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Music Cape Breton's Diversity in Unity

Mining Coal Town Road

In Coal Town Road, Allister MacGillivray describes life in a Cape Breton coal mining town using information he gathered from stories told by his great-uncle, a former coal miner.

This live recording by the Men of the Deeps features solos by Yogi Muise and Billy McPherson.

Coal Town Road. 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.

Coal Town Road

Words and music by Allister MacGillivray
© Cabot Trail Music.

1. We get up in the black, down the coal town road;
And we hike along the track, where the coal trains load.
And we make the ponies pull ’til they nearly break their backs,
And they’ll never see again, down the coal town road.

2. We hear the whistle call, down the coal town road;
And we take our towels and all, where the coal trains load.
In the cages then we drop ’til there’s nowhere else to fall,
And we leave the world behind us, down the coal town road.

3. We never see the sun, down the coal town road;
At a penny for a ton, where the coal trains load.
When the shift comes up on top we’re so thankful to be done,
We head home to sleep and dream, about the coal town road.

4. There’s miners’ little sons, down the coal town road,
Playing with their cowboy guns, where the coal trains load.
For they’d better make the best of their childhood while it runs;
There’s a pick and shovel waitin’, down the coal town road.

5. If there’s a God for us, down the coal town road,
All the miners He can bless, where the coal trains load.
For we’re sweatin’ in the hole suckin’ down the devil’s dust,
Just to keep the fires a-blazin’ down the coal town road.

Repeat first verse