Betty Burke

AM signals from a parallel present

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Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River: A Seaway Valley History Project

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The Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River is an EP featuring five songs about characters from the Seaway Valley, and an illustrated companion zine. The stories are all true, in their own way. Betty Burke is a proud member of the Blocks Recording Club, with whom we released the project in February 2011.

About the project

The vellum envelope cover features an image of two youths on the North bank of the St Lawrence River, and a line drawing of the section of river running from Cornwall’s West end to Morrisburg, Ontario, as it appeared from the end of the last ice age, to July 1st, 1958- “Inundation Day.” Under the vellum layer is a drawing of the same section of the river, as it appears today. Robert Alfons of the band Trust, critic/curator Kevin Hegge, and historian Dr. Laurie Bertram were my models for the drawings.

The comic book/zine inside is set in Cornwall, Gateway to the Great Lakes, industrial jewel of the Seaway Valley, little smoke on the St Lawrence Lowlands, urban bilingual hub of counties Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, at the Easternmost corner of Ontario, and the border of Quebec, Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, and The United States of America.

Cornwall and area is fortunate to have many local history buffs who collect photos and share stories online so that those of us from younger generations can understand the story of our home. Thanks to these local history keepers, I was able to do learn about some of the sites that act as supporting characters in the comic zine.

Most of the buildings and infrastructure works in the drawings have since been razed, burned or overtaken by weeds. They were built in an age of optimism, when a growing middle class could expect to live more comfortably and longer than their parents. The decay of public works marks the end of that era.

The objects depicted in the comic are:

p. 1: The remains of a small power dam that stood adjacent to a mill, which burned down in a Halloween fire in the early 50s. The remains of the Cornwall Cotton Mill, in the East end of town, burned down in a Thanksgiving fire in 2010, so it is hard to find reference to the earlier mill fire online- all search terms call up references to the recent conflagration, and the orange and black photos of that event. That’s how the memory of events gets buried and forgotten in the Google age. On my next visit to Cornwall I will be spending some time in the local history reading room of the Public Library, and I hope to turn up more information on the earlier fire.

p. 5: The Cornwall International bridge, soon to be dismantled and replaced by a low level bridge. Site of two major blockades over the years (during the Oka uprising, and more recently, over the issue of arming Canadian border guards), it was built with a curve so as not to pass over the Domtar paper mill lot. When the Domtar mill was open, the bridge offered an unparalleled view of colourful wastewater and chemical ponds- bright green and dark blue circles of liquid, veiled in trails of white smoke from the stacks. A sight to behold.

p. 9: A knot of trees by a small power dam that once powered a mill. The trees have overtaken what was once a busy industrial spot; now they create a peaceful archway over a footpath to the riverbank.

p.12: A Corvette up on blocks by the old canal, in the Riverdale neighbourhood.

p. 13: (Left to right) Mustard flowers (related in name but not chemically, mustard gas was manufactured and buried in Cornwall’s West end during WWII); Two Twentieth Century views of the Cornwall Cotton Mill, shown adjacent to a portion of the old canal, which ships used to pass the Long Sault Rapids to reach the Great Lakes prior to the construction of the St Lawrence Seaway; The King George Hotel in it’s heydey. Once the gem of the bustling Anglo downtown (“Le Village,” a few blocks away, is Cornwall’s historic Francophone downtown), the King George building was incinerated in the mid 90s.

p. 14: (Left to right) Powerlines stand between Laurie and The Howard Smith smokestack, of the now defunct Domtar paper mill. Most of the plant was torn down and sold for scrap, but the smokestack is still standing, for now; The Cornwall Cotton Mill in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century. The mill burned down in a fire on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010. It was set for demolition the next week. This is how the mill looked in the last two years of its existence. Just around the corner where water once flowed, 120 years ago Thomas Edison installed some of the first electric lighting for a factory floor; A portion of the soon to be demolished Cornwall International Bridge shown between bare trees.

About the songs

The songs were all recorded with James Bunton, with input from the players. The musicians included Shaun Brodie (organ, piano), the inimitable Holly Andruchuk (guitar, voice), Jon Hynes (bass, guitar), John Power (drums) and myself, with arrangements by Holly and Shaun. This was before Jo and Sheila joined the band, but they were both present spiritually, since Sheila lent her Farfisa to the recording, and Jo Snyder was my coach in the studio. “El Dorado” was composed with Holly’s help, at her old apartment by the Mount Pleasant Cemetery; the ten pages of lyrics I originally had for Eldorado were edited down on the fly a few minutes before we played it onstage for the first time in June 2009 at the Imperial Pub in Toronto.

1. New Job
I like my job; this song isn’t about the place I work at. It’s about a character from Cornwall- or any former industrial town that now has few jobs for young people. The character moves to a big city and starts temping; tired of the snobs at the water cooler, who’ve never hung in a trailer or had to run from a fight, the character fantasizes about moving back home to be a smuggler, running cigarettes instead of doing data entry.

2. River of Need

This is a love song for the St Lawrence River, “A river dishonored” my Godmother said, before she passed away in 2010. “If I die far from your banks, will my death have your mud to thank?” The sediment in the Stormont Country shoreline contains high levels of mercury, and the fish can only be eaten in limited quantities. Some communities in the Great Lakes are opting to dredge mercury and PCBs from sediment; Cornwall has opted to let the river bury the toxins naturally.

3. El Dorado

The true story of my grandfather Eddy, a uranium miner who defied death when a falling pick penetrated his helmet and lodged in his brain. After recovering from partial paralysis, he eventually returned to work- above ground. He died at the age of 77, and was buried near his birthplace in Alexandria, Glengarry County, Ontario. I often wonder what he thought about while waiting to be rescued from the pit where he lay bleeding, temporarily blind and deaf. The foreman had assumed Eddy would die but as the hours dragged on, Eddy’s chest continued to rise and fall, so they called a plane to airlift him to a hospital in Saskatoon. While he was most likely unconscious, I often wonder what went through his mind in those hours, when his number came up and he simply refused to die.

4. Brink of Extinction

Do you see ratio only? The last thing music needs is yet another Blake reference, but that hasn’t stopped us. This is a song about hope in the face of despair.

5. You Can’t Wear Suede in The Rain

I went out shopping with Shaun Brodie, to help him pick out a pair of boots. He sided against one elegant pair because “you can’t wear suede in the rain.” You never know when it’s going to rain. Philosopher Alain Badiou writes that the meaning of truth is to be faithful to “the event.” The event rearranges the world. “The weather that is”- that’s the event, in this song.

Thanks for taking the time to read about Betty Burke’s “Dirty Mouth of The St Lawrence River.” While Betty Burke continues to play the songs listed above, I am also working on an extended song cycle in the Great Lakes history vein, which I hope to stage in a slightly more theatrical fashion. No word on the timeline though- it takes a long time to turn the coal of life into diamonds!

I hope you enjoy the EP and zine, and if you’re passing through Cornwall, take some time along the riverbank to admire the blue and black water that sustains the local life.

Yours,
Maggie

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