In 1902, James Bryson McLachlan moved to Canada from Scotland to find work in the coal mines of Glace Bay. Recognizing the need for safer working conditions and adequate salaries for coal miners in the area, he formed a local branch of the United Mine Workers and fought for the best interests of these workers. J.B McLachlan’s dedication to fighting for worker’s rights and social justice makes him an important part of Cape Breton’s labour history and the subject of this tribute written and performed here by the legendary Cape Breton singer, Charlie MacKinnon.
This field recording was collected by Ronnie MacEachern in 1978.
The Ballad of J.B. McLachlan. Charlie MacKinnon. T-1067. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.
Charlie MacKinnon was born in Little Bras d’Or. He was exposed to traditional Scottish music and dancing in his early years; his father enjoyed played Scottish tunes on the violin and his uncles liked to stepdance and sing traditional Scottish songs. At age 10, he started playing guitar and became interested in music by country musicians such as Hank Snow, Wilf Carter and Jimmy Rodgers. When he was 15, he began to write his own folk songs.
Years later, he would meet Lillian Crewe Walsh, a poet from Glace Bay. Walsh suggested that MacKinnon write music for some of her poems. He chose to write the music for six poems, which he recorded along with some of his own material. His first single The Ghost of Bras d’Or was released around 1948. The song became a hit across Canada and a Canadian country standard.
Instead of focusing on touring and developing his music career, MacKinnon kept his job at the Sydney Steel Plant but he continued to perform songs on CJCB Radio and played shows in Newfoundland, Boston and Toronto. He was also invited to play at the Newport Folk Festival by Pete Seeger.
As a result of his music accomplishments and his great songwriting abilities, Charlie MacKinnon will always be praised as a great local “folk balladeer and storyteller.”1
1. MacGillivary, Allister. 1985. Cape Breton Song Collection. Sydney: Sea Cape Music, Ltd.
The Ballad of JB McLachlan
Words and music by Charlie MacKinnon
© From the collection of Ron MacEachern.
1. This story I tell you is true, my friend;
This story of a miner, a man they couldn’t bend.
In the annals of labour, there’s none stands as tall,
As the great J.B. McLachlan, who fought for one and all.
2. Born in old Scotland in eighteen sixty-nine,
In a little comp’ny house down by a dark coal mine;
Started work at the age of twelve, then sailed across the sea,
And landed in this mining land at the age of thirty-three.
Jim B McLachlan, the leader of men;
JB MacLachlan united them and then
Held high the torch of freedom for all,
And asked his fellow miners to never let it fall.
2. A tried and true champion of the working man;
The coal boss couldn’t bind him or shackle his hands.
From the great strike out in Winnipeg and all across this land
They came to seek of the leadership of this humble miner man.
3. He formed a local branch of the UMW
And asked the miners to stand for the union that was true.
The coal boss had to silence him, into Dorchester Jail;
They said: “Seditious libel,” and none could go his bail.
4. Blacklisted by the comp’ny boss, he then turned to the land
On a little farm on Steele’s Hill, this great miner man;
His health did fail from his years in jail, his banner he held high,
And he left behind a legend that will never die.
5. There are men who sail the ocean, their lives are on the sea.
There are men who carry lunchpails, men like you and me.
The miner and the steel man, the mightier the call,
Must carry high his banner, and never let it fall.