Today’s post features a guest co-author, Gern f. Vlcheck, a musician, songwriter, storyteller, and author whom I’ve known for fifteen years. Gern moved to Montreal from Ontario in the early 1990s as a long-distance trucker. Before long, he was deeply involved in Montreal’s vibrant post-Referendum music and culture scene, fronting the well-known indie rock band The United Steelworkers of Montreal in the mid-2000s. He has also been a favourite bartender at Grumpy’s bar on Bishop Street (having been voted Montreal’s best bartender multiple times in the popular CultMTL event, “Best of Montreal”). His latest project, The Vlcheks, is a three-piece electric folk band that he fronts with Randall Anderson on bass and Mike Kennedy on drums. All three musicians have been deeply involved in Montreal’s folk and roots music scene, especially through the old-time country and bluegrass jam that takes place at Grumpy’s every Thursday night. Randall is also a renowned visual artist and Mike is a luthier who makes stunning custom acoustic guitars.
Gern’s songwriting is deeply shaped by the places he has lived, worked, and travelled – in particular the working class histories of Quebecers and Canadians. His band The Vlcheks are currently releasing one video a week as part of a 10-week music video series called “Up Against the Wall.” The first song they released last week, “The Bridge,” tells of an important yet often forgotten story in our province’s history: of the workers – many of them from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake – who were killed while building the Quebec Bridge in the early 20th century. Here is their video:
I asked Gern to provide a bit of context for how he came to write this song and his songwriting approach. Here is what he had to say.
I first crossed the Pierre Laporte bridge many years ago travelling in a band van as I was touring with the alt-country band the United Steel Workers of Montreal. Approaching Quebec from Highway 20 on the south side of the St. Lawrence river, the bridge sort of sweeps you up towards Quebec City. Its only remarkable tribute is directly to the east by a couple hundred feet, The Quebec Bridge. I remember the striking design, a multiple diamond shaped cantilever affair that harkens back to Scotland and the Firth of Fourth Bridge which had very much caught my attention years ago in a different part of my life, a different point of travel. The Quebec Bridge with its similar angles and its ornateness struck me as out of the ordinary. Its beauty seemed to do one thing very well and that was to show that its sister bridge, The Pierre LaPorte, which we were traveling on, was considerably under beautified to say the least.
It was the similarities to the Firth of Forth and the dressing down of the Pierre LaPorte that stuck with me and found me at home later researching this wonderful find of architecture. The first searches I did clarified to me that it was simply known as The Quebec Bridge which centres it in history for me. One hundred years ago, one did not need to name a bridge that remarkably spanned the entire St. Lawrence in one bound after a King or a Queen or a dead politician; it was a feat and was enough to refer to it by the fact it crossed the river at Quebec. Early into my research I found that its most interesting feature was the story of how it was built: three times in fact, and the 88 folks that died building it and the many others who greatly suffered way back in the early 1900s for a mathematical mistake and a company’s hubris.
This song, as with a lot of the songs I have written, is dedicated to the workers. In this case to the workers who, on two separate occasions, fell and were crushed or drowned as they did their day-to-day work just trying to make a living. As I delved deeper into this story, I found out that many of the men who died building this bridge had come from Kahnawake, a Mohawk reserve just south of Montreal. It was the thought of one small community loosing forty members in one fell swoop that inspired me to write this song. The devastating fact that many families lost multiple members in a single event is a lot for one small community to take.
I was assisted in my research by Kahnawake resident and photographer Dave Bush, as well as The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, and the Montreal Ironworkers Local. There are several decent documentaries about the construction and failure of this bridge and quite a few good articles about it. And yet it was a challenge to get a complete list of all who died in the accident; getting the Mohawk names right for the video was, I thought, necessary to properly pay homage to these workers.
I’m proud of this song and found it to be an interesting culmination of efforts, probably the most-researched song of my career. I recorded “The Bridge” with my band, The Vlcheks, and it is being released on YouTube as the first video track of our new video album, Up Against the Wall. We will be releasing one video every Wednesday at noon for a total of ten videos over the next ten weeks.
You can follow the Vlcheks and their “Up Against the Wall Series” on their Facebook page and YouTube channel. I want to thank Gern for taking the time to contribute this song and his reflections to this project.