This past winter I took a writing course, and for one of my final projects I wrote an analysis of Maria Dunn’s Piece By Piece. I was to write about a piece of art that had impacted me, and certainly Piece By Piece fit the bill. I submitted an initial draft to Dunn for consideration, and she was able to correct several errors and oversights; any remaining are purely my fault. I updated the second to last paragraph to represent the recent political upheaval our province has experienced; when I wrote the original paragraph, I had no idea such a sweeping change was possible, let alone right around the corner. It is a bit too long (maybe a lot too long), but… Donald
When I use the term “folk music” in social situations, I frequently get blank stares. Despite its apparent popularity—the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is one of the largest summer celebrations “festival city” annually offers—many people think of folk music and heritage festivals interchangeably. There may well be good reason: traditional folk music is often defined as the music of a land—songs of the people. Therefore, whether played on Peruvian pan pipes, expressed through the chants and songs of eastern Europeans, or in the mournful ballads of the Scots-Irish-English lands, these are all folk music.
Sometime in the middle of the last century—scholars disagree exactly when—the modern folk revival (or folk scare, depending on perspective) occurred, giving rise to performers including Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, and Odetta, as well as Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, and their contemporaries. Prior to this, Woody Guthrie had used folk music structures to create dust bowl ballads of migration, pacifism, democracy, and social (in)justice. All of this was influenced by John and Alan Lomax who, in the early parts of the 20th century, travelled America and the world making “field recordings” of the music made by the people of an area—the folks.
At its core, folk music must be connected to the experience of the people, “of the folk,” according to Mark D. Moss of Sing Out! magazine. Folk music must be tangibly—not tangentially—connected to the context in which the music “existed, thrived, and changed,” quoting Moss within Walters and Manfield’s very heavy Music Hound Folk: The Essential Guide. It is a music not only sung and played by people on their porches, in their churches, at work in the fields and while labouring on chain gangs, but also it is a way of communicating and recording their experiences and those of their forbearers.
Folk music informs the populace and is informed by it. It isn’t just protest songs, although there is that. These are songs of the labour movement, of the peace movement, songs of love, death and tragedy, the twining of raven black hair with roses and the mingling of the briar, Joe Hill, Little Maggie, and Tom Dula, and let us not forget to include fine jigs and reels. They are songs of five hundred years ago, and songs of last week.
When I think of contemporary folk music, these are the traditions I embrace. Lyrically-driven folk music provides me with the opportunity to experience and consider events I would otherwise not. When listening to Bill Morrissey, I am exposed to the impacts of factory closings on mill towns and their inhabitants. Eliza Gilkyson allows me to travel to the heart of a lost son as he contemplates killing his classmates. Ralph Stanley expresses the majesty of a spiritual great high mountain, while his son transports me to the West Virginia hills of Bluefield and the murder of a county sheriff by his deputy. John McCutcheon takes me from the trenches of the western front to New York sweatshop fires and the closing of the bookstores. At its best, contemporary folk music holds a mirror to society and allows us to more carefully consider events outside of ourselves.
Fast forward a century or so from song collector John Lomax, and one might encounter Maria Dunn.
Maria Dunn is one of Alberta’s most highly regarded folk music artists of the singer-songwriter fold. Since 1998, she has released accessible albums of tremendous quality. She has been nominated for Juno, Canadian Folk Music, and Polaris Awards. Her music and her words come from the hearts and souls of the lives she imagines. Using the British Isles folk tradition as foundation, Maria Dunn has most recently created a thoughtful, illuminating examination of the struggles of female garment workers; while focused upon the experiences of those at the Edmonton Great Western Garment (GWG) factory through the 1900s, the songs are universal.
As she did with a previous album We Were Good People, in which she looked at the early labour movement and history of Alberta and western Canada, for Piece By Piece Dunn 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.
Dunn’s ability to connect the reminiscences 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. This is one of the important roles of folk music—allowing generations to connect across time, social strata, language, and gender.
Dunn has spent time as Artist in Residence with the Edmonton and District Labour Council and has participated in a variety of labour-centric programs via the Alberta Foundation of Labour, Public Interest Alberta, and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. Maria Dunn is, then, bona fide.
On her fifth album of original material, Dunn ties the hardships faced by the female factory workers—often the family’s 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. The plant provided a relatively good income and stable employment, whether doing ‘piece work’ in the earliest days or on wage with benefits as the years progressed.
In her recording, Dunn documents the experiences of these women—the positive and the negative—in a non-didactic manner, giving voice to a labour force whose stories were largely unknown until she and her collaborators developed the multi-media presentation entitled GWG: Piece by Piece. Using still pictures, video, audio interviews, song, story, and live performance, GWG: Piece by Piece was performed on stage throughout Alberta between 2008 and 2013. The focus—and the availability of interview subjects may have dictated this—is from the experiences in the factory from the Second World War through to the plant’s closing in 2004. From GWG: Piece by Piece came Catherine Cole’s book of the same name, and much of the archival material and video interviews and transcripts can be found online as part of the Royal Alberta Museum and The Virtual Museum of Canada’s collections.
As specific as the connections are to the Edmonton GWG factory, the album Piece By Piece—standing independent of the multi-media production—has universal appeal. In the album’s eight songs, Dunn captures the voices and spirits of these women, giving relevance to their stories through her lyrics and instrumentation. Dunn’s singing 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 whose fiddling adds atmosphere and verve to the songs. The music reflects the changes that occurred over the decades; while the earliest work force had European roots, as the 1960s gave way to the 70s and later, the employees reflected the burgeoning southeast Asian population of our province—in Dunn’s songs, sitar now complements violin and accordion. “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 decades before.
Parallels to the art of a previous generation of songwriters, especially Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard are apparent. Over the course of a handful of recordings made during the 60s, Dicken and Gerrard gave power to the female perspective, especially the working female. In songs like “Working Girl Blues,” “My Better Years,” and “Custom Made Woman Blues,” Hazel & Alice provide a model—through their songs and their interpretations of others’—that seem to have influenced Dunn. Within Piece By Piece, Dunn continues this tradition.
Several themes emerge, none more apparent than the struggles of the labour force. Piece By Piece isn’t all about solidarity and workers’ rights, although there is a fair bit of that. Piece By Piece captures the full range of the workers’ lives. The workforce of the factory after World War II was always largely immigrant in nature, and Dunn captures this diversity in the music. Instrumentally, “Assunta’s Song” is fiddle and guitar-based reminiscent of rural Italian folk songs, while tabla and sitar provide additional texture and sounds of southeast Asia to songs including “Farewell” and “I Cannot Tell You (The Whole Story.)”
The GWG factory in Edmonton was a union shop. Still, the largely female workforce frequently felt marginalized by management. In the song “Shareholder’s Reel,” Dunn explores this experience using Local 120 President Anne Ozipko’s voice. As a standard contract negotiation practice, eastern-Canada based management would threaten to close the plant should demands not be met. Dunn writes and sings of Ozipko’s clever subterfuge—as a shareholder in the company, she travels to San Francisco shareholder’s meeting to hear of the great profits being made, and the importance of the Edmonton plant and workforce:
Bigwig coming from Toronto, sees a farm girl from Ukraine
Thinks he can intimidate me, well he’ll have to think again…
Miles away from women working, lining pockets with machines,
Pleated pants, pinstriped suits, deciding what the numbers mean.
Hearty handshakes in the boardroom, dividends—just divine,
Another year of tidy profits with a healthy bottom line.
Dunn writes that with a clear understanding of the company’s circumstance, Ozipko’s next bargaining session is well-informed when management comes to the table:
Bigwig crying from Toronto, ‘we are stretched beyond our means
We must tighten all your belts or come apart at the seams.
Take the cut, sign the contract, otherwise you’re out of work,
Up ’til now you’ve had a say, up ’til now you’ve had it good.
We must shrink our costs while making more pants,
To raise your wages means dropping our plants.’
Ozipko, the small town Ukrainian girl, has her argument at the ready:
Bigwig bluster doesn’t fool me, heard it from the horse’s mouth,
We’re the best the company’s got, there’s no plan to sell us south.
I threw his contract on the table, ‘take your junk, go on home
‘Til you make a decent offer, worthy of the skill we’ve shown.
Years and years to win the wage we have,
There’s no way we’ll let you drag us back.’
The GWG workers got their favourable deal. To close this song, Dunn writes: “I’ve faced the bullies in the board room…I’d like to see them tread one hour in a factory woman’s shoes.”
This spirit, born of necessity, is brought to life throughout this compact collection of songs.
“Speed Up” is a snappy song that shares the spirit of Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” a connection to other labourers. Its rhythm mimics the sounds of the cutting, sewing, and pressing machines of the work floor. As a worker gained skill, her assigned quota would increase: “Now that I’ve gotten good and fast, they’ve upped the ante for my task.” This practice pitted the women against each other as “with a bit of guile” they would race to select smaller sized garments before their workmates; fewer inches meant fewer stitches with a better chance to meet their ‘piece work’ targets.
While the women were not above manipulation, they also banded together. In “Assunta’s Song” Dunn shares the story of wartime service where the women were expected to sacrifice even more as they produced garments using thicker material for the war effort. Increasingly frustrated with long hours, unreasonable demands, and dropping pay—piece work required one to produce product, something the new material made impossible—Dunn sings of a work stoppage:
I’m not asking much, I’m not asking the moon,
All I’m asking is a living wage, for the work I do.
I know that there’s a war on, I would never just complain,
But this new army cloth has only added to our strain.
The fabric so unwieldy has forced our pace to slow
We cannot even earn enough to cover room and board.
The company is deaf to us, somehow our loss unseen,
In desperation, we resolve we will not sew another seam.
So we return from lunch, hearts pounding, each at our machines,
Now we’ve shut the power down, they’re finally listening.
While the workers usually received fair remuneration, later including health care and other benefits, their long-term safety was not an obvious priority. 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. Perhaps a sign of the time, “Blue Lung” looks at the health concerns of the women working within an environment filled with the blue dust from the jeans material. Not understanding the possible long-term consequences, Wasylynchuk didn’t consider questioning her work environment:
Where I come from, we work hard, we don’t make a fuss
So I can’t be afraid of a bit of blue dust…
But ours were the days when you did what you’re told,
You could only be so bold…
Making a comparison to the fate of coalminers who have long suffered from a condition called black lung, Dunn writes in Wasylynchuk’s voice:
Now if I had toiled in a coal mine
Where the earth itself compresses your time
Then maybe I’d think of lung disease
But a clothing factory?
Our fingers, our air, tainted blue
And someone joked our blood must be too
But when the dust settled, I’m sad to say
It took my breath away.
For many of the female workers, the job at GWG was more than a supplement to the family income. These women were sometimes the sole wage earner. With language a barrier, the immigrant women were able to work when their husbands were unable to find a suitable position. Again, from “Speed Up”: “Each pocket, seam, and bottom hem, I’ve sewn for my children.” In “Blue Lung,” a worker sings, “When my family needs me to pay the bills…” and in “Immigrant Dreams,” “and while you’ve been keeping your family afloat…” Writing these phrases garnered from the women themselves and incorporating them into memorable songs, Dunn acknowledges the sacrifices made within the downtown Edmonton plant.
As the factory closes, Dunn once again weaves her lyrical magic to embrace the workers’ pride for their labour-intensive jobs and the camaraderie that developed. In “Farewell” she sings:
Farewell my sister on the line, we worked for many years,
And who’d have thought a factory job would bring us all to tears.
But day by day and side by side, our common ground ensured
That piece by piece, we stitched together more than just the work…
Facing uncertain futures, the women were resilient with an understanding of their reality:
Our work’s gone to a country where they’ll pay the women less,
We’ll move on, take our strengths and try to make the best…
As the album closes Dunn, always the creative wordsmith, cannot resist an opportunity for a final bit of word play: “for in our hearts, we know a woman’s worth is never done.”
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.
I would know nothing about this slice of Edmonton history had I not encountered Dunn’s participation in the GWG: Piece by Piece project. Dunn’s insightful method with lyrics, her judicious use of international musical textures, engaging melodies, and attractive instrumentation revealed to me a part of my world I never knew existed. As she has numerous times, Dunn has allowed me the opportunity to consider the importance and the vitality of life experiences far different from my own. In doing so, she has again brought folk music to life.
As Alberta entered a period of economic uncertainty this winter, the government again pitted white-collar against blue-collar, taxpayer against public servant, rural against urban, and set conservative beliefs in opposition to liberal values, we needed to be mindful of the hard-won achievements of those who laboured before us. We remembered the impact of social injustice on people who can least afford five percent rollbacks and who feel the full impact of not receiving cost-of-living increases. It is through a lens of sensitivity toward the unfamiliar plight of others that I attempt to view political and social issues, and as a chesterfield liberal, I am not always successful. Albums like Piece By Piece give me faith that even if I cannot (or will not) fight for justice, through my actions and donations I can support those who do. Fortunately, Albertans voted with their conscience and hearts this spring, not only with their wallets and in consideration of their self-interests.
In sharing the stories and insights of these women–who traveled from rural areas to find work in the city, immigrants and refugees from Italy, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, and elsewhere—Maria Dunn has created a memorable, dynamic collection of songs. She has achieved, through her meticulous use of source material and her talents as a songwriter, musician, and performer, an ideal balance of life and song. With Piece By Piece, she crafted an album truly “of the folk.”