Maria Dunn- Piece By Piece review

I was pleased to have Maria send me her new album this summer; it was actually the first album to arrive at the new house. I’ve been listening to it all summer. Gorgeous stuff, as always.

Maria Dunn Piece By Piece

Alongside John Wort Hannam, Maria Dunn is Alberta’s most highly regarded folk music artist of the singer-songwriter variety. Since 1998, she has released albums of tremendous depth. Her music, her words come from the hearts and souls of the lives she imagines. Using the English folk tradition as her foundation, Maria Dunn has most recently created a thoughtful and illuminating examination of the struggles of female garment workers; while focused upon the experiences of those at the Edmonton GWG factory through the 1900s, the songs are universal.

As she did with We Are Good People, in which she looked at the early labour movement and history of Alberta and western Canada, for Piece By Piece Dunn has  immersed herself within her subject matter to find inspiration. Through interviews with the women who worked in the factory (which closed in 2004 after 93 years) as well as examination of archival footage and documentation, Dunn has captured the lives, the hardship and the pride, of women who completed ‘piece work’ for the jeans and work wear company, both before and after Levi Strauss bought the works.

Dunn’s ability to connect the reminiscent memories and phrases of the interviewed women who worked in the factory into a cohesive narrative is nothing short of impressive. As within We Were Good People, Dunn has illuminated the continuing history of Alberta, informing us of a story we didn’t know to appreciate.

On her fifth album of original material, Dunn ties the hardships faced by the factory workers- often the family’s only breadwinner in difficult times, as often an example of the sacrifice made by the newly arrived as they built a life in Canada- to the dignity they achieved for themselves in performing labour that many other Alberta workers would never have considered for themselves.

As specific as the connections are to the Edmonton GWG factory, the album has universal appeal. “I Cannot Tell You (The Whole Story)” may be the story of one Vietnamese woman coming to Canada to find a greater life than her homeland will allow, but the phrases and experiences captured mirror those who left eastern Europe for Canada a century before.

The album’s most affecting song captures Dunn’s interpretation of the words and thoughts of Lillian Wasylynchuk, a worker who died of lung disease. “Blue Lung” looks at the health concerns of the women working within an environment filled with the blue dust from the jeans material, and makes a comparison to the fate of mine workers. “Speed Up” is a snappy song that shares the spirit of “Sixteen Tons,” another connection to other labourers.

Dunn’s voice is beautiful, and quite indescribable- I’ve been attempting to do so for a decade and always fail. Joining Dunn is long-time collaborator and producer Shannon Johnson, she of clan McDade. Johnson’s fiddling adds atmosphere and verve to the songs, never more apparent than on “Shareholder’s Reel.” Sharmila Mathur providers sitar and this colours the songs in a lovely manner,  providing connection to those who came from Asia to work in Alberta.

The songs of Piece By Piece work both as a cohesive portrait of shared experience and as stand-alone slices of contemporary folk art.

The dreams of immigrants, the impact of World War II, passionate labour negotiations, lullabies sung after days of toil, and the associated challenges fill each of Dunn’s songs. As richly, they are populated by the realities of strong women. In sharing the stories and insights of these women- some of whom traveled from rural areas to find work in the city, others immigrants from Italy, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, and elsewhere- Dunn has created a memorable and dynamic collection of songs that will undoubtedly extend her renown as Alberta’s finest folk singer and writer.

I spotted copies of Piece By Piece at Edmonton’s Blackbyrd Myoozik this weekend, but I don’t see it at iTunes yet. Just as well- the packaging is quite nice and adds to the listening experience. Buy the hard copy.

As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

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