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He Starved, He Starved I Tell You

One well-known song and verse maker from Cape Breton Island in the 1920s is Donald “Dawn” Fraser. Born on July 1, 1888 in Oxford, Nova Scotia, he moved with his family to Glace Bay in 1901 when the Cape Breton industrial communities were booming with coal and steel development.


His name was Eddie Crimmins
And he came from Port aux Basques,
Besides a chance to live and work
He had nothing much to ask;
No, not a dream he ever had
That he might work and save—
Was quite content to live and die
And be a working slave.
And yet, he starved, he starved, I tell you,
Back in nineteen twenty-four,
And before he died he suffered
As many have before.
When the mines closed down that winter
He had nothing left to eat,
And he starved, he starved, I tell you,
On your dirty, damned street.

The papers told of how the prince
Had caught a little cold,
And how the princess’ youngest kid
Was nearly four years old;
Such news is featured foremost
In every yellow sheet,
But they don’t tell when workers die
Standing on their feet;
Standing on their feet because
Nowhere to lay their head.
No, such news ain’t featured much—
I bet you never read
How for days young Crimmins
Wandered round the street,
And how a half-froze apple
Was the last he had to eat.

Too poor to buy, too proud to beg,
He sunk down like a log,
You never threw the lad the crust
You’d throw a lonely dog.
Oh Capital! oh Capital!
You’ve an awful debt to pay—
Oh Capital, I hope it’s true
There is a judgment day;
And when the great judge calls you up,
May I be there to see,
And if he wants a witness
I hope he calls on me.
If I have wings, I’ll gladly fly,
If not, I’ll use my feet,
And then I’ll tell how Crimmins died
Upon your damned street.



About Shane O’Handley

Cape Breton musician, Shane O’Handley, is known for his solid bass playing with the Tom Fun Orchestra, Carmen Townsend, Ladyslippers and other Island groups, but also plays a mean guitar and writes his own tunes as is demonstrated here in ” He Starved, He Starved I Tell You.”


After travelling through the eastern United States and serving a short stint in the army, Dawn Fraser returned to Cape Breton Island in 1919 to begin writing song and verse about the discontent amongst the labouring classes. 1 [1] David Frank and Don MacGillivray, Echoes From Labour’s War: Industrial Cape Breton in the 1920s (Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1976),10. One scholar argues that the intense class conflict that emerged in Cape Breton in the 1920s “grew out of the intersection of two historical cycles: the coal miners’ embrace of the heightened aspirations and class consciousness that swept the European and North American working class following the Bolshevik revolution and the end of World War I; and the arrival of BESCO, a new and particularly aggressive industrial landlord eager to exploit coal holdings that formed the most profitable part of its operations but which were becoming increasingly vulnerable to extra-provincial competitive pressures.” 2 [2] John Manley, “Preaching the Red Stuff: J.B. McLachlan, Communism and the Cape Breton Miners, 1922-1935.” Labour/Le Travail 30 (1992): 66. Fraser entered the fray of labour’s wars by composing poems and songs that represent the feelings and attitudes of working class people in this era; he became a vocal critic of BESCO. Described as “Cape Breton’s nearest equivalent to Joe Hill,” Fraser was not a coal miner but a newspaper reporter who frequently contributed to the Maritime Labour Herald. 3[3] David Frank and Don MacGillivray, Echoes From Labour’s War: Industrial Cape Breton in the 1920s (Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1976),10. This newspaper became significant in the class struggles of the early 1920s and was one of the “key institutions” to support the Communist Party of Canada, along with the Workers Educational Clubs and the Communist Party headquarters in Glace Bay. 4 [4] John Manley, “Preaching the Red Stuff: J.B. McLachlan, Communism and the Cape Breton Miners, 1922-1935.” Labour/Le Travail 30 (1992): 85. The first edition of the paper was published in Glace Bay in late October, 1921, with James B. McLachlan as the “dominant spirit,” and William Ulric Cotton as the first editor (MacEwan 1976: 74). Silby Barrett was President, A.S. MacIntyre, Vice President and A.S. McKillop, Secretary-Treasurer. 5 [5] The Maritime Labour Herald 1 April 1922:3. It was published every Saturday and was “devoted to the interests of Labour.” The majority of the shares in the paper were held by unions of the day and, “until it folded in 1926 … it was to all intents a Party paper, described on one occasion by Tim Buck as a Maritimes version of Lenin’s ‘collective organizer’.” 6 [6] John Manley, “Preaching the Red Stuff: J.B. McLachlan, Communism and the Cape Breton Miners, 1922-1935.” Labour/Le Travail 30 (1992): 86. . The reference to the newspaper as a collective organizer derives from a quotation of Lenin’s:

The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer.” 7[7] Lenin. “Where to Begin,” 1903. Accessed July 22, 2009 


The three editors, W.U. Cotton (1921-23), Tom Bell (1923-1924) and J.B. McLachlan (1924-1926), were all Communist Party of Canada members and as John Manley points out, “[r]eaders were exposed not only to coverage of local and national events, but also to reports on Party life abroad, numerous vignettes of socialist construction in the USSR (some of them from the pen of Roscoe Fillmore, the celebrated Nova Scotia Marxist who placed his horticultural expertise at the disposal of the USSR in 1923) and items of political analysis by leading Comintern figures” (Manley 1992: 86). It is clear that Dawn Fraser had a major influence on the MLH, for in the years between 1921 and 1926, thirty-four of his verses were published in it. David Frank points out that many of his compositions were designed for recitation: “he appeared frequently at homes and parties, on streetcorners and in bar-rooms, at labour gatherings at the moviehouses, and on one memorable occasion he read his longest epic to a summer crowd of several thousand people on the Lingan and Dominion beach” (1985: 214). Some of the longer poems were serialized and some also reappeared months or weeks after the initial publication date.


In addition to his work in newspaper and pamphlet form, Fraser published four volumes of rhyme that are known by few today (Fraser 1924; 1926; 1944; n.d.). Fraser, it seems, would first publish his work in the newspaper and then gather the composed verses together for a publication. Sometimes a poem would be accompanied by an advertisement for his upcoming book. For example, following the publication of “The Widow in the Ward” Fraser writes, “from Fraser’s new book, Songs of Siberia and Rhymes of the Road, second edition. The only book published of the late War that the public demanded a second edition of” (MLH, 30 June 1923: 4).


Much of Fraser’s work depicts the mining corporation’s cold, callous and uncompromising treatment of workers. For example, “The Case of Jim O’Coughlan,” is a thinly veiled description of the sentencing and jailing of James Bryson McLachlan, one of the most vocal Cape Breton labour leaders of the 1920s. In 1923, McLachlan was arrested for “publishing false information likely to prejudice the public interest,” but the charge was later changed to “publishing misleading information and imparting communist literature into Glace Bay” (MacEwan 1976: 111). When neither charge could be substantiated, a third charge of “seditious libel” was brought forth by the Crown; on this McLachlan was found guilty and sentenced to two years in Dorchester penitentiary. He served three months (MacEwan 1976: 111). In “The Case of Jim O’Coughlan” Fraser provides a short history of the days leading up to McLachlan’s jailing. Moreover, he satirizes and criticizes the management and supervisory personnel of the large conglomerate BESCO. He is particularly scathing in his criticism of one BESCO leader, Roy Wolvin:

Now if all the bosses that e’er was cursed,

ROY THE WOLFE was called the worst,

He was the leading parasite,

That fed on the workers day and night;

Greedy, growling wolf for more,

He stole the bread from the workers door,

Grew fat on starving children’s cries,

And filled the papers with foolish lies,

That his company couldn’t afford to pay,

Yet he got three hundred dollars a day.

For doing nothing but looking wise,

Starving kids and telling lies;

Thus he promoted the capitalist game,

‘Til babies were taught to curse his name,

And Roy the Wolf and his thieving band,

Spread distress throughout the land,

‘Til Jim O’Coughlan and other men,

Started one of the many fights,

For Labour’s cause and workers’ rights.

And they called on ROY THE WOLFE to give,

More of the gold that they might live,

More of the gold they had to pay,

To meet the prices from day to day…. (MLH, 1 March 1924: 2)


The use of nicknaming was a common tradition among miners. Fraser captures the sly and untrustworthy nature of manager Roy Wolvin by calling him the “Wolf,” a name by which he was known in the mining communities (Davey and MacKinnon 2001). The poem was serialized each Saturday throughout the months of February and March, 1924. On February 16, 1924, Fraser says, “workers, cut this out and save it carefully along with your ‘Pluck-Me’ slips [pay stubs]. Next week we will tell you of a great Capitalist called ‘Roy the Wolf’ who lived many years ago” (MLH, 16 February 1924: 2). This direction gives an indication of how this verse was passed on. People cut texts out of the newspaper, saved them at home, pasted them on wash house walls at the pit and most importantly, discussed the content with friends and family. While initially using the mass-mediated form of the newspaper, the content of the poems was passed on via oral or face-to-face means. Many of the ills and difficulties of this period of labour/management strife and class struggle are described in this and other verses by Fraser.


In addition to “The Case of Jim O’Coughlan,” two other poems are devoted to this union leader: “Away False Teachings of My Youth,” and “Honest Bell What Did Bruce Say” (MLH, 27 October 1923: 4; 2 June 1923: 4). While Fraser was a gifted social commentator and poet, it is extremely difficult to assess whether or not his work entered oral tradition. If so, one would expect to find versions being sung by traditional or professional singers of the time or recorded in song collections or LP recordings. Yet, a close examination of two collections of the 1920s and 1930s which were meant to provide the general public with easy access to the lyrics of some of the most popular songs on the island reveals none of Fraser’s work (McCawley 1929; MacDonald 1935). Only one, “Hard Winter at the Mines,” was noted by a song collector (Ronald MacEachern).


David Frank sees Fraser’s work as a recitation tradition not unlike the poems of Robert Service rather than a song tradition (1986: 37). According to Frank, “with Dawn Fraser … we enter into the area where the oral emphasis and the spontaneity of the folk tradition seem to give way to a more conscious effort to construct a local working-class culture” (1986: 37). Yet the traditions of verse-making or folk poetry and song-making are similar, in that identical attitudes and feelings are expressed in both forms. While a song moves to the level of performance, a verse remains on the page unless it is performed as a recitation. Yet both song and verse express the widespread feelings and attitudes of working people and their families.


One possible reason why so few of Fraser’s lyrics seem to have entered oral tradition lies in the fact that many of his lyrics reflect particularly harsh times and events in the history of the Cape Breton labour movement. There may be a conscious forgetting of these particular kinds of songs and verse. Fraser’s verse may be too strong a reminder of a painful period for the songs to enter the lasting oral tradition. The songs composed during labour struggles, strikes, or particularly difficult times may lose their meaning for the people when the events surrounding their composition are long forgotten.


Much of Fraser’s work is a part of the broadside tradition. As the editors of a reprinted volume of his poetry attest, “his writings appeared in pamphlets, books, magazines, and newspaper ….Sometimes his outpourings were simply posted on a bulletin board at the main intersection at Glace Bay ….He read his verse on the streets, at union meetings, at parties, and at massive labour and political meetings at the Savoy and Russell Theatres in Glace Bay” (Frank and MacGillivray 1976: 10).


Much of the industrial protest verse and song appearing in the newspaper criticizes the mining and steel corporations and their representatives while chastising “blacklegs” or scab workers and praising some of the well-known union leaders at home and abroad. Dawn Fraser’s song, “He Starved, He Starved, I Tell You” narrates the story of a Newfoundland man, Eddie Crimmins who starved on the streets of Cape Breton in 1924.


Davey, William and Richard MacKinnon. 2001. Nicknaming Patterns and Traditions among Cape Breton Coal Miners. Acadiensis 30.2: 71-83.

Frank, David, and Don MacGillivray. 1976. Introduction to Echoes From Labour’s War: Industrial Cape Breton in the 1920s, by Dawn Fraser, 1-16. Toronto: New Hogtown Press.

MacDonald, Alphonse. 1935. Cape Breton Songster. Sydney, NS: Privately published.

Manley, John. 1992. Preaching the Red Stuff: J.B. McLachlan, Communism and the Cape Breton Miners, 1922-1935. Labour/Le Travail 30: 65-114.

McCawley, Stuart. 1929a. A Book of Songs and ‘Come-All-Ye’ of Cape Breton and Newfoundland. Glace Bay: Brodie Printing Service.

Dawn Fraser

Dawn Fraser2015-01-30 at 4.42.14 PM

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