A Short History
The Men of the Deeps is a choir of working and retired coal miners from the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada. Organized in 1966 as part of Cape Breton’s contribution to Canada’s Centennial Year (1967), the group’s inception was an effort by the people of Cape Breton to preserve in song some of the rich folklore of that island’s coal mining communities.
Since 1967 the group has been singing of the work and lifestyle of the Cape Breton coal miner to audiences throughout most of Canada and the United States. In 1976 they became the first Canadian performing group to tour the People’s Republic of China after diplomatic relations between the two nations were restored in 1972. And as recently as September 1999 the men traveled to Kosovo in the former Republic of Yugoslavia at the request of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, where they performed in a gala festival organized by actress Vanessa Redgrave on behalf of the United Nations Children’s Fund. The group’s most recent tours have brought the choir as far north as the Ekati diamond mines in the Northwest Territories, and as far south as Arizona, Alabama, Florida and the Appalachian coal mining communities of Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. In September 2008 the group was invited to perform in Las Vegas at the international MineExpo conference where sold out audiences enjoyed its unique blend of songs and stories for six consecutive nights.
The musical director of the Men of the Deeps is John C. O’Donnell, Professor of Music at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. For most of the choir’s 43 year history, Professor O’Donnell has been travelling almost weekly to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, where he rehearses the singing miners: a round trip distance of 485 kilometres. In 1983 the government of Canada honoured Professor O’Donnell’s efforts when he was awarded the prestigious Order of Canada. More recently the University College of Cape Breton recognized his efforts when the degree Doctor of Letters was conferred upon him at its May 1993 Convocation.
In addition to the historical tour to the People’s Republic of China and the groundbreaking trip to Kosovo, some of the group’s interesting concert tours have included two visits to the United States for performances before the United Mine Workers of America at their conventions in Cincinnati, Ohio and Denver, Colorado. In their own country the men have toured the mining communities of Labrador and Northern Manitoba; they have sung in most major centres across Canada and countless smaller towns from coast to coast. The group celebrated its 20th anniversary year with a successful 2-½ week engagement at Vancouver’s Expo ’86 where it performed in concert with Cape Breton singer, Rita Mac Neil and the RCMP Concert Band. In June 1989 the Cape Breton miners performed in Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall as part of a month-long International Choral Festival that featured many of the world’s outstanding choral organizations.
From 1994 to 1996 the Men of the Deeps teamed with school choirs throughout Nova Scotia in a province-wide “Light the Darkness” tour to promote awareness of the Canadian Red Cross. In 1996, 1997 and again in the spring of 1999 the choir completed successful tours of Ontario where it played to sold-out audiences from Toronto’s Massey Hall to Windsor’s Chrysler Theatre. During its spring 1999 tour of Ontario the group recorded a program for CBC’s On Stage at the Glenn Gould Theatre and sang the opening anthems for a Blue Jays game at the Sky dome. The 1998-99 season also brought the group to Western Canada, Newfoundland and New Brunswick. And in October 1999 the Men of the Deeps completed a successful tour of Ontario and the eastern United States with popular Cape Breton singer and songwriter, Rita Mac Neil.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the group released four long-play record albums, one on the Apex label and three on the Waterloo label. The last three recordings, which are also available on cassette tape, were produced by Waterloo Music Company in Waterloo, Ontario. In 1992 the group released its first compact disk entitled Diamonds in the Rough: Twenty-Five Years with the Men of the Deeps. A second CD, Buried Treasures, a compilation disk featuring a variety of selections from the three Waterloo recordings, was released in April 1995 on the Atlantica-EMI label. To honour its 30th year anniversary in 1996, the Men of the Deeps released its third CD, Coal Fire in winter, In 2004 the CD “Their Lights Will Shine” was produced, and to celebrate their 40th year in 2008, The CD “40 Years Young” was produced.
The Men of the Deeps are no strangers to the media. The group has appeared in two films produced by the National Film Board of Canada. It has been heard frequently on CBC radio in Canada and the list of television performances includes CBC’s popular Front Page Challenge, and CTV’s Canada AM. In 1982 the men were a special guests on the Anne Murray Christmas Special seen throughout North America on the CBS and CTV television networks. In 1986 the CTV network did a special documentary honouring the 20th anniversary of the Men of the Deeps. It was shown throughout Canada on the program Canada in View. In 1988 the men performed with Rita Mac Neil on Canada’s Juno Awards seen coast to coast, and in 1993 they were special guests on Rita’s Christmas Television Special and Anne Murray’s 1993 television production “Anne Murray in Nova Scotia.” In October 1995 the Men of the Deeps were special guests of Rita Mac Neil when they were featured on the popular CBC Television show “Rita and Friends;” and in March 1998 the group appeared again with Rita’s on her CTV network special: A Celtic Celebration. Most recently, the group has recorded a choral backup on a new CD by Roger Whittaker, which was released in September 1999.
Special 25th year anniversary honours for the Men of the Deeps came on March 23, 1991, when the group received Nova Scotia’s “Ambassador of the Year” award from the Tourist Industry Association of Nova Scotia (TIANS), and again on November 30, 1991, when the group and its director were honoured with a 25th Anniversary Banquet hosted by the business community of Industrial Cape Breton. That banquet was also the setting for the release of a book documenting the group’s 25-year history: Diamonds in the Rough, by well-known Cape Breton songwriter and author, Alistair MacGillivray.
The Men of the Deeps received a unique honour on May 13, 2000, when the University College of Cape Breton bestowed an honorary doctoral degree on the entire group in recognition of the group’s contribution to Cape Breton culture over the past thirty-four years. Although the choir’s full membership was present at the convocation, current president Fred Gillis accepted the honour on behalf of the group.
The musical repertoire of the Men of the Deeps is gathered from mining communities around the world. Many of the group’s songs are “home grown” – composed by contemporary Cape Breton bards, or traditional songs which trace their roots to their Celtic fore bearers in the old country. Professor O’Donnell has become an expert on coal mining songs in Canada, and published a major collection entitled And Now The Fields Are Green: A Collection of Coal Mining Songs in Canada (Sydney, Nova Scotia; University College of Cape Breton Press: 1992).
To belong to the singing group a man must have worked in the mine. The ages of the men range from the mid-thirties to the upper-seventies, about one-quarter of which have been with the group since it was organized in 1966. A special sense of authenticity is given to the group by the presence of several retired coal miners who recall vividly the days when coal miners were looked upon as “second class” citizens, forced to eke out a living mining coal in hazardous conditions while their lives were almost entirely dependent upon the company.
Today the Men of the Deeps are more than a singing group -it is a social institution. There is a comradery amongst the members of the group that carries over to their audiences wherever they perform. Clad in coveralls and hard hats, they make an impressive impact when they enter a concert hall in total darkness with only the lamps on their helmets for light.
The Ottawa Journal described the group’s visit to China as the “best people-to-people exchange ever.” Anyone who attends a concert by the Men of the Deeps cannot help but come away with the feeling that a special breed of men has touched them.