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Giving them voice

New book tells the stories and songs of the woods workers

Campus and Community

A new book exploring the little-known, and, up to now, largely overlooked contribution of the wood workers of this province has been released by ISER Books.

The Music of Our Burnished Axes: Songs and Stories of the Woods Workers of Newfoundland and Labrador is co-authored by Dr. Ursula Kelly and Dr. Meghan Forsyth.

It analyzes their significance — as both grassroots social history texts and creative and musical contributions — and creates a portrait of a culture shaped by the harvesting of timber.

Research Beginnings

Perhaps it is not surprising that it would take a scholar without musicological hang-ups to put together an anthology of songs and stories of the wood workers of Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s how Dr. Beverly Diamond, Professor Emerita and Canada Research Chair in Ethnomusicology (2002-2015) describes Dr. Ursula Kelly in her introduction to the book.

But as an interdisciplinary scholar in cultural studies and a logger’s daughter, Dr. Kelly was the ideal person to undertake this research.

Dr. Forsyth is an ethnomusicologist and a project coordinator with the Research Centre for the Study of Music, Media and Place. She collaborated with Dr. Kelly to provide transcriptions of the songs and a discussion of the music they discovered in their research.

“Their songs show that loggers clearly knew about the world and had a great deal to say about it.” — Dr. Meghan Forsyth

Their collaboration goes back five years. Their initial project, Mentioned in Song: Song Traditions of the Loggers of Newfoundland and Labrador, produced a CD and book and was followed by public performances and narrations that delved into the stories and songs of the wood workers.

They both came to realize there was a great deal more to tell of the wood workers. The result was this book, which includes 76 songs, 14 recitations, 23 poems and 11 narratives and the social history out of which they came.

Brought to life

Dr. Kelly wrote the loggers were  “…wrongly dismissed as poor and uneducated and of value only for their physical strength and endurance. The songs, recitations, poems and stories they composed about their work challenge this stereotype and show how exploitation and hardship were met with determination creativity and humour.”

“Their songs show that loggers clearly knew about the world and had a great deal to say about it,” said Dr. Forsyth.

The authors have brought the wood workers to life, remembering their contribution not only to culture, but their contributions to both world wars while working in the United Kingdom where they are fondly remembered and celebrated.

While Newfoundland and Labrador culture is often centred on our seafaring history, the wood workers’ impact is significant. Lumbering and logging and the internal migrations that it prompted shaped over 200 communities throughout the province.

While transcribing the songs Dr. Forsyth noted how the volume reflected the participatory and communal nature of work and social life in the wood camps. The lyrics and titles also served as a way for workers to memorialize people and places and document events and common experiences.

Much of the wood workers’ songs and stories are not well known. While seafaring songs were sang and remembered, the words and music of the wood worker essentially remained untold. Until now.

Cultural contribution

Along with the songs, recitations, poems and narratives, there are over 70 archival photos included in the almost 500-page book providing a window into their lives in camps, at work and with their families. But it is through their own words that one gets a real sense of who they were and the extent of their cultural contribution.

The story of the wood workers from Newfoundland and Labrador was also felt abroad as the book also delves into their work in the United Kingdom during the two World Wars. More than 500 men in the First World War and over 3,500 men in the Second World War were sent to the UK to support the war effort. Sadly, their service was largely forgotten.

That is just one of the stories brought to light in the book. It is featured in a travelling exhibit also produced by Drs. Kelly and Forysth entitled The Songs and Stories of the Forgotten Service.  The exhibit includes archival photographs, audiovisual material, and text. Interactive technologies enable the audience to explore songs, recitations, and stories written and performed by the foresters.


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