Townsfolk were skeptical.
“There were those who were skeptical and those who thought it was a great idea,” said Jim MacLellan, 82, a former field engineer who worked in the No. 12 colliery in New Waterford at the time.
It was the summer of 1966 and Miles MacDonald, supervisor of the No. 12, put notices of auditions for a coal miner’s choir in washhouses in New Waterford and Glace Bay.
A Miners' Folk Society wanted to build a miners' museum for the 1967 centennial year, and the late Nina Cohen, chairperson, came up with the idea to form a choir to sing hymns at the opening.
MacLellan auditioned and became the 16th member of what became a 35-member Men of the Deeps choir.
“We didn’t know how long it would last,” he said.
“We were hoping it would but we had no base, no background, we were starting from scratch.”
The idea of the concert tour in Glace Bay, Sydney and New Waterford prior was to show the townsfolk how good the choir was.
MacLellan remembers while preparing for their first time onstage — the first day of the tour on Nov. 1, 1966 — looking out the window of the choir’s green room in the old Glace Bay Hotel, amazed at the lineup at the Savoy Theatre.
“Some mentioned maybe they were also showing a movie besides us singing.”
The group sang songs including “I Believe” and “Finlandia,” which they learned from the United Church hymn book.’
“We sold out that night, then in Sydney and in New Waterford. It was beautiful.”
Fifty years later this world-renowned choir is showing pride in its roots as the group prepares for its 50th anniversary by recreating that first concert tour.
Stephen Muise, assistant director and business manager, said the decision of how to celebrate was easy after opening one of the member’s old scrapbooks and seeing a newspaper ad for the first show and concert Nov. 1, 1966, at the miners’ museum in Glace Bay, Nov. 2 at the Vogue Theatre in Sydney and Nov. 3 at the Paramount Theatre in New Waterford.
He said although the Vogue and Paramount don’t exist anymore, the communities do.
“It wasn’t the buildings that were important, it was the communities we were going into.”
Muise said they hope people will come out for the concerts which include at the miners’ museum Nov. 1, the Highlands Art Theatre in Sydney on Nov. 2 and then at Breton Education Centre in New Waterford Nov. 3, performing with the high school band.
“Even though mining is dead we have these guys who have been travelling the world for 50 years, spreading the word and the history of what our towns were made up with — whether be the coal mines or the steel mills, it is working-class citizens,” Muise said.
“Their work may be retired but their story isn’t.”
He said the pride is still onstage today, whether the group is performing for four people at a nursing home or 4,000 in a field in British Columbia.
“They don’t tell you a story they’ve heard or read in a book, they tell you a story they’ve lived underground.”
Muise said after the three-day tour, the Men of the Deeps will then take off across the Maritimes and do a fundraising tour for band programs.
“We are performing with high school musicians in Antigonish, Truro, Wolfville, Bridgewater and Moncton.”
MacLellan said as they prepare to recreate their tour he thinks of Jack O’Donnell, their conductor, and the difference he made.
“I could never describe or relay to anyone how important Jack O’Donnell was to us. He made it real for us.”
He said Muise has been with them the past 10 years.
“They work fabulously together.”
He said both were in on recreating the tour when O’Donnell got sick.
“Stephen has really grabbed the helm and piloted the ship. Without him we wouldn’t have all this right now.”
Jenn Sheppard, who is assisting with the concerts, said she is a huge fan of everything the Men of the Deeps represent as a group for countless reasons.
“I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching them perform or watching their audiences react to them. For this tour I’m also stoked for the students who are getting to play with the choir.”
Maritime tour dates:
• Tuesday, Nov. 1 – Cape Breton Miner’s Museum, Glace Bay. For tickets telephone 902-849-4522
• Wednesday, Nov. 2, Highland Arts Theatre, Sydney. For tickets telephone, 902-565-3637
• Thursday, Nov. 3, at the AV Room Breton Education Centre, New Waterford. Tickets available from any New Waterford band parent or telephone 902-862-7225 or 902-862-6432
• Additional tour dates will include in Truro, Antigonish, Wolfville, Bridgewater,
Moncton and Prince Edward Island.
• Throughout the Maritimes concert bands and student choirs will be sharing the stage with the Men of the Deep, an opportunity for the schools to utilize the concerts as fundraisers for local band programs.