals and a haunting chorus. The album picks up pace for the proud and peppy traditional song, "Dad's Old Dinner Pail," with solo vocals by Bill MacPherson.

Nipper MacLeod takes over lead vocals for a bittersweet love song, the solo and a capella "She Loves Her Miner Lad." He retains lead for a second love ballad, Gordon Lightfoot's "Sweet Guinevere," which features guest J.P. Cormier on fiddle. Next, Jackie MacQueen presents Allister MacGillivray's "You'll Be Home Again"; his solo singing is good enough, but when the crew joins him for the lullaby chorus, it becomes magic.

If things seem too slow, the album picks up again for the traditional "Miner's Life," sung with great harmonies and a carnival air by the full chorus. Kevin Edwards leads the group through the melancholy traditional song, "The Banks of Newfoundland," before Jerry Forbes takes over to lead them on a whaling journey for "Rolling Down to Old Maui." The Men next turn to thoughts of home with "If I Can't Take the Island With Me," a paean to Cape Breton written by Shauna Lee McKillop and Aaron Lewis, with Shane MacLeod on lead vocals.

Yogi Muise leads 'em through the call-and-response "Coal Town Road," by Allister MacGillivray. Gordon Sheriff gives a time-laden recitation of Al Provoe's poem "Who Are They?" while Bobby Roper provides a soulful harmonica backdrop. Then, Nipper MacLeod resumes lead to bring the album to a close with Rita MacNeil's uplifting "Working Man."

If you didn't get it all the first time, hit the repeat button and listen through again. And again. And again.

I wish desperately that the album included lyrics in its notes, but the space was given instead to a two-page track list, a two-page history of the group and a two-page list of the group's present membership (26 singers, four of whom play instruments, too, plus a director/pianist and five guest musicians) as well as 60 former members.

A depressed economy can put a lot of people out of work and into despair. These miners have, for more than three decades, staved off despair and held onto their pride in part by creating and sharing incredible music with the world. They may not be as polished as some musicians on the market, but it's hard to match their spirit. This album is a monument to that spirit, and a testament to hope in the face of adversity. It's almost a bonus that the music on Coal Fire in Winter is so very, very good.

[ by Tom Knapp ]