Work Work Work: Work and Labour History in Song

This article, published in the Fall 2020 edition of The Beacon, was written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan.

The 28-song two-CD album titled Work Work Work: Work and Labour History in Song is the collective brainchild of Mary Shortall, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL), and Jim Payne, a Newfoundland singer and songwriter.

Payne had long wanted to showcase a collection of songs that portrayed the relationships the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have with various kinds of work, traditional as well as contemporary; songs that acknowledged the significance of the labour movement and workers’ efforts to organize and fight for improved workplace safety and better material conditions; as well as songs that lamented the loss of a way of life, and that spoke to relationships people have with the land and sea that transcend working for wages. Payne stressed a desire to avoid “preaching to the converted”, as he put it in an interview with The Beacon, and to represent the whole of Newfoundland and Labrador, geographically and culturally speaking.

Shortall had participated in Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) learning sessions that emphasized the history of the labour movement, and the songs sung to communicate this history, and to emphasize solidarity among all workers. The fact that Newfoundland and Labrador, despite their rich musical heritage, had not produced a musical record of its labour movement, something akin to The Centre for Cape Breton Studies at Cape Breton University’s The Protest Song Project, struck Shortall as curious and prompted her interest in this work. She credits Payne with broadening the scope of the project beyond the labour movement.

Though the two knew one another, neither was aware that the other was toying with this idea until Payne pitched it to Shortall at the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour’s 80th anniversary celebration in 2016 where Payne happened to be performing. Also present at this celebration were Phil Davison, then Director, and Pauline MacIntosh, Fieldworker, of the StFX Extension Department and Shortall was able to connect Payne with Davison and MacIntosh. They discussed the idea and reached a general agreement that this was an appropriate project to be considered for support by the Greening Memorial Fund. The NLFL submitted a formal proposal to Extension and the project was funded.

The Ray Greening Memorial Fund is an endowment established by the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour in 1981 and put in trust with the StFX Extension Department to “embody the respect trade unionists felt for both Brother Raymond Greening (who died in 1980 at the age of 43) and the StFX Extension Department”. According to the Extension Department, the fund “supports initiatives that further the goals of the [labour movement] in Newfoundland and Labrador”.

In 2018, with funding in place, the work required to produce Work Work Work: Work and Labour History in Song got underway. Payne brought the Research Centre for Music, Media and Place (MMaP) at Memorial University on board.

The MMaP provided free studio time and technical assistance. Payne credits this support with enabling Work Work Work: Work and Labour History in Song to be a two-CD album. In addition, MMaP Director Harris M. Berger contributed a short essay titled “Music and Work in Newfoundland and Labrador” and engaged the services of Ethnomusicology Faculty Member Dr. Meghan Forsythe who wrote the liner notes.

The album showcases a wonderful collection of songs covering all kinds of work — logging, fishing, mining, nursing, domestic labour, trapping, dog sledding — sung by artists representing many areas of the province in a number of languages including English, French, Innu, Inuktitut, and Gaelic. Along with Dr. Harris’ introductions and Dr. Forsythe’s informative and engaging liner notes, the album contains a number of historical photographs and Dr. Sean Cadigan’s excellent essay “Labour Relations and the Industrialization of Newfoundland and Labrador”.

In addition to being a wonderful introduction to Newfoundland and Labrador’s history of work and labour, the entire package is a tribute to the diversity of talent and culture and life experience found in the province. Songs are included from a number of performers who are not professional musicians, e.g., Ron Harvey is a heavy equipment operator; Jessica Hall is an HR administrator. The project also served as a catalyst for the formation of Labour Notes, a labour choir. This was one of Shortall’s goals for the project, and she joins the choir on at least one song: “We Are Coming Mr. Coaker”.

The album was launched on Labour Day 2019 during the NLFL Annual Convention. A second celebration of the album in December 2019 was organized by radio station VOCM-AM. Operating out of St. John’s, the station has been giving regular play to a number of songs on the album and told Payne about their intention to hold an annual event to celebrate the album. There are also plans to send a copy of the album to each school in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The album is available for purchase through Jim Payne’s record label SingSong Inc.

Works Cited:
2. The history of the relationship between the founders of the Newfoundland Fisherman, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (NFFAWU) and the StFX Extension Department is chronicled in Gordon Inglis’s More Than Just A Union (1985).