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Music Cape Breton's Diversity in Unity

Mining George Alfred Beckett

Composed by local coalminer Phil Penney, this song is about the life of George Alfred Beckett. After moving from Newfoundland to work in the coal mines in Glace Bay, Beckett murdered a local taxi driver and fled to Newfoundland soon after. He was arrested in St. John’s and was deported to Cape Breton where he was found guilty of murder. George Alfred Beckett was sentenced to death and was the last man to be publicly hung in Cape Breton.

This field recording was collected by Ronnie MacEachern in 1978.

George Alfred Beckett, 1978. Amby Thomas. T-1066. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

Amby Thomas

In 1906, Amby Thomas was born in Deep Cove, a small Cape Breton fishing community between Gabarus and Louisbourg. In his early years, Amby attended ceilidhs where local and traditional folk songs were sung. He was especially interested in songs by local songwriter Lauchie MacNeil.

Amby lived and attended school in the village until 1916, when a local priest noticed he had a vision problem. He suggested that Amby move to Halifax to study at the School for the Blind. He attended the school until June 1919, when he moved back to Deep Cove to finish school.

After completing his studies, he worked in a lobster factory in Kennington Cove and then as a fisherman with his father until 1952. During this time, he also farmed near his family’s home and cut timber in the nearby woods that was used in coal mines in the area. From 1939-1945, he worked at the naval base in Point Edward, where he was responsible for railroading and other jobs at the base.

In 1967, the government forced Amby and the other residents of Deep Cove to move from their land so that the Fleur de Lis trail could be built. In 1969, he married Mary and moved to Sydney.

His interest in local and traditional folk songs led him to work with singer-songwriter and collector Ronald MacEachern to record the lyrics and sheet music for some of his songs. Together they released the book, Songs and Stories from Deep Cove, Cape Breton. As a result of their collaboration, these songs became accessible to future generations interested in learning more about Cape Breton’s rich songwriting tradition.

George Alfred Beckett

Collected by Ron MacEachern from the singing of Amby Thomas
Tune: “Peter Emberley”
© From the collection of Ron MacEachern.

1. George Alfred Beckett is my name as you may understand
Brought up by honest parents, I belong to Newfoundland
In a pleasant little village so beautiful and grand
Near the Atlantic Ocean at a place called Old Perl’can.

2. My parents reared me tenderly, the truth I will make known
And at the age of sixteen years I left my native home.
How little did my mother know when she sang sweet lullabye
What country I might travel to, or what death I might die.

3. To the coal fields of Cape Breton, my course I first did stray,
And for to get employment, I landed at Glace Bay.
How little did my parents know when they bid me goodbye
That awful crime I would commit, and be condemned to die.

4. ‘Twas early last autumn as you may understand,
To drive me out to Tower Road I engaged this taxi man.
He little thought as we rode on, I had an iron bar;
Those dreadful wounds for to inflict and rob him in his car.

5. From the scene I made a quick escape; to get home was my plan.
I left Glace Bay and sailed away back home to Newfoundland.
‘Twas but a few weeks afterwards, the police were on my trail;
Arrested for this murder and brought to St. John’s jail.

6. From there back to Cape Breton, my final trial to stand,
And never more to see again my own dear native land.
The jury found me guilty and the judge to me did say:
“For this murder you shall hang, young man, on the 30th day of May.”

7. Now before my execution there is something I would tell
Of all the friends in Newfoundland, and the one I love so well;
It’s near the city of Sydney, my mouldering bones will lay;
I’m waiting for our Saviour’s call on that great judgment day.