Singing in Fernie

by Rika Ruebsaat
December, 1975

Published in Come All Ye, Vol. V #2, February, 1976

For the past year, I have been singing Canadian folk songs, primarily in schools, colleges and universities, ostensibly communicating the history and way of life of Canadian working people by singing their songs. Unfortunately, for the most part, there have been very few actual workers among the audiences to whom I have sung, and I have always had the vague feeling that I was an impostor, that I really had very little knowledge of or contact with the people who gave birth to the songs I sang. It’s true, I have worked as a waitress and secretary, but essentially I am a middle class, university-educated folksinger who moves in middle class, university-educated circles, so naturally questions often arose as to the validity of what I was doing. Of course, it is a valuable occupation to expose Canadians to their folk heritage — which most of them don’t know exists — but what if those people who created that heritage, the loggers, miners and sailors of this country, were to hear me sing; would they recognize themselves in the songs? Wouldn’t they rather listen to Johnny Cash?

Last December I was given the opportunity to answer some of these questions. I was invited to sing for two weeks in the pub of the Northern Hotel in Fernie, BC, a town of about 7,000 people in the southeast corner of the province, just west of the Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies. Its reasons for existence are the coal mines, run by Kaiser, and the lumber industry, run by CNI (Crows Nest Industries). Essentially it is a town of loggers and miners, with a small middle class made up of school teachers, the judge, insurance men and the like.

Never having sung in a bar before I felt somewhat apprehensive about it — I was used to singing in concert or classroom situations where people sit quietly to listen and sing along. In a bar there are noises and distractions to compete with and a single voice with guitar singing songs that ninety-eight percent of people there had never heard before would need to have something of interest to attract attention. I think examples will serve best to demonstrate how the songs communicated to those who heard them.

The coalmines in Fernie have been operating since 1898 and there are many families who have lived in Fernie and worked in the mines for generations. Most have at one time or other been involved in a strike: one of the biggest mining industry strikes in the early part of this century was the Crows Nest Pass Coal Miners’ strike in 1911, involving 7,000 workers in the mines, railways, coke ovens and smelters for five or six months. There were no union shops at the time and, as was the case in so many strikes of that period, the issues centred on collective bargaining and union security. It is no coincidence, then, that two of the most popular songs in the pub were “The Bowser Seventy-Twa” and “Bevan”, both of which concern the 1912 – 1914 strike in the Vancouver Island coalfields, also a fight for union recognition. The Crowsnest coalmines have had their fair share of accidents and “The Springhill Mine Disaster” song by Peggy Seeger was another favourite with which many miners could identify.

Surprisingly enough, considering the size of the surrounding mountains, there are many people originally from the Prairies living in Fernie. I would often ask if there was anyone from Saskatchewan in the pub and every time, at least ten to twenty percent of the people would raise their hands. “Saskatchewan” (from the Barbara Cass-Beggs collection), which talks about the climatic extremes and hardships of life on the prairies during the Depression, was an oft-requested song, and the Winnipeg version of “The Red River Valley” with the chorus:

Oh it’s forty below in the winter
And it’s twenty below in the fall
And it rises to zero in springtime
And we don’t have no summer at all
was easily understood by ex-Winnipeggers and Fernie-ites alike, Fernie’s summers being neither hot nor long.

Something that impressed me in Fernie was the lack of alienation; there was a real love for their labour among many of the workers. Unlike a factory worker who may turn the same type of screw hundreds or thousands of times a day, a logger is involved in a process which, although he may participate in only one of its facets, he witnesses from beginning to end — the taking of trees from the forest. The loggers I talked to loved working outside and would perish in an office or factory; they had a sense of co-operation and camaraderie because, while working, their lives depended on each other. A skidder driver once told me how he had nearly killed the chokerman with whom he worked, and how they rolled on the ground laughing at the way the chokerman had scrambled out of the way of the log that nearly crushed him. When I sang John Calhoun’s “Peter Amberley” — “When I was struck by a falling limb/And scrunched into the ground” — it struck close to home with the loggers. Wade Hemsworth’s songs talk of the challenge, danger and joy of working in the bush and after two weeks in Fernie I understand more fully what he means when he says, “After the Freeze-up when snow is dry/For to work in the tall woods where I wish that I/Was a wild goose” (“Wild Goose” by Wade Hemsworth). One logger kept telling me about “nature’s peace” and that he was truly himself only when in the bush.

Truck drivers love their rigs and when I sang, “But I like the tone of the motor’s drone/In a Kenworth, Hayes or Mac” (“The Truckdriver’s Song” by K. M. Papov) heads nodded and someone murmured, “She knows what she’s talking about.” I was asked for the lyrics many times and one trucker was so impressed by the poetry of the song that he wanted to make copies of it to put up at his truck stops. This type of response occurred time and time again during the two weeks and it made me realize how honestly and directly the songs themselves spoke to the people listening, even though they were sitting in a noisy pub drinking beer with their friends.

The pub usually contained far more men than women and at moments I was struck by the irony of the fact that I, a woman, was singing to all these men about their work and lives. Often, after singing a number of union songs I would say, “Now I’d like to sing a song for non-union workers who don’t get paid seven dollars an hour for their work — housewives”. This was generally followed by cheers from the women and groans from the men. “The Housewives Lament” is a song that most Fernie women could easily identify with because, with the exception of some teachers, most women were wives and mothers and at home most of the time. The division of the sexes in Fernie and towns like it is very marked because the options open to women are very few. Unless they leave town to get a university education and return as teachers, their choices range from waitress to salesgirl, of which there might be one hundred in all of Fernie. The rest get married, have children, go for the occasional beer with the girls in the afternoon and stay home to babysit in the evening while their husbands are at the pub. The men are bored with them because they can talk of nothing but housework and children; they become boring because they can never get out of the house and be exposed to anything other than housework and children. Songs having to do with marriage were very popular because it was obviously a pertinent issue. “Old Grandma” (collected in Newfoundland) talks about how grandma “worked hard seven days a week” keeping house for her husband and twenty-one children. The last verse has a moral:

And what she did was quite all right
She worked all day and she slept all night;
But young girls now they’re the other way,
They’re up all night and they sleep all day.

and when singing the song I usually stated that I presumed it could only have been written by a man, a comment which was accompanied by groans and guffaws from the men and laughter from the women.

The separation of the sexes in Fernie put me in a unique and potentially very difficult position. As a woman in a predominantly male context (the pub), I could have been received in two possible ways: either as a sex object or as a threat. In actual fact, neither of these two things occurred. Naturally I was “given the eye” by some of the men and it was made known to me that a few men (and some women too) objected to the invasion of their pub by a “women’s libber”, but on the whole I felt accepted and appreciated by the clientele, a situation which I attribute primarily to the nature of the songs I was singing. Because I sang about characters and circumstances that people in Fernie understood and could identify with, I as a performer and a woman, was totally secondary to the songs themselves.

The two weeks in Fernie were an eye-opening experience because they involved me directly in the type of environment in which so many of the Canadian folk songs I sing were born. I can now sing them with far greater understanding and conviction. They have also proved that they can speak directly to working people in their own environment and are not just a pleasant musical diversion for university students.