By 6:30 p.m. the eager performers are already gathering, fully 1½ hours before the concert’s start. Among them is tall Joseph McMahon, 91, from nearby Chatham Head. “I’ve been sick for five weeks,” he declares, “but I wanted to come down tonight.” Inside the small theatre informality is the rule, as musicians rehearse on stage and in a cloakroom backstage: as the concert begins a small schooner sails up the river nearby.
The sailboat and the laid-back atmosphere surprise nobody, for this is Miramichi, land of lumbering, salmon fishing, and—once upon a timewooden shipbuilding. Even more than that, Miramichi is a palpable state of mind for the inhabitants of this broad New Brunswick river valley, and nothing commemorates this better than the Miramichi Folksong Festival in Newcastle, New Brunswick. But as this year’s three-day festival began in July the theme song could well have been Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are AChangin’,for the old songs are passing with the older generation, and a new
musical tradition is threatening to take
Some of the original Miramichi songs were imported from Scotland, Ireland and England, while others were made up on the spot to describe local disasters, drownings, murders and other foibles and strengths of common men. The heyday of this tradition was the latter part of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. But it wasn’t until 1947 that local boy Max Aitken, who later found fame as Lord Beaverbrook, suggested to New Brunswick historian Louise Manny: “Why don’t you go out and collect New Brunswick folksongs? I’ll send you a fine recording machine.”
Manny’s project stirred up interest, and a decade later the first Miramichi Folksong Festival was held. The event has been an annual showcase of folksongs ever since. But this year’s version was a reminder of how quickly this bit of Canada’s folk culture is fading into history. Many of the oldtimers who used to come from miles around to sing are gone now. Others were too ill to perform this year. To be sure, Wilmot MacDonald of Black River was still there, opening the festival with The Lumber-
man’s Alphabet’ (A for the axes, and that youse all know, B for the byes that can use them also . . .). But even he admits: “I’m raisin’ 76 now, and there’s not too much left.”
What this means to the festival is an increasing influx of younger singers more inclined toward modern, albeit still homespun, ballads, and not everybody approves. An even more serious threat to the purists is the incursion of the guitar, an instrument unknown to the old woodcutters in their lumber camps. James Wilson, a Rutgers University music professor who grew up on the Miramichi, notes that singing without accompaniment—the rule in the past—allowed the singers a wide range of pitch for expressing vividly every nuance of their songs. That freedom is suppressed by the constant beat of a guitar, says Wilson, and as a result the singer can no longer effect “these very subtle embellishments.”
The situation has created a dilemma for the festival’s organizers—they must either welcome the newcomers with their guitars and contemporary paeans to the Miramichi or watch the event pass out of existence through attrition. The best hope for preserving the old songs is to teach them to young people, says organizer Maisy Mitchell, and indeed some younger singers seem amenable. When they came to the festival three years ago, says Sandy Hogan, leader of Moncton’s Donegal Tweed group, it was simply to enjoy it. But now, he says, “We’ve realized that somebody should learn the old songs and carry on.” So this year Hogan manfully tackled several lines of the tonguetwisting The Jam on Gerry’s Rock and promised “the rest of it next year.” Meantime, the festival retains enough color and atmosphere to hint strongly at its unique genesis in the deep forest. When Wilmot MacDonald ends his song with the traditional “whoop,” the knowledgeable audience erupts in applause. Eighty-five-yearold Frank Estey has to be helped to the stage, but he sings with a strong, clear voice; now and then a few step dancers get up to accompany the fiddlers on stage.
How the folk festival will sort itself out, nobody knows. But then the folks around Miramichi are used to vague endings, as the last lines of the Lumberman ’s Alphabet ’ reveal:
W is for the woods we leave in the spring, And now I have sung all I’m going to sing, and how merry we are. The last three letters I can’t make them rhyme; If you can, please tell me in time, and how merry I’ll be. David Folster
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