Song Tradition: Coal Mining

Detail from Sydney and Bridgeport Coal Mines, 1828. Map 721. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

"The coal miner is no ordinary man. His story has a heartbeat. It should not be allowed to die."

Nina Cohen, founder of the Miners' Museum

Coal was first discovered in Cape Breton by the French with Port Morien recognized as North America's first commercial coal mining operation established in 1720.

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By the late eighteenth century many coalmines were flourishing on the Island, and major steel plant operations were underway in both Sydney and Sydney Mines. This industrial development attracted countless immigrants from the European continent. Cape Breton Island is noted for welcoming the largest industrial immigration to Canada prior to the Second World War. Many of these people, of course, worked in the coalmines and contributed to the wonderful cultural mosaic which is Cape Breton today.

Coal miners are not generally a singing lot - at least not in the sense that sailors, voyageurs or lumberjacks are known for their singing. Unlike the sailor hauling on the bowline to the rhythm of a sea shanty, there are no mining songs a man would swing a pick to. Miners had little breath left to spare for singing, with lung disease and silicosis exacting a high toll among coal miners. But the Cape Breton coal mining industry did bring together, in the workplace and in the surrounding communities, a wide variety of peoples with a rich array of singing traditions - all of which found an outlet in the ceilidh tradition of a burgeoning island community.

The songs representing the mining industry which are presented on this website are drawn largely from the repertoire of North America's only coal miners' choir, The Men of the Deeps. We are also indebted to the work of established folksong collectors like George Korson and to singer/collectors like Ronnie MacEachern for their tremendous contributions to this song tradition. Furthermore, much of the music and poetry of composers such as Ray Holland, Nell Campbell, Allister MacGillivray, Charlie MacKinnon, and Al Provoe reflects the spirit of Cape Breton's mining communities in the same way that oral tradition molds the spirit of a people. For this reason, we are proud to include their works in this collection.

Many live and rare recordings of traditional tunes show influences of those early European immigrants - especially of Ireland, England and Scotland. Like all music and poetry which come from the "folk," these songs are for the people. It is hoped that all those visiting this website will appreciate and absorb the rich culture represented, and that these songs will survive to enrich the heritage of future generations of Cape Bretoners.

John C. (Jack) O'Donnell, Professor Emeritus of Music at St. Francis Xavier University; Musical Director of The Men of the Deeps


Songs from the Coal Mining Tradition

  1. Aftermath (Video) The Men of the Deeps
  2. The Ballad of JB McLachlan Charlie MacKinnon
  3. Billy, Come With Me The Men of the Deeps
  4. The Cape Breton Coal Miners The Men of the Deeps
  5. The Coal By The Sea (Video) The Men of the Deeps
  6. Coal Mining Days Archie MacInnis
  7. Coal Town Road The Men of the Deeps
  8. George Alfred Beckett Amby Thomas
  9. The Honest Working Man Charlie MacKinnon
  10. Jolly Wee Miner Men The Men of the Deeps
  11. Kelly's Cove The Men of the Deeps
  12. Little Pinkie Engine The Men of the Deeps
  13. A Miner's Life (Video) The Men of the Deeps
  1. Miners' Memorial Hymn The Men of the Deeps
  2. New Aberdeen Government Store Amby Thomas
  3. New Waterford's Fatal Day Amby Thomas
  4. 'S E Ceap Breatainn/Down Deep In A Coal Mine The Men of the Deeps
  5. Òran A' Mhèinneadair Dan MacNeil
  6. Plain Ole Miner Boy Willie Odo
  7. The Pluck Me Store The Men of the Deeps
  8. Remember The Miner Unknown
  9. She Loves Her Miner Lad The Men of the Deeps
  10. When I First Went To Caledonia Amby Thomas
  11. When You're Done Loading Coal Charlie MacKinnon
  12. Who Are They? Al Provoe
  13. Working Man (Video) The Men of the Deeps