It may have been the final day of Celtic Colours 2017, but on the second Saturday afternoon in October, it felt like the music was just getting started.
We gathered at the Evergreen Seniors Club in Port Hawkesbury for one of the festival’s final community events, the “Ship Harbour Song Session.” As was the case last year when the event took place at St. David’s United Church in Port Hastings, I had the honour of co-hosting the event with my friend Patrick Lamey, and we once again received the partnership of the Port Hastings Historical Society.
While most other music-related Celtic Colours community events tend to zero-in on the instrumental side of things, particularly the fiddle and other stringed instruments, these Strait area song sessions are a rare chance to put the focus on the vocals and celebrate the pure joy of singing.
And sing we did, as several of the estimated 100 people in attendance at the Evergreen did indeed raise their voices, filling the little hall with incredible music.
Some of the singers drove in from communities as diverse as Glace Bay, Sydney, Inverness, Mabou, Port Hood, Judique, West Bay, Mulgrave, and L’Ardoise to participate. Others who were already in town for the Celtic Colours finale named homelands as widespread as Campbellton (NB), Ottawa and Wasaga Beach (ON), Edmonton, Seattle, California, Arizona, Scotland, Italy, and Japan.
A few of them were exceptionally brave. At least three people sang a song in public for the first time, including Cathy, who turned more than a few heads with a beautiful rendition of “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream.”
Others had the crowd singing along to the likes of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and even the Hughie and Allan comedy classic “Peter at the Meter.” (The comedy meter was on high that afternoon; I took a crack at “(Everybody’s Going To The) Bungalow,” from the final season of The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton, following a late-day request.)
The event had a distinctly Nova Scotia flavour to it. The Helen Creighton collection accounted for two songs – “Spinning Wheel” and the requested “Farewell To Nova Scotia.” Stan Rogers and Allister MacGillivray each filled three slots, with the former represented by “Fogarty’s Cove,” “Northwest Passage” and “Forty-Five Years,” and the latter acknowledged via “Song For The Mira” (by request), “You’ll Be Home Again,” and “Away From The Roll Of The Sea.”
That last song was a result of one of the afternoon’s nicest surprises, a visit from a Sydney-based member of the Cape Breton Chorale in the final hour. It harkened back to a cameo from one of The Men of the Deeps during the song sessions’ previous incarnation in St. George’s Channel. Their spirit was channeled by an early performance of Rita MacNeil’s “Working Man” that, surprisingly, was carried by a large cast of female voices, including the woman from Port Hood who led the song, Barbara Cameron.
Cape Breton songwriters also got their due. Port Hawkesbury’s Sandy MacLean made his second appearance of the afternoon by answering a request for his “Wabash Cannonball” spoof “8 O’Clock and Mabou,” and the tried-and-true tale of a Route 19 moonshine run had the whole crowd singing and playing along. A lesser-known song in these parts, Wendy Markey’s “Raylene and Rita,” won the Glace Bay native some new fans as she shared her heartfelt tribute to two of Cape Breton’s late, great singers.
Some of the songs had an activist feel to them. Along with “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream,” we also tested out Dave Gunning’s 2015 track ‘Sing It Louder” as a group sing-along late in the afternoon. It’s not simply a tune about the joy or comfort of singing (as you might hear on an earlier Gunning song that remains one of my favourites, “So I Sing”). It’s a musical call to action, in the Pete Seeger or Buffy Sainte-Marie vein, urging listeners to take a stand against injustice of any sort. I hope we sent even a few of our “Ship Harbour Song Session” participants away with that sense of purpose on that Saturday afternoon.
“Sing It Louder” was followed by Kenzie MacNeil’s “The Island,” which has typically been our final group song of the day. By that point, our audience included Celtic Colours board chair Bob MacEachern, Creignish native and Sydney music columnist Dan MacDonald, and Celtic Colours community event coordinator Yvette Rogers, who was blinking back tears as the curtain fell on an incredible day of music.
Let’s do it all again next year – and, until that time, keep singing. And singing it louder.