The Mining Songs of British Columbia: Exploring the P.J. Thomas Collection presented at the 38th International Ballad Conference of the Kimmission fur Volksdichtung
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Although they have been explored by a few local folksingers, the vernacular songs preserved in the P. J. Thomas Collection at the Aural History Archives of British Columbia in Victoria, BC have been neglected by scholars. Impressed by the work of Helen Creighton in Nova Scotia and Edith Fowke in Ontario, in the early 1950s Phil Thomas initiated a project of tracking down his native province’s oral song traditions, a search to which he devoted most of his spare time for the next twenty years. The songs he discovered express vividly the lives of ordinary people seeking to gain a living in the fishing, forestry, mining, ranching, and transportation industries. His collection spans material from pre-colonial days to the 1970s, but the earliest mining songs, such as “Far from Home”, “The Young Man from Canada” and “Know Ye the Land”, date from the Fraser River and Cariboo Gold Rushes of the 1850s and 1860s. Later songs, such as “Hard Rock Miner” and “Broken-Down Mucker”, reflect the more highly mechanized and capital-intensive hard-rock mining operations of the early twentieth century. Also of interest are several ballads, including “Bowser’s Seventy-Twa” and “Are You from Bevan?”, that evoke the early struggles of the union movement for job security, better pay and less dangerous working conditions. This paper seeks to categorize the various types of mining song in the Thomas Collection, to explore the historical circumstances that gave rise to them, and to examine the techniques employed by the songs’ creators. It will be illustrated by sung excerpts from a selected number of representative songs.