History of the Festival
“If it wasn’t for Lord Beaverbrook, there never would have been a Miramichi Folksong Festival”, says Susan Butler, director of the festival, as she prepares for the 51st annual celebration of Miramichi song.
The Festival is rooted in the tradition of ballads which told the stories of the times; often they narrated daily life, but they also included newsworthy events. Many of the authors and singers of these ballads worked as fisherman, or in the logging camps.
In the late 1950’s, Lord Beaverbrook sent Louise Manny, the town of Newcastle’s first librarian, an expensive recording machine with the request that she go out into the community and record the songs of the day. Although she had no musical inclination whatsoever, Ms. Manny faced the challenge and her many years of compiling songs eventually led to the production of three separate recordings. Her works consisted of the “Beaverbrook Collection” and the “Dr, Manny Collection” followed by the “North Shore Collection”.
The story goes that CKMR radio aired a program on Wednesday afternoons, which featured Dr. Manny’s recordings. Once the foreman at one of the larger lumber camps noticed that production all but ceased on Wednesday afternoons; upon realizing why, word was sent that the radio program would have to be rescheduled. Too many of the woodsmen were sneaking away to listen to themselves on the radio!
The program was moved to a Sunday afternoon time slot, and that is when Susan Butler got her first taste of traditional Miramichi folk songs. She relates the story of listening to the program as being a Sunday ritual in the Butler household. Since she and her sister, Mary, had both taken voice training at the convent, she had great difficulty listening to, what she described, then, as a “painful noise”. She can still hear her father telling her not to be a “snob”, and to listen to the words because “they have a story to tell.” Eventually she understood what her father meant, and as she closed her eyes she could picture what the singer was saying. Dr. Manny’s program aired on CKMR until the mid 1960’s.
Dr. Manny founded the Miramichi Folksong Festival, and created yet another opportunity to showcase many of the talented folks she had met on her recording ventures. The Festival is rooted in the tradition of ballads which told the stories of the times; often they narrated daily life as in “The Jam on Jerry’s Rock”, but they also included newsworthy events such as the song “The Miramichi Fire”. Many of the authors and singers of these ballads worked as fisherman, or in the logging camps.
Allen Kelly with Susan Butler
Dr. Manny had great connections, knowing the right people to help her with her musical endeavours. For instance, in 1958 she contacted Ken Homer, from CBC’s “The Caravan Show”, and asked if he would be master of ceremonies for the first festival. He quickly obliged and continued to MC for many more years. She also enlisted the help of Allan Mills who was both a singer and an actor.
The Miramichi Folksong Festival is only part of the significant legacy which Dr. Louise Manny left to the Miramichi community. She approached James Reginald Wilson, from Ludlow, with her recordings with the hope of having the songs she collected transposed to written music. Their collaboration resulted in the book “Songs of Miramichi”, a collection of the lyrics and music of many of the songs which Dr. Manny discovered; truly a Miramichi history book.