Peace Be With You: The Life and Times of Mr. Bruce Guthro

Bruce Guthro passed away this week at age 62 from cancer. I am not sure how well known Mr. Guthro was outside of his native Cape Breton Island, but I can assure you that back home, my island is in mourning.

There are many aspects of being a Cape Bretoner that fill me with pride, but one of the best is the rich musical heritage found there. I am so very lucky to have come of age at the same time as the Cape Breton Celtic music scene did in the 1970s and beyond. As a young adult, I was surrounded on all sides by the musicianship and the storytelling of singers such as Matt Minglewood, Rita MacNeil, J.P. Cormier, The Rankin Family, The Barra MacNeils, The Inspirational Singers from Whitney Pier, The glorious Men of the Deeps and Gordie Sampson, along with the extraordinary fiddle playing of Lee Cremo, Winnie Chafe, Buddy and Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac and the choral singing of Sister Rita Clare and the Cape Breton Chorale and so much more. The heartbeat of Cape Breton can be felt in the hand claps and foot stomps found in ceilidhs and other impromptu gatherings all over the island. Everyone’s doors were always open, the teapots were always on and a sense of community borne of music and culture and history was always seen and felt and on display. In the middle of it all was a man named Bruce Guthro.

Bruce Guthro was a singer and songwriter. He was a respected peer of everyone mentioned above. He was the winner of multiple East Coast Music Awards for his singing and his songwriting. He performed solo for the entirety of his career. But he also fronted a very successful Scottish Celtic band named Runrig. But just as importantly, Bruce Guthro wove himself into the musical fabric of the island by playing and working with anyone and everyone who wished to make music. One of the things Bruce Guthro was most noted for was a series he developed known affectionately as The Circle. Essentially, the idea behind The Circle was to invite a collection of entertainers, songwriters and musicians to meet together in a room or on a stage and sit in a circle, surrounded on all sides by an audience. In this circle, the invited guests would swap stories and play some tunes to the delight of the crowd in attendance. It was all warm and intimate and friendly and built upon a foundation of storytelling and song. As important a musical figure as Bruce Guthro was, I always regarded him as a father figure to those who performed in the kitchens, legion halls, taverns and concert halls of Cape Breton. It is in this light that I would like to share a personal story with you about how Bruce Guthro played a small role in one of the most memorable moments in my life. Here we go!

I live in Ontario, Canada. That is a long way from Cape Breton Island, which sits atop the east coast province of Nova Scotia. I have lived away, as they say, since 1982, but I go back home to Cape Breton Island every year to visit family and to bathe in the warm glow of what it feels like to be Home. This particular story takes place in 2002 (which was the year my wife and I got married). I met my wife in Ontario. We fell in love instantly and knew we were destined to be married. I assumed that we would follow tradition that states that our wedding would be where the bride’s hometown was. But, to my delight, my wife told me that she didn’t wish for that to be the case and would be happy to be married on Cape Breton Island. So, home we went. In 2001, we traveled home and made all the wedding arrangements. In 2002, we invited a small cadre of our closest friends and family and were married at a restaurant called The Miner’s Village Restaurant on the grounds of The Miner’s Museum which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived in my hometown of Glace Bay a week before our wedding day, which is when our story takes place.

When we first arrived back home, my mother informed us that there was going to be a special concert happening in town, down by the harbour. Unbeknownst to my wife and I, a local Glace Bay girl named Aselin Debison had written a song and recorded an album and was being promoted as being Canada’s next big thing by the movers and shakers within the Canadian music industry. To help launch Aselin on to a national stage, the CBC was set to film a live concert in Glace Bay. According to my mother, the concert was free and the CBC was recruiting local citizens to sit in as Aselin Debison’s audience. So, the next thing we knew, my bride-to-be, my mother and I were sitting in chairs next to the entrance to Glace Bay Harbour as we waited to be part of a live television broadcast. A concert stage had been set up in front of the wharf next to the water. Behind the stage were several fishing trawlers moored for the day. Lobster traps sat stacked photogenically hither and yon. The fish processing plant hosted a flock of seagulls who eyed us all with curiosity. All in all, Glace Bay Harbour cleaned itself up well for its moment on the national stage and we were delighted to be there to see it all happen.

Bruce Guthro and a very young Aselin Denison and some lobster traps. Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.

One of the greatest things about being from Cape Breton Island is the pride everyone feels when “one of their own” does well. In the case of young Aselin Debison, she carried herself with much charm and humility. In reply, the local community hoisted her up on their collective shoulders and were only too happy to cheer her on as she was given this opportunity. So there we sat, surrounded by hundreds of fellow Cape Bretoners who were all bursting with pride. The waves rolled in. The seagulls squawked. The sea breezes blew. Then the flood lights were struck and the CBC director announced that we were set to begin. But, as the show began, it was not Aselin Debison who strode to the stage, it was a handsome man holding a guitar. His name was Bruce Guthro. As it turned out, Bruce Guthro was friends with Aselin Debison’s parents and had been mentoring the young singer for years. So, it was only natural for him to continue in that role by appearing as her opening act. I know that my wife did not know who this man was but I sure did! Even twenty or so years ago, Bruce Guthro was a big name in the Cape Breton Celtic music scene. As he walked onto the stage, I counted myself as being extremely fortunate to be introducing my wife to Celtic music as performed by such a talented and respected performer. As with all good opening acts, Bruce Guthro ran through a selection of his hits and other popular Cape Breton songs and got the audience suitably warmed up for Aselin Debison’s appearance. When his short set was over, Aselin Debison was called to the stage. All of eleven or twelve years old she was! She walked to the centre of the stage, received a hug from Bruce Guthro and then she began to sing. All the while, Bruce Guthro remained on stage, beaming at her with pride, playing along and helping her to take her star turn on the CBC. Aselin Debison was an absolute sweetheart! She sang her hit song at the time, “Sweet Is The Melody”, and a host of other classic Cape Breton tunes such as “It’s Getting Dark Again” and “Out On The Mira”. She closed with the unofficial anthem of Cape Breton, “We Are An Island”. Everyone sang and clapped and cheered. It was a perfect evening on Cape Breton Island. *You can watch the CBC version of that concert by clicking on the link here.

Flash forward a few years. My wife and I are married and are expecting our first child (who turned out to be a girl). In choosing her name, we decided to make her first name something unique and set apart from any familial connections or history. In that way, she could create her own legacy and have her name turn out to mean whatever she wished it to be. So, we called our daughter Leah. But, for her middle name, we did want there to be some sort of tie to the past. But as we searched through the names of our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and so on, we weren’t satisfied with how any of those names sounded next to “Leah”. Then it hit me! I turned to my wife and brought up the name Aselin. As soon as we said it out loud, Leah Aselin MacInnes became her name. In the end, the tie to the past that we went for was not familial at all but, instead, it was cultural. Our daughter is named after that lovely young singer Aselin Debison, but more importantly, she is named after the music of Cape Breton. Leah was once given a onesie or a t-shirt (I can’t really remember which it was) by a dear friend of mine from back home that read, “My Roots Are In Cape Breton”. No truer words were ever spoken.

And now, with the news of the passing of Bruce Guthro, I am taken back to that evening by the harbour, under the lights and to the songs of Cape Breton that filled the air.

I doubt that Mr. Guthro was ever aware that we were in that audience that night nor what the impact of his efforts were. He only had eyes for Aselin Debison. But like so many others who listened to his music or his stories, we were made better and richer as a result. His death leaves a great void in the cultural landscape of Cape Breton, but his legacy is strong. I have no doubt at all that in the days leading up to his funeral or those immediately after or even those during his funeral, that there will be songs of Cape Breton sung, glasses raised in his honour and a sense of cultural community reinforced once again for all to see and feel. Some people leave their mark on our world by the difference they made in the lives of others, and Bruce Guthro is a prime example. I will not be down for his funeral, but I will acknowledge his passing with a good firm hug of my daughter who has Cape Breton blood in her veins. Perhaps we will play some down home music as well, including a song or two from Mr. Guthro as well as his protegée, Aselin Debison. Thank you for all that you have contributed to life on Cape Breton Island, Mr. Guthro. You have lived well and accomplished much to be proud of. You have earned your rest. Cheers to you. May Peace Be With You now and forever more.

The link to the official website for Bruce Guthro can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Scottish band Runrig can be found here.

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