Composer of “Cape Breton Lullaby”: yet another Atlantic Canadian socialist

8 Nov

Oh boy it is just SO FUN when you learn of little tidbits like this one:

Mom’s choral group Coro Cantabile is working on “Cape Breton Lullaby”, a local much-loved celtic standard.

After one of her recent practice sessions, mom drew my attention to the fact that the composer Kenneth Leslie was a character with strong identity as a Christian Socialist whose C.V. includes things like producing a broad-circulation anti-fascist comic.

One quick google search later, et voilà, a biographical essay on “God’s Red Poet”:

Leslie held strong left-wing convictions to which he gave vigorous expression not only in his poetry and his personal letters but in a remarkable public career as a crusading editor and political activist. Although one critic has suggested that he tried to “juggle” too many interests and occupations “to remember to be a first-rate poet,”2 his religious and political values seemed to demand multifarious expression, and his careers as editor, activist and poet were for many years almost completely integrated: “Good poetry’s good propaganda,” he wrote, and professed a low regard for “poets whose lives weigh lighter than their words,” considering them “word-men only, not fit to be named / With the great healers of men’s selfmade wounds.” He defined the poet’s function as essentially a political one: “to disenthrall / The world from all these hitlers great and small,” and identified poetry with the “hammer blows that build men’s homes.”

If you have a couple minutes, it’s worth the read for the odd little anecdotes about Leslie’s life. One of his marriages was to the daughter of Halifax Candy Manager James Moir, who in turn tried make Leslie into something resembling a respectable businessman. The results of Moir’s efforts seemed to be middling at best, though Leslie apparently enjoyed playing the stock market and wasn’t bothered by how this contradicted his professed ideology.

On Leslie’s famous song: most (if not all) contemporary arrangements of Cape Breton Lullaby use Leslie’s lyrics set to a different melody.

The best-known version is probably Catherine MacKinnon’s, though my favourite rendition is by Teresa Doyle – the mournful small pipes and haunting vocals take me back to summertime nights camping along the cabot trail. This video is probably similar to how mom’s choral group will perform this number:


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