This song was written by Alec MacKinnon, and a friend, Vic Hall, in the early 1920s. The melody was inspired by a traditional Gaelic song. MacGregor’s was the name of a local bootlegger; Willie MacGregor was also the local pound keeper. The nonsense chorus of the song is common in many songs from the Margaree area of Cape Breton.
This field recording was collected by Ronnie MacEachern in 1978.
When You’re Done Loading Coal, 1978. 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.
LyricsWhen You’re Done Loading Coal
By Alec MacKinnon and Vic Hall from the singing of Charlie MacKinnon
© From the collection of Ron MacEachern.
When you’re done loading coal to MacGregor’s you’ll go.
1. Oh, out to the mines the horses do go.
Hauling the sleighs on the top of the snow;
Going past Punch’s you’ll all have to run
Because you’d get drunk with the smell of the rum.
2. Now there’s Willie MacGregor, I damn near forgot,
He’s the dirtiest devil in the whole bloody lot.
He’ll come to your back door when you’re sleeping sound,
He’ll steal your best cow and then put it in pound.