Posted by: alexhickey | February 26, 2018

©From the Galley to the Kitchen:

Songs of Charlie MacKinnon in the Lives of St. Jacques Fishermen

Newfoundlanders have always gone away to work reaching back to the earliest days of settlement.  When you think about it, many of the British and French fishermen who came here to fish prior to permanent European settlement were also men going away from their homes to work. Little wonder that practice gained a foothold in the population.

Living in St. Jacques meant adjusting to temporary seasonal population shifts because of work patterns.  Almost every man in the community of my father’s generation spent some time on boats in the fishing industry during their work career.  Others who weren’t on fishing vessels were employed in the coastal shipping trades.  It was a minority who didn’t go to sea.

Many of the men found employment in the Nova Scotia fishing industry.  They sailed the schooners of the nineteenth century and transitioned to the trawlers of the twentieth century as crewmen and captains. When spring was approaching the horizon the exodus would start and many would not be seen again until shortly before Christmas when they’d return home for their brief stay during the winter months.

They fished out of such towns as Lockport, Shelburne, Bridgewater, Liverpool and Lunenburg on the southeast shore of the province and in such fishing towns as Port Hawkesbury, Mulgrave, Sydney, and North Sydney on the northeast shore. Though the working conditions were hard and the pay low by today’s standards many of them worked there for years.  There was a common thread which ran among them even though they worked in different towns on quite a variety of vessels and in different fisheries – that was music.

Music became their solace, their buoyancy which lifted them beyond the days’ work, took them home for a few minutes, and placed them in the arms of lovers or in a kitchen with their mothers.  Some of the music and songs they took with them to Nova Scotia, others came from the folk music of that province while more came from the strong influence of American bluegrass and country genres. This was evident in the songs they sang when they came home.

It was through these men I was introduced to the recordings of Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman, Hank Williams and other American recording artists.  It was also from them I heard the early recordings of Hank Snow and Wilf Carter.  In the late fifties and early sixties a Cape Breton recording artist gained prominence in the songs they sang in ships galleys and around kitchen tables, often with a few glasses to wet their whistles. His songs reached St. Jacques before his recordings for the men fishing out of Cape Breton learned them at source.

LP recordings weren’t widespread in the communities between Belleoram and Wreck Cove until the mid-sixties when electricity became available to all residents. There were households operating on their own electrical generators which meant St. Jacques wasn’t devoid of record players.  An occasional house still had the wind-up variety which played 78 rpm recordings.

It was his version of the Wreck of the John Harvey that I first heard even though my grandmother was quick to point out that there were many more verses to the song that weren’t included on that recording.  The fishermen had their favourites which quickly became family and community favourites through repeated exposure. Some of these included Down on the Big Shoal, Black Around Their Eyes, Wreck of the John Harvey, and The Legend of Kelly’s Mountain.  Of course I am referring to the indomitable Charlie MacKinnon!

Charlie MacKinnon from the album cover, My Cape Breton Home, 1961

Charlie MacKinnon became a household name in St. Jacques.  There were very few people in the harbour who didn’t sing along to one of his songs at one time or another.   His album “Songs of My Cape Breton Home”, recorded in 1961, was the source of many of his most popular songs; however, another album recorded in 1967, “Free and Easy While Jogging Along”, proved almost as popular.  The 1961 recording also included The Ballad of a Teenage Tragedy, An Old Haunted Castle in Scotland, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Wash Out on the Line, Waters of Iona, Twilight on the Cabot Trail and The Little Irish Maid.

If I close my eyes I can hear men such as Tom Osborne and Jim Hynes singing, Down on the Big Shoal. As often as not, those men who didn’t sing loudly such as Uncle Den McCarthy and Ralph Fiander could be heard singing along as well as the evenings wore on.

The frequency with which one is exposed to specific pieces of music contributes to a feeling of ownership in that the pieces become a part of the fabric of your life.  These songs of Charlie MacKinnon were not incidentally heard and forgotten, they were sung, remembered and incorporated into the work history of the community. The singing of Down on the Big Shoal resonated with the fishermen, their families and friends for they intimately knew the song’s references.  Black Around their Eyes spoke to the earlier generations of Newfoundlanders who worked the coal mines of Cape Breton and their many descendants in and around North Sydney know to the St. Jacques fishermen. Through that exposure we incorporated Charlie MacKinnon’s songs into our collective memory and in some ways appropriated ownership. The Wreck of the John Harvey held particular resonance for it existed in lived memory of many local residents who knew the crewmen and the witnessed the event.

We knew Charlie through his songs and ranked him with the best. Charlie MacKinnon, who died in 1987 at the age of sixty-eight, was born in Little Bras d’Or on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.  Among his musical influences were traditional Cape Breton musicians, and other performers such as Hank Snow, Wilf Carter and Jimmy Rodgers.  He wrote some of his own songs; however, there was a poet/songwriter who had a profound influence on his repertoire.

That poet was Lillian Crewe-Walsh who was born in Neil’s Harbour on Scaterie Island and grew up in Glace Bay.  When she met Charlie MacKinnon in the late 1950’s, it is told, she suggested he might consider putting some of her poems to music. He did this for six poems and among them were his biggest hits. The first one to gain traction upon its release was The Ghost of Bra’Dor which became a Canadian hit in 1958. The other five are:

Waters of Iona

My Cape Breton Home

Kelly’s Mountain

The Little Irish Maid, and

Wreck of the John Harvey

Charlie MacKinnon gained a reasonable degree of popularity and most likely could have achieved wide success as a performer, however, he chose not to pursue the life of touring and performing year-round.  Instead he continued to work at the Sydney Steel Plant where he spent his career. He did tour the Maritimes and Newfoundland and performed on local radio shows.  His legacy stands strong within his Cape Breton community and throughout Atlantic Canada.  Like Charlie, most of the fishermen who brought his songs to the kitchens and living rooms of St. Jacques have also passed on.  They too are remembered through his lyrics learned in the galley’s of fishing boats and sung around the kitchen tables of home.  Many of them are still fishing down on the big shoal.

Charlie MacKinnon Discography:

MacKinnon, Charlie with the Downeasters – The Wreck of the John Harvey // Aunt Martha’s Washing Tub Format: 78 rpm, Label: Rodeo RO. 203 78, Year: 1958

MacKinnon, Charlie with the Downeasters – The Ghost of Bras d’Or // My Cape Breton Home Format: 78 rpm, Label: Rodeo RO.197, Year: 1959

Songs Of My Cape Breton Home ‎(LP, Mono), Arc Sound Ltd. A547, 1961

The True And Authentic Life Of ‎(LP, Mono) Arc Records CX. 27 1963

Songs Of My Cape Breton Home ‎(LP) Arc Sound Ltd. A547, 1964

More Songs Of My Cape Breton Home ‎(LP) Arc 654 ,1965

Free And Easy While Joggin’ Along ‎(LP, Album, Mono) Arc Records A-731, 1967

Sings Ballads Of The Maritimes ‎(LP, Album) Arc Records ACS 5030, 1969

The Best Of Charlie MacKinnon Songs Of Cape Breton ‎(LP, Album) Arc Records  ACS 5029, 1970

MacKinnon, Charlie – Sings Songs of the Misty Island (LP) Cabot Music Publishing World Record Corp. WRC1-2922, 1985

Compilation – Rodeo Records Salute to Sydney: Cape Breton Island on Its 175th Anniversary Format: 33 1/3 rpm, Charlie MacKinnon – My Cape Breton Home, 2016

Places to Visit

Lillian Crewe Walsh – Cape Breton Magazine

The Wreck of the John Harvey –

Disaster Song Tradition – The John Harvey Story

MacEdward Leach and Songs of Atlantic Canada

Cape Breton’s Lillian Crewe-Walsh: A Treasury of Ballads and Poems: With a Conversation about Lillian Crewe Walsh by Ronald Caplan (ed)

Cape Breton’s Diversity in Unity


  1. Keep up the good writing Alex brings back lot of memories my father made a trip on the blue nose with Hank Snow

  2. Wonderful overview!

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