A Balladeer From Point de Bute

Sixty years ago in the spring of 1938, world attention was focused on Moose River, a small Nova Scotia community, tucked away in the interior of Halifax County.

A sudden cave-in trapped three prospectors in an abandoned gold mine. Rescue teams were summoned and, after six days, it was discovered that miraculously the men were alive. Eventually two were rescued, while a third died in the attempt. On the spot broadcasts were carried to the outside world by a CBC mobile crew.

Listening hundreds of kilometres away, was a 34 year old Maritimer who had moved west to Alberta a decade earlier. Born at Port Hilford, Nova Scotia, not far from Moose River, in an area also noted for gold mining, the listener was intrigued and gripped as the epic tale unfolded.

Soon words for a new song began to form: Way down in old Nova Scotia/ Moose River it seems is the name/Three Canadians on Easter Sunday/To a tumbled-down gold mine they came/They entered the mine for inspection/Never dreaming fate trailed them close by… / and on the song continued, recounting details of the Moose River tragedy and triumph.

Shortly thereafter, The Rescue From Moose River Gold Mine was released by RCA Victor on the Bluebird label. Overnight it became an instant hit, as radio listeners everywhere were familiar with details of the event. The song-writer-balladeer was Wilfred Arthur Charles Carter (1904–1996), by then well known to his thousands of fans as Wilf Carter — The Yodelling Cowboy.

Claimed by Nova Scotia his birthplace, and by Alberta, where he lived part of his life; Wilf Carter also had strong New Brunswick connections. His adolescent years were spent in Point de Bute where his father Rev. Henry Carter, served as Baptist minister from 1919 until the latter’s death in 1928. Wilf Carter, is well remembered in the area, and tales are still told of his reputation for daring escapades and practical jokes.

One teen age prank is recounted in Carter’s autobiography. Often bored with school, he decided to play a trick on the student seated in front of him. Wilf wrote: I hid a screw driver in my pants pocket, and when the victim was up front with a recitation class, I carefully removed most of the screws that held his seat together. He was a big heavy kid and when he returned, he hit that seat pretty hard. He fell backward almost into my lap, and screws, wood and books went in all directions.

By the late 1930’s Wilf Carter’s popularity had grown to the point where he was making regular appearances on CBC, CBS and NBC network radio shows. His acclaim was not limited to North America. Wilf Carter recordings found their way to Australia and New Zealand where his ballads of life on the Canadian prairie were especially appreciated.

In 1940 he was seriously injured in an automobile accident, which hampered travelling in the decade that followed. Later, during the fifties and early sixties, his show became one of Canada’s major attractions. One reason for Wilf’s popularity was the recognition that his songs were rooted in experience. He had actually worked the range as a cowboy and knew how to toss a lariat as well as sing about one. It was no accident that he was later enrolled in the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

In 1983 RCA Victor released a two record anniversary tribute to Wilf Carter’s life and career. Two years later he was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame. At 86 and full of tricks he made his last cross-Canada tour in 1990. Carter died December 5, 1996 just short of his 92nd birthday.

The Rescue From Moose River Gold Mine was deliberately selected as an example of the numerous songs and ballads composed and sung by Wilf Carter. While well known for cowboy songs and his expertise as a ’three in one’ or echo yodeler; it is this song, and others in the same tradition, that set him apart. Of The Rescue From Moose River Gold Mine folklorist Neil Rosenberg has written: Lots of people have collected it. It’s in the mould of early disaster folk songs.

Such compositions evoke a universal appreciation, a quality that is also a hallmark of the enduring folk song. The Miramichi novelist, David Adams Richards, has given voice to this point: Nothing gives us a feeling of who we are — with more of an instant emotional response — than a song. Wilf Carter was an extraordinary song writer and singer who struck that instant emotional response in the lives of ordinary people.

I am indebted to several local residents for providing information on the Point de Bute period in Wilf Carter’s life. Special thanks go to his sister-in-law, Mrs Helen Carter, who loaned a copy of his autobiography, along with a number of other documents highlighting Carter’s long career. Helpful material was also provided by Ms. Patricia Townsend, Maritime United Baptist Convention Archivist, Acadia University.