By the Rideau Canal with Story and Music

I was in the middle of my story when a dull roar started to fill the volume of the church. It took me a moment to realize — it was raining, hard — dare I say a deluge pounding the slate roof of the 19th century Merrickville United Church. I decided it added a great effect as I was at the point of telling about the deluge of mosquitos that invested and infected the building of the Rideau Canal in 1829.
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I was part of Tales and Tunes: Building the Rideau Canal, a show bringing a combination of music and storytelling about the building of the Rideau Canal (1826-32) and presented in canal-side towns of Merrickville, Portland and Perth (on the Tay). All the venues were a bit over an hour’s drive from home and were churches.

Dean Verger and I were working with musician Al Ridgeway, leader of the NorthWinds Brass, a brass quintet of two trumpets, French horn, baritone and tuba. Ridgeway had taken 19th century fiddle and Irish folk music, the music canal labourers would have relaxed with, and arranged them for the quintet. The result was a sound that was at once quite striking different and yet so familiar. To provide a contrast to that typical music of Upper Canada the show included works of Ludwig Wilhelm Maurer, a German musician composing and playing in 1820’s Europe. The musical program was rounded out with mid 19th century Canadian composer Calixa Lavallée, best known as author of our national anthem, O Canada.

In the first half Dean told Boom, the story of a Canadian farmer working on the canal who decides to become a black-powder blasting expert, perhaps with more persuasion that skills. In the second part I told an original story, In the Beginning about John Mactaggart and John Burrows, the two Canal surveyors, which I researched and wrote. The finale combined both arts. Interwoven with the music of La Rose Nuptiale by Lavallée, Verger told The Untimely Demise of Snidely Whiplash, an original romance story he wrote.

Except for a rainy first evening, the tour took place in wonderful weather over Mothers’ Day weekend in churches at Merrickville, Portland and Perth, and was well received by our enthusiastic audiences. The Rideau Canal became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

The stories from this performance were reprised in Five Tellers, Five stories about the Rideau Canal  at the Bytown Museum, Ottawa, along side the Rideau Canal locks across from the Chateau Laurier Hotel, on July 31, 2014