They are the “Men of the Deeps”— men from coal mines across Cape Breton who, together, formed a choir back in 1966. At this time, the mines were struggling and so was the local economy. There were many mine closures and as the men lost their livelihoods, they responded by staving off despair: they undertook a mission to preserve Cape Breton’s rich culture and folklore through song.
The history of Cape Breton is deeply rooted within the mining industry. It is often said that the coal mines formed the nuclei for the island’s many communities. In fact, the region has had a long and troubled history with coal since the early 1700s. Throughout the years, mining operations fluctuated with the rise and fall of coal prices, resulting in a series of successes and failures. At its peak production, the mining industry in Cape Breton produced as much as 6.6 million tons of ore and employed 12,000 workers. However, it also claimed over 1,400 lives along the way.
Among the group’s vast repertoire of songs are the ones that tell of these lives lost in the coals mines — songs about historical mining disasters and tragedies such as the New Waterford explosion of 1917, the No. 26 Colliery tragedy that occurred in Glace Bay in 1979, or again, the three major disasters of Springhill, Nova Scotia in 1891, 1956 and 1958.
The songs were collected by the group’s director, John C. O’Donnell, who has been with the choir since its inception in 1966. In addition to the songs that depict the great tragedies in the mines are songs that simply talk about the daily work life deep underground — songs that the miners would sing during their long, dark walk into the coal seams, 10 kilometres out beneath the Atlantic Ocean, and songs instilled with the coal miner’s tenacious sense of humour, able to make light of some very serious situations.
Even still, some of the songs performed by the Men of the Deeps are not related to the mines. Some are simply folklore from the region or songs that were passed down from Celtic ancestors. Some are songs authored by Cape Breton songwriters such as Rita MacNeil and Allister MacGillivray.
To be part of the choir one must presently work, or have once worked, in the coal mines. The ages of the members range from the late 30s to the late 70s, reflecting appropriately the ages of men who worked side-by-side underground — sons who toiled alongside their fathers and their brothers.
In fact, some of the members have been with the choir since the very beginning and can clearly remember tragedies such as the Springhill mining disasters, adding a feeling of authenticity to the choir’s performance. To amplify this sense of authenticity, the members also perform wearing their mining garb. Dressed in coveralls, work boots and hard hats, the men are known for making an impressive entrance to their shows within complete darkness, illuminated only by their own headlamps.
Countless numbers of these poignant entrances have been made in concert halls throughout Canada and the United States since 1967. The Men of the Deeps have also performed internationally. Notably, in 1976, the group became the very first Canadian musical ensemble to tour the Peoples Republic of China once diplomatic relations had been restored with the country in 1972. In 1999, the group also travelled to Kosovo in order to perform on behalf of the United Nations Children’s Fund.
The Men of the Deeps have been featured in four short films produced by the National Film Board of Canada and have also released several albums on the Atlantica, Apex and Waterloo record labels. Incidentally, they are also the only all-male chorus in North America.