Long before Drumheller became the dinosaur capital of Canada, the central Alberta town was one of the country’s top producers of coal.
Mines dotted the badlands valley for much of the last century — attracting immigrants, wannabe entrepreneurs, union bosses, hockey players and ladies of the night. The last mine closed in 1979, as natural gas replaced coal as the heating choice for consumers.
Valley native and singer-songwriter Joe Vickers wants to make sure Drumheller’s pre-dinosaur era isn’t forgotten. As the great-grandson of one of the town’s first miners and hardware store owners, he dug through his family’s history — and the archives of the Atlas Coal Mine Historical Society — to write an acoustic folk album, Valley Home, about the town’s early decades. Think of it as a musical version of one of HBO’S acclaimed historical shows, such as Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire.
“I felt an obligation to pay tribute to my heritage while I can honour the heritage of many others,” says Vickers, who now lives in Edmonton and fronts the folk-punk band, Audio/rocketry.
The Drumheller Valley Mining Centennial Committee initially wanted to pay for the costs of the album, but when its government grant fell through, the singer-songwriter was compelled to finish the project on his own dime.
“This year marks Drumheller’s centennial, and this is part of preserving Canadian culture and history,” says Vickers. “In terms of documentation, there is a significant amount, but it’s not something that I grew up knowing — like the stories about the ladies of the night that provided civil services to the poor during a time period when there was no health care.”
Those stories haven’t been widely told over the years, he says, “because prostitution isn’t socially acceptable, but to the people who lived during that time, they recognize the positive input these ladies had on community building.”
These ladies, namely Fanny Ramsley and Mary Roper, come to life on Weekend Waltz, a Gypsy-flavoured dance ditty. Vickers documents the travels of immigrants from Eastern Europe to the Drumheller mines, where “shaky bones feel the wrath of the dynamite blasts” on
Into the Darkness, a haunting a cappella number that opens the album.
1919 Strike tells the story of the United Mine Workers of America’s fight to improve conditions in the Drumheller Valley, better known as Hell’s Hole, while Pit Pals is an ode to the Shetland ponies that pulled the carts in the mines and were often the first to sense impending danger in the shafts. Allan Cup recounts the town’s Miners hockey club, which won Canada’s amateur men’s championship in 1966.
“The team was the main source of entertainment for the community in the mining years,” says Vickers. “The community had a lot of cultural diversity, but people found unity in following a hockey team. It’s no different than with the Oilers. When the Miners were on their way through the playoffs to the Allan Cup, the whole community was just abuzz.
“My uncle was president of the club during the year they won, so his picture was always in the main foyer of Memorial Arena in Drumheller, and I always found great pride that I had a family connection to the team.”
Valley Home follows in the tradition of one of his musical heroes, U.S. folk artist and social historian Woody Guthrie, who wrote a series of tunes about migrant workers in the Great Depression, Dust Bowl
Ballads, and was commissioned by the U.S. government to pen tunes about the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state.
Like the late, great folksinger, Vickers is a prolific songwriter — but he also likes to do his part in preserving 100-year-old ditties. In addition to Valley Home, he’s also promoting The
Kitchen Chorus Songbook, largely made up of traditional folk tunes, such as John Henry, Red River Valley, Joe Hill’s The Preacher and the Slave, and Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, recorded with Calgary musician Spencer Jo.
The album also pays homage to the first chapter in the history of the pair’s friendship.
“I met Spencer Jo in the kitchen of a house party that I played,” says Vickers. “We started talking, he picked up my banjo, and we just traded songs back and forth. We ended up being the last two guests at the party until we were politely kicked out.
“That’s where our friendship developed — and it’s mainly through our love of traditional folk music.”