various artists,
CoalDust Grins: A Musical Portrait
(Cambria Publishing, 1998)

CoalDust Grins: A Musical Portrait is an accompaniment to photographer Lawrence Chrismas's book CoalDust Grins -- Portraits of Canadian Coal Miners. It is actually an outgrowth of the project; while photographing coal miners across Canada, he found that music was an important factor in the lives of these men. He went on to collaborate with Canadian folk musicians in composing twelve original songs to accompany the book.

This CD is accompanied by a booklet featuring 17 of Chrismas's black and white portraits (the book was not available for review), and most of the songs are about the people portrayed in the photographs. Chrismas recorded an interview with his subjects as part of his photography sessions, and the biographical material forms the basis of many of the songs. This is a CD that requires attention at first to absorb the stories in the songs, and the striking photographs invite scrutiny. The songs themselves encompass a range of folk styles, and while all are well done, some are more effective than others.

Tom Wilson kicks off with the "Ballad of Bill Cashin," the story of a young man who started out in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but ended up as a fireboss in a mine in the Yukon. The rolling guitar and rhythm captures the spirit of the song as it tells the story. Next, a relentless pace and near-country twang in the vocals in Dave McCann's "Surrounding Green" evokes images of trains and time moving inexorably.

Diamond Joe White is up next, and his "Chinawhite" is about a young miner who falls under the spell of heroin as an escape from the dark and the dust. White's growling vocals are especially effective, and the chorus is a twist on "Greensleeves," creating a chilling effect. "Jazz" by Rob Smith has a catchy laid-back melody and a chorus guaranteed to stick in your head as he tells the life story of a retired combined manager from British Columbia and elevates him into a local legend.

Dick Damron's "Shiny Black Coal" is a simple song about how the coal can lose its luster if you work it long enough; with a swinging melody line solidly in folk tradition, it invites singing along at least on the chorus. "Page in Time" is John Campbell's poignant portrait of the generations of miners, one after another slipping into the past. Next, there's almost a gospel feel to the chorus of "Jenkin Evans" by Robert Burton Hubele, about a miner with an extraordinary streak of luck.

Tom Wilson returns with "Frankie," a gentle song about life after the mines as he describes the day-to-day life of another retired fireboss. "Shovel Operator" by Steve Coffey is a jazzy song about the daily life of (what else?) a shovel operator who takes pride in his job. Bill Werthmann's "Louie Madore" tells the story of a Cape Breton miner who fiddled when he wasn't working in the mines. A singing viola underscores the story effectively. A sweet string melody also runs through the gentle song "The Seam" by Ian MacDonald, about Archie MacDonald who believes he was "born to work the seam." Finally, Susan Kuelken shakes up cultural complacencies with a sincere and slightly sassy song about just what attracts some women to coal miners in "A Miner's Smile."

The individual songs vary in quality; some, while pleasant to listen to, are less powerful than others, and at times, the poetry of the lyrics seems forced. Taken collectively, however, these songs add powerful dimension and insight to Chrismas's photographs.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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