Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Frozen Logger ... Not so Silly a Ditty

As I sat down one evening,
was in a small café
A forty year old waitress to me
these words did say

A friend recently told a story of her mother. She was in a long term care facility unable to go home and, at times, unable to remember it. One day her aged friends burst through the door in song. It was music from their shared years in Girl Guides: campfire melodies, funny ditties and solemn rounds. They stayed several hours; got everyone singing. The whole place, my friend said, including her mother, was kindled by the heart-held memories of better times, youthful laughter and silly tunes.

I see you that you are a logger
and not just a common bum
'Cause nobody but a logger
stirs his coffee with his thumb

It reminded me of a solo trip I once took around BC as a young woman. With radio transmission dubious at best I felt I needed company through the long highway miles. More than that, and quite unconscious at the time, I needed courage. I was scared. Although I had travelled before, it was the biggest thing I had ever done alone and I needed something to keep me going, but also something to remind me of home, what I loved and made me happy. My audio memento, I decided, was to be folk music, most notably, The Weavers.

My lover he was a logger,
there's none like him today
Well if you'd pour whiskey on it
well he'd eat a bale of hay

The Weavers were an American folk music quartet formed in 1948. I got turned on to them when an old boyfriend took me to a Washington pub just south of the Sumas Crossing. Regulars would gather around a piano and sing old favorites made popular by the group. I fell in love—not with the guy but the music. Later when I kissed the boy goodbye I bought the Weaver’s “Best of” album and the songs, carefully recorded on two cassette tapes, went with me on my trip. They were my talisman: I knew that whatever might befall me on this grand adventure, I would be okay.

Funny how music can do that—provide joy and laughter but also a sense of belonging … even safety.

He never used a razor
to shave his horny hide
He'd just drive them in with a hammer
then he'd bite them off inside

My trip led me to friends and family who were living and working in various regions. I went through Enderby, then over to the Rockies, on up to Peace River country, back down to Prince Rupert and over to the Island. The whole way through I sang along with The Weavers—The Sloop John B; Follow the Drinking Gourd; Goodnight Irene and The Frozen Logger—their rhythmic verses keeping pace with the fading kilometres. I fell in love a couple times, hiked the Skyline Trail with Utta, and experienced hippie life on Cortez with Angie but I never felt lonely during the long hours on the road. The only time it wasn’t there to immediately give me solace was in north-east BC when visiting my father up in camp.

My lover he came to see me
was on a freezing day
He held me in a fond embrace
that broke three vertebraes

Dad was a rock and tunnel worker, otherwise known as a driller and blaster. He worked mostly underground but was also involved in road and dam building. A point of pride: he helped blow up Ripple Rock. When I visited him that day he was working many metres under Table Mountain burrowing a tunnel through to the coal mines just south of Tumbler Ridge. I drove three hours south from Chetwynd on a long and narrow, winding logging road into his camp and stayed overnight.

Well he kissed me when we parted
so hard that he broke my jaw
And I could not speak to tell him
he forgot his mackinaw

The following morning I followed my dad into the hole. At the entrance of the tunnel we got on an open train car and drove what seemed like hours into the abyss. It was August 1983, three months before the rail line would open to its full 9km length. It was cold and damp; claustrophobic in the eerie light reflecting off the dark limestone walls. The air seemed foul and the sounds, unnatural: machines, voices, and the subtle but constant drip of water reverberating in discordant unison. I yearned for the bright sunshine we left not long before but we stayed on course, further and further into the darkness. We rode straight through to the face where my dad, in his working hours, drilled holes in the rock and prepared them for blasting. It was there I met the “magic carpet”, the immense machine that not only housed the jumbo drill and the cars that took out the muck but the tracks that lay our passage forward. It was like this fantastical conveyor belt where detritus went one way and men the other. And all deep below in the bowels of a mountain that teased us with subtle insinuations that it might decide never let us go.

I vowed upon coming back out into the sun, the light, the blessed harmony of life, to never go back in. I was more than glad to wave goodbye and be back on the road with my extended musical family.

I saw my lover leaving
sauntering through the snow
Well going grimly homeward
at forty eight below

These thoughts of music, being away from home and of the longing that can come with it, worked their way in my consciousness again while reading Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. It’s a lovely story, albeit tragic, at times—a poetic reflection of life, family and work, as seen through the eyes of a Cape Bretoner with Celtic roots. Throughout the book one hears the echo of music: how it kept alive the feeling of family and place regardless of where one travelled or plied one’s trade. As MacLeod writes: When we were not working [in the mines] or sleeping we played the records of the Cape Breton violin which accompanied my brothers everywhere. Sometimes my brothers played their battered violin themselves. And sometimes we hummed or sang the old Gaelic songs. And when we talked, often in Gaelic, it was mostly of the past and of the distant landscape which was our home. 

Well the weather tried to freeze him
it tried its level best
At a hundred degrees below zero
why, he buttoned up his vest

I imagine that music was, at times, the only thing that got workers—the miner, the logger, the fisher; the farmer, the factory worker; the slave and the free—through the long days, whether it was the rhythmic chorus that kept pace with repetitive toil; traditional songs that provided strength and meaning; creative outlets for frustration and anger; or coded communication for those forbidden to talk. Despite music’s utilitarian ways, however, there seems always the refrain, sometimes so subtle you can barely hear it, of the longing, the coming home, and the hardship of being away.

It froze clean through to China
and it froze to the stars above
And at a thousand degrees below zero
it froze my logger love

At the camp in my father’s workplace, so many years ago, I have no memory of song. Perhaps it was done quietly or in private moments but when I asked my father, he, too, remembers none. Where did the music go? Today, of course, we have iPods and mp3 players. Back then it was probably tinny radios, 8-tracks and cassettes players with tiny earplugs. Music remains a popular medium. That has not changed. But I wonder what was lost when we stopped singing together at work or in our journeys far from home. When we did we stop sharing joy and hardship within the strains of a violin; or thoughts of long-lost loves and hopes for the future in an echoing chorus? When did music become a solo sojourn into the hearts of no one but our self?

And so I lost my lover
and to this café I come
And here I wait till someone
stirs his coffee with his thumb.

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