Songs about child labour have never emerged in Canada to the same extent as in the United States and Britain. But until early in this century, young boys were expected to contribute to the family income by following in their fathers’ footsteps. The pattern was the same all over the world: a young boy entered the breaker as a slate picker at the age of eight or nine; a short time later he’d become a ‘trapper boy,’ tending the doors. At fourteen he’d become a mule driver, well on his way to becoming a full-fledged miner.
This is a live recording of Billy, Come With Me, as performed by the Men of the Deeps and from the collection of John C. O’Donnell.
Billy Come With Me. The Men of the Deeps. John C. O’Donnell Tape Collection. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.
The Men of the Deeps
The Men of the Deeps is a world-renowned male choral ensemble composed of former coalminers from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Inspired by Glace Bay activist, Mrs. Nina Cohen, and famed Nova Scotia folklorist, Dr. Helen Creighton, The Men of the Deeps was organized in 1966 as part of Cape Breton’s contribution to Canada’s Centennial Year (1967) with the specific aim of encouraging the people of Cape Breton to preserve in song some of the rich folklore of the Island’s coal mining communities.
The ensemble first performed to thousands of people in packed theatres in Sydney, New Waterford, and Glace Bay. Those in attendance were highly impressed with the new choral group, including H.P. MacKeen, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, who became the patron of the chorus. Concerts were then held at the Isle Royale Hotel, the opening of the Miners’ Museum, the Queen Mother’s visit (1967), and for Expo 67 in Montreal.
In 1976, the group became the first Canadian musical ensemble to tour the Peoples’ Republic of China, after diplomatic relations between the two nations were restored in 1972. Over twenty years later, they travelled to Kosovo to perform on behalf of the United Nations Children’s Fund. The chorus received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University College of Cape Breton (now Cape Breton University) in 2000. Recent concert tours have brought the choir as far north as the Northwest Territories and as far south as Arizona, Alabama, Florida and the Appalachian coal mining communities of Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Since the group’s inception, the musical director has been John C. (Jack) O’Donnell, now Professor Emeritus of music at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Billy, Come With Me
Words and Music by Leon Dubinsky
© Shag Rock Sound.
1. Billy, come with me, come with me my son
I’ll make you a man past your years.
In the mine where the muscle is made of an arm
In the mine where the boys turn to men
In the mine where the strength of a back is your pride
In the mine where you’re older than ten.
2. Billy, stay with me, stay with me my son
You’d not break a poor mother’s heart.
In the mine where the sun never shines on the black
In the mine where what counts is your size
In the mine where your brain is of no use at all
In the mine where my dear brother lies.
3. Billy went with him, went with him at last
As his father like fathers before.
In the mine he learned strength from the wisdom of life
In the mine he earned monies to wed
In the mine where the coal has no use for a man
In the mine where young Billy lies dead.
Repeat first verse.