The stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.
I grew up in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. Waves from the mighty Atlantic Ocean smashed into coal-streaked cliffs that sheltered my hometown. Coal mines snaked for miles under the very land that formed those towering cliffs. Whether under the ground or on the sea, there were many men who earned a dangerous living for their families and helped keep the economy of Glace Bay afloat. The members of my family were neither fishers nor miners but we knew many who were. One of my favourite childhood memories came at school. We would be outside enjoying our recess play when all of a sudden the sky would fill with the cacophonous screeching and caterwauling of hundreds of seagulls. These birds were not screeching at the children playing in our schoolyard. They were all aflutter because the trawlers that had set out to sea before the sun rose above the horizon were now coming back home to port. Their holds would be filled with fish. The seagulls circled overhead in hopes of finding a fresh caught supper should any member of a trawler crew drop a fish on the wharf as they were being transferred into the fish processing plants that sat beside the harbour. The frenzied cries of the seagulls sounded across my hometown each day with the regularity of church bells on Sunday. It signaled to all that our fishermen had returned safely once again from the sea. In our playground, the games still went on as usual, but for my friends who had fathers and uncles on those boats, you could see the tension ease out of their bodies. Even as children, we knew what it was to have danger ever present in our lives. So, the seagulls’ symphony was always music to our ears. It said as much about family and about community and as words can say.
This very year is the 40th anniversary of my departure from Glace Bay. In that time, I have lived in five different cities, all of them in Ontario. However, even though barely a third of my life was spent by the sea, I always think of Glace Bay as my hometown. I have salt water in my blood and coal dust in crevices and cracks that are etched into my skin. I have experienced a form of life that has helped create the person that I have become. I carry that heritage with me wherever I go in this world. It is a large part of the reason that I brought my bride to Cape Breton to ask for her hand. It is why I bring my daughters home to see the places of my childhood. Glace Bay is part of who I am and they are part of me, too, so I want those that I love to feel that salt air, to smell the sea when the tide is out and the ocean floor reveals itself and to know that the people there are good for a head nod as we pass, even if they have no idea who we are. I am blessed to be able to call Glace Bay my hometown.
But, one thing that I have learned in life and which I need reminding of, from time to time, is that not everyone in my life is as lucky as I am to have been raised as I was, where I was. I have friends who had traumatic childhoods; their memories of their hometowns are forever associated with sadness and pain. I have other friends who had more of a transient childhood because of their parents being in the military or in some other line of work for which frequent job transfers were a characteristic of the profession. For those folks, the question, “So, where are you from?” is not so easy or pleasant to answer. For me, I got to grow up with my classmates from school. For some, it was a friendship that has extended throughout our entire lives. But, for those kids who moved from town to town in search of employment for their parents and/or to stay one step ahead of bill collectors, they missed out on forming those childhood bonds. Saying goodbye became regular as rain. For many, there were no goodbyes at all because they learned not to invest the energy in forming attachments in the first place.
Luckily for me and for a friend of mine named JoAnn Kropf-Hedley, we found each other in our current home town of Cobourg, Ontario. JoAnn lives a few streets over from me and if I am a really good boy, sometimes she makes me the best raisin pies in the world. JoAnn has been a staunch friend of this blog since its inception and for that, I am eternally grateful. Not only does JoAnn click that LIKE button and leave excellent comments, she has given me one more thing that I appreciate…song suggestions. Although I haven’t kept up with the series as much as I have other blog series that I write, I do accept suggestions for future blog posts from my readers, turning those suggestions into posts that run under the heading “Reader’s Choice”. Well, a few months ago, JoAnn submitted a song from a Canadian Folk duo that I had never heard of before. The duo call themselves Madison Violet and the song she suggested was one called “Small of my Heart”.
When JoAnn suggested this song, she did so along with sharing a story from her own life. She told me that she was one of those wandering souls who criss-crossed the province and the country as a child. Because JoAnn knows my life story well, she knew the importance, for me of having a hometown to go back to. For her, she said that the closest she has had to a community where she felt at home was in Kincardine, Ontario. Kincardine sits on the shore of Lake Huron. It is surrounded by some of the very best farmland in Ontario. Kincardine occupies a scenic square amid a patchwork quilt of small town communities that make up the northwest corner of southern Ontario. For JoAnn, the close knit nature of life in Kincardine was what her young soul required at that time in her life. It is a feeling of community that she has carried with her throughout the rest of her days, including those spent just a five-minute walk from me.
The song “Small of my Heart” was written about Kincardine, which is why it is such a special song to JoAnn and why I feel so honoured to share it with you all today. Madison Violet consists of two talented singer-songwriters named Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIssac. They have been nominated for several Juno awards in the Folk category. Both women have roots in Cape Breton. Lisa MacIssac is the sister of talented fiddler Ashley MacIssac. Brenley MacEachern was born in Cape Breton but ended up moving to Ontario and wound up living in Kincardine. “Small of my Heart” is a song about Kincardine even though it never mentions the town by name. However, it does mention driving down Hwy. #9 (which is the main road that takes you to Kincardine from the Greater Toronto Area). The song also mentions specific places within Kincardine such as Harbour Street (by Lake Huron). It ends with the line about the importance of having a home town like Kincardine. I have visited Kincardine once as a much younger man and found it to be a lovely spot. I imagine those who call Kincardine home do so because of the sense of community they have and for how living by a mighty body of water can imprint itself in one’s DNA. I am not surprised that JoAnn and I…two people at home in small towns by the water…get along so well. Sometimes having a sense of home is because of geography. Sometimes it is because of those who make up your world. Thanks, JoAnn for the song suggestion and for being my friend.
The link to the video for the song “Small of my Heart” by Madison Violet can be found here.
The link to the official website for Madison Violet can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Town of Kincardine, Ontario, can be found here.
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