Keelaghan’s music strongly tied to his Alberta roots

When James Keelaghan hears an intriguing story about a facet of Canadian history, he swishes it around in his mind for a while before turning it into a gem of folk song.

If something like (the hillcrest coal mine disaster) had happened in Nova Scotia, there would have been 14 songs — and a film, and a play. - James Keelaghan

If something like (the hillcrest coal mine disaster) had happened in Nova Scotia, there would have been 14 songs — and a film, and a play. - James Keelaghan

When James Keelaghan hears an intriguing story about a facet of Canadian history, he swishes it around in his mind for a while before turning it into a gem of folk song.

His tune Hillcrest Mine was written after Keelaghan stumbled across an offhand reference to this country’s worst mine disaster in a book about Alberta’s labour past.

While many people would assume the explosion that killed 189 miners in 1914 happened on the East Coast — which is heavily associated with coal mines — the disaster that left 130 women widowed and 400 children fatherless occurred along the Crowsnest Pass.

“If something like this had happened in Nova Scotia, there would have been 14 songs written about it — and a film and a play,” said Keelaghan, who performs on Friday, April 8, at The Matchbox in Red Deer. “But in Alberta, there was nothing.”

In fact, the Calgary-born singer said he’d never heard of the Hillcrest mine disaster until he came across the “small aside” in a book.

This lack of attention doesn’t mean Albertans are any less interested in their own past than anyone else, Keelaghan insists. (In recent years, the Crowsnest historical society spruced up the miners’ graves with new markers and Keelaghan was invited to sing his tune about the disaster at a special gravesite ceremony).

Rather it indicates how recent this province’s written history is, compared to that of Eastern Canada, which has been settled by Europeans since the 1700s.

It also points to Alberta’s transient demographics. “People who come to Calgary to make some money and leave are not going to be invested in the province’s history. They’ve put no roots down in the first place,” said Keelaghan.

Perhaps for these reasons, the 51-year-old performer is thrilled with all the historic Western references that are cropping up in folk songs.

In a concert Keelaghan recently performed with three other Prairie singers and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Credence Weapon sang about a Hudson’s Bay fur trader, Wendy McNeill crooned about the Dukhabors, while Kris Demeanor played a tune about the Blackfoot runner Deerfoot.

Not only does this wealth of new Canada-centric material prove that Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot and Stan and Garnet Rogers haven’t cornered the market on Canadiana, but more musical prisms are being provided through which to view ourselves.

“I am really interested in human stories,” said Keelaghan, who lives with his Tasmanian-born wife and two young sons in Perth, Ont. Whether exciting, scary or sad, “they have to say something about the human condition.”

Recently, the singer/songwriter heard a true tale of loss recounted by his sister. It was about her friend’s grandmother, a Japanese-Canadian woman who was sent to an internment camp with her family during the Second World War.

Before the woman was forced to abandon her seaside home, she rolled her most treasured possession — her piano — into the harbour to prevent its repossession by strangers.

Keelaghan tells the tale on the song Kiri’s Piano, not from the distraught woman’s point of view, but from the perspective of the “villain” — a man in her neighbourhood who covets the piano and hopes to nab it when she leaves.

By looking back at this inglorious episode of Canada’s history from the man’s perspective, Keelaghan is able to weave into the tune some regret and shame. “There’s a hope of redemption.”

Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. concert are $33.50 from The Matchbox box office.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com