Guest Song Portrait #4: Birchbark Canoe by Jeffery Straker


I took a trip to the north of Saskatchewan, the Canadian province I’m from, a few summers ago. I had a concert in a town called Lac La Ronge and it was a great night in this northern community. Our hosts who we stayed with that night had a wood-fire-heated hot tub and we walked through snow to get into the thing. It was pretty magical looking up at the northern lights from the warmth of the steaming tub in the middle of a snowbank. The next day we were told by locals that we ought to stop at a place called ‘Robertson’s Trading Post’ before leaving if we wanted to see something local with a bit of fame attached to it. So we did. It was an actual real-life fully functioning trading post; like something from 100 years ago. It was full of pelts and furs and aboriginal arts and all sorts of incredible curiosities. If you weren’t coming in to Robertson’s as a trader you could just purchase stuff. I chose to buy a beautifully handcrafted canoe paddle – carved from one long piece of wood. I crammed it into my Volkswagen Jetta and headed home.

The paddle sat for a long time behind my TV, propped up against the wall of my living room as a rustic decoration for a few months before I thought much about it again. Then when I found myself just out of a relationship it took on a bit of a role. I started wondering about compromise and if I’d done enough of it in the relationship to try to make it work. Or if maybe I didn’t bend enough or do enough to make it work for the both of us.

The paddle was propped up behind my TV and as I watched the news one night I was staring at it and I had a flash visual of 2 people paddling an old canoe together across rough waters. And of course in that situation the 2 people were trying their hardest to paddle back to shore in the old canoe because their lives were at stake. There was no second guessing or bickering just 2 people trying as best they could to be a team to get the boat to shore. That’s what you’d do if you really had to – if there was no other option.

It seemed like a great metaphor for a relationship so I started typing out some lyrics into my laptop and soon I had my song ‘Birchbark Canoe’.
I hope you like it.

Here are the lyrics:
Starin at the autumn leaves, withered hangin on the trees
Is that, what I was like in the end?
Fallin far away from you, changing mind and changing hue
Saying, maybe we’re better off as friends

Flickered out, a fading dream, disappeared down clouded streams
Churning with rusted regard
Sailing out, the waters flow, to oceans of mistakes I’ve known
It’s true you only see them from afar

Throw a stone, the ripples flow, we’re driftin apart

But if just you and me, were floatin out to sea
In a broken old birchbark canoe
We’d both find a way, to come back again
Together, ya that’s what we’d do
Aw, it’s true

The yellow sun, midday june, setting in a somber blue
Shadows tip-toed in, took you by the hand
They led you up a tidal wave, Left you in a blurring haze
Like you’d fallen, & just couldn’t seem to land

Throw a stone, the ripples flow and break on the sand


Guest Song Portrait #3: Had It All by Heather Stewart


I met up with my very good friend and fellow songwriter, Brad Swanson, for a co-writing session. I brought in this melody with the idea that it would be a traditional love song. We got to talking about life and death and love, as you do in these songwriting sessions. My father had recently and somewhat unexpectedly passed away which was an extreme wake up call for me. I went on a tirade to Brad about how I wanted to make sure on my death bed I was proud of taking risks, facing my fears and accomplishing my goals. Thus, the song was born. It is a love song of sorts, but a love of life and taking the chance to have it all.

Guest Song Portrait #1: Monongah by Robert Rial


Regarding my song “Monongah” and writing The Great Disaster Song
By Robert Rial

I suppose I am a bit morbid, but historic criminal masterminds and epic disasters, especially ones causing massive body counts, have always been favorite song topics of mine. So far, I have written a song about John Dillinger and his demise outside the Biograph Theater, a song about the infamous serial murderer H.H. Holmes, who ran amuck during Chicago’s 1893 Colombian Exposition, a song about a Chicago mob hitman and boss named Felix “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, and two mining disaster ballads, one with a happy ending and one with a sad ending.
The song with a happy ending is called “Nine For Nine” and tells the tale of the 2002 coal mining rescue of nine men at Quecreek Mine, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The first line of the chorus is literally stolen from a headline I read on a Chicago Sun-Times paper as I walked by a newspaper box the day after the men were rescued:
“They tied themselves together so they wouldn’t die alone.”
I saw this headline and immediately thought to myself, wow, if that isn’t a lyric waiting to be written about in further detail. So I got some change out of my pocket and bought that Sun-Times, read about the rescue on the blue line train on my way home, and proceeded to write the song that very night.
But a rescue is hardly a great disaster. For this, we must move on to the subject at hand, “Monongah”. For a more complete outline of events, please visit the links below. But to give you the short and sweet version, the worst coal mining disaster in American history took place, killing close to 500 people virtually instantaneously on December 6, 1907. The deaths left 250 widows and more than 1000 fatherless children. It should be noted that ‘07 was a particularly bad year for mining deaths, with 3,242 American coal miners dying in that one year. The Monongah disaster paved the way for mining reform. Many safety precautions that could have prevented the explosion were simply not employed that day at Monongah, such as safety lamps (like the ‘Davy Lamp’), permissible explosives and mine preparation techniques. The disaster is believed to have been caused by the ignition of a mixture of coal-dust and methane, or “fire damp”, which caused an explosion that tore through Shafts #6 and #8. One might think the miners were killed by fire, but actually most died from suffocation due to the majority of their oxygen being consumed by the explosion. This is referred to as “after damp”. As you can see, there are numerous details in this story which I was able to mine during the writing of “Monongah”.
Writing disaster themed songs partially originated for me in the writing of several break up songs.  Break up songs are not necessarily disaster songs, but they can be.  Parting ways is sometimes the most disastrously painful thing humans can go through.   Some of my best material came out of desiring catharsis after a traumatic break up. When life itself was a disaster.  This harnessing and release of sorrow through song is powerful.
Writing the great disaster song is about embracing the absurdity and senselessness that accompany such events, and about reporting the facts in an entertaining way. Embellishing the truth is acceptable if it makes the story better, but I have found that most of these tales are so horrible that sprucing them up with hyperbole is unnecessary. There are as many different ways to approach a disaster ballad as there are types of disasters. Industrial disasters are sometimes due to criminal negligence, but seldom due to malicious sabotage.  There is a faceless anonymity to a natural disaster.  The chaos and randomness defy logic.
What is next on my disaster song plate? Many people dying all at the same time is very fascinating to me.  I plan on exploring that theme more in the future, if I have not chosen to write some happier material. Perhaps a joyful ditty about the atomic bomb…