Commentary: STEEL MEN – Setting the record straight! – By Dave Martins

  — By Dave Martins

 When you live a long life as I have, in some ways, because of the huge amount of passing time involved, the limits of the brain will come into play and you forget chunks – sometimes trivia, but also very important pieces – of what you went through or learned or overcame, and it takes a remark from a friend, or a reference you see in the press, to remind you of an episode, or even a response to a song, in your own life that should have great relevance for you.  My musician friend George Jardim, here in Guyana, often comes up with a reference to something, or some aspect of something, that hits me like a slap in the face.  “Oh rant, budday…I had forget all about dat.”         

And it’s not a rarity; there are others where the reaction is genuine surprise. Just this past week, in a note from overseas, a long-time friend in Toronto reminded me of a song of mine called  “Steel Men”, that goes back some 50 years to my time in Canada. It’s an interesting story in that the song, hardly known in this country, was the first foot-in-the-door, so to speak, for Tradewinds in Toronto. Unlike my other music, this song was about the Canadian story of a massive metal bridge, being built, in British Columbia, on the West Coast, near Vancouver, in an area called Second Narrows.  As a rule, those happenings don’t necessarily become topics for songs – my intense fear of heights was probably in play for my tackling it, and it probably passed out of my focus simply from the passage of time – as I put it, old brains. This was no comical kaiso; this was real life drama playing out and making newspaper headlines

           The bridge was under construction, on the western edge of Canada, and a fierce windstorm sprang up one afternoon, shaking the framework back and forth and eventually some 15 of the workmen fell from the structure to their deaths.  The catastrophe was big news in Toronto, and the song I wrote about it caught the attention of a popular DJ on the top-rated CHUM radio station in the city and ended up, if memory serves, at #9 on their music chart.  By chance, the popular American country star, Jimmy Dean, visiting Toronto at the time, heard it on the radio and decided to do his version for the U.S. market, which was a huge push for the song.  I made some “warm dollars”, to use the Guyanese term, from Steel Men which remains completely unknown to Caribbean audiences, and indeed the topic was certainly no longer in the front of my mind until the Toronto fan mentioned it.

           There are some interesting aspects to this. One was that Steel Men, unlike the other Tradewinds reordings, was an outright country song and to look back, after the recent reminder, I am at a loss to tell you how it ended up in the Tradewinds catalogue.  Perhaps I was deliberately creating a product for the North American market, and therefore moulding the song in that genre, as opposed to the Caribbean one, but I simply do not remember – as I said, “old brains”.  Perhaps, as my Guyanese mother would put it, I just had “a brekka”, or a crazy spell; it remains a complete blank. Nonetheless, although I cannot recall the impetus, the song got extensive airplay in Toronto, ending up at #9 on the pop music chart of the popular CHUM station leading to American music star Jimmy Dean recording it in Nashville.  There may well have been other wheels turning, in Ontario or Tennessee behind Dean’s version, but I truly have no knowledge whatsoever of such.  The song was covered, I was happy for the push, case closed.

          I’m relating this story here to help out my Toronto friend who referred to Steel Men in some Canadian publication where he was immediately bombarded by a so-called Caribbean music expert in that city to the effect that no such recording was ever generated by Tradewinds, from 1966 to now.  Yes Diana (that’s not the complainer’s name) there is indeed a STEEL MEN song about a bridge collapse in a Canadian city where courageous steel workers lost their lives, and the song did draw a lot of attention in the Toronto area, though I admit many of the Western Canada radio stations found it to be too sensitive a subject –after all, brave men had died tragically – and ignored it completely.  As the saying goes, “I was young and foolish then; I’m so much wiser now.”. Just to set the record straight.

Jimmy Dean – Steel Men

Jimmy Dean – Steel Men 1962. Story of the Vancouver Second Narrows Bridge collapse in June 1958.

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