Good Timber – Logging Poetry and West Coast Music

Originally published on August 8, 2010 at twoab.wordpress.com.

The Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC is the current host to The Other Guys’ production of Good Timber: Songs & Stories of the Western Logger. The show is a musical about the BC loggers famed worldwide for being tough as nails men who did the craziest job in the world in some of the remotest areas of the world. Whether it standing at the top of a west coast pine, driving a fully loaded logging truck down a 22% grade, or standing at the bottom of a 22 foot around fir tree with a single axe, the loggers of BC are immortalized in this great, fun for the whole family musical experience.

Based on the poems of Robert E. Swanson (1905-1994) and created by Ross Desprez, Good Timber features a who’s-who of musical and theatrical talent from Victoria and the island. Ross Desprez is the creator, director, and a member of the ensemble as well as the arranger of four of the shows songs. Desprez is the Artistic Director of the Other Guys Theatre Company and is also a professor at Vancouver Island University as well as being a well-respected member of the Victoria theatre community.

The Good Timber cast and a quote from Victoria’s Monday Magazine

Good Timber is based around 14 Swanson poems and six other poems/songs equalling 22 pieces in total, 18 of which are set to music. The musical director and co-creator of Good Timber is Tobin Stokes, an internationally acclaimed composer/musician most recently known for his work with the BC Winter Olympics and as a runner-up in the search for a new Hockey Night in Canada theme song. His scores for this performance include instrumentation as diverse as guitars and brake drums, ukulele and a saw. With six amazing multi-instrumentalists, the show takes off with songs featuring banjo, three acoustic guitars (right-handed and left-handed), two harmonicas, two saws, a mandolin, egg shakers, monkey wrenches, two fiddles (one right-handed and one left-handed), metal files, axe heads, an autoharp, and a ukulele and an acoustic bass guitar played – you guessed it – right-handed and upside down!

The musicians in the ensemble (they are not called a cast as there is no actual script, just songs and poems performed sometimes standing still and sometimes with great physical humour and acting) include Desprez, Sarah Donald – fiddle player and actor known for touring with Montreal band Stars and for acting on stages across Canada and the UK; Colleen and Kelt Eccleston – a brother/sister duo known for their solo works in music and theatre and for their band The Ecclestons, and for Colleen’s teaching at UVic and Kelt’s stage and screen acting; John Gogo – a touring musician and former logger who has had music videos featured on CMT and MuchMusic as well as being a veteran performer with the Other Guys; and Mark Hellman – actor, musician, dancer, puppeteer, voice-over artist, writer, teacher, director, and independent producer known for his one-man Shakespeare shows. The pieces are listed separately in the program as words and music because many of them are originally Swanson’s poems with music added later. Gogo is the only ensemble member to write words, writing two pieces and adding the music for two, Stokes wrote the music for two, the Ecclestons contributed one each, and Hellman and Desprez gave music for four more each.

Robert E. Swanson is a poet known as “Bard of the Woods,” someone who is to logging as Robert Service is to gold mining in the Klondike. Swanson’s writing style is very similar to that of Service and relies heavily on end rhymes and ironic humour. He is also well-known as the inventor of the air horns for diesel trains that sound like steam train whistles. These air horns and his other air horn inventions have been used world-wide, including on the BC Ferries and all other ships horns. Swanson also created the Centennial Horns, or the O Canada Horns, that are known as the signature sound of Canada and the Canadian railroad industry. You can listen to the horns here.

Hellman’s performance was one of the highlights from a cast of great performers. His solo song BC Highball not only had the audience laughing heartily at the crazy stories of a rather insane logger, but the audience was also on the edge of their seats as they waited the crash of a logging truck brought vividly to life on Hellman’s 1957 Gibson acoustic guitar, one he’s owned since he was 19. His skill and decades of experience were a great addition to the cast and he anchored many songs with his vocal harmonies.

My favourite song was The Green Chain, a song sung by the ladies about how they couldn’t live without the logging industry. Although light-hearted in many places, the song featured images of Rosie the Riveter types projected onto the screen as a show of the oft-overlooked women in the logging industry. These photos, along with great two-part harmonies, brought images of life not only in the logging camps but also in the cities of bustling new towns buried deep in the BC wilderness.

The location for Good Timber was in the group entrance lobby of the RBCM, sandwiched between the Coat-Check and the gift shop. This location is perhaps a grand nod of the head to the legendary stories of loggers featured in Swanson’s poems as many seem completely off the wall and out of the ordinary, just like a theatre in a lobby. The set was created by Peter Pokorny and features a fake ground area with three raised sections and a log that the actors use during songs and dance elements. The main raised section was used to great effect when Kelt Eccleston fell off it in a drunk stupor while chasing the girl of his dreams in the song Ballad of the Soiled Snowflake, a tongue-in-cheek love song of a logger caught up in the enthrall of a city during his day off who eventually ends up married to Mary McGuire. His next line after falling is “and the floor came up and walloped me on the face!”

The connection to the museum is beautifully made by the screen behind the actors, designed by John Carswell, which features photos and videos of the golden days of the BC logging industry. The photos are beautifully researched and arranged so that they not only correspond to the music (like photos of the steam trains during Faithful Unto The End, an arrangement by Gogo about two trains in love) but they also show the un-named loggers themselves in closely cropped portraits that give the show an eerie feeling of loss and ghostly nostalgia for simpler times. In fact, this is perhaps the greatest detractor to the production as I was unable to choose what to look at during some songs: the very talented musicians/actors or the historical photos that sometimes sent chills up my spine.  Hardly a detractor I’d care to change…

I suggest going to see this show multiple times with as many friends as you can bring. Each time you see it you will be moved from fits of tear-bringing laughter to gasping head shakes from the photos projected onto the screen, and all other emotions in between. The BC Museum does an amazing service to the community by hosting this production, and the Other Guys Theatre Company can be credited with an unbelievable historical delight.

Royal BC MuseumOther Guys Theatre CompanyGood Timber

View the poem Good Timber by Douglass Malloch, the poem that gives this production its title. You can also see the Good Timber promotional video that features this poem and the cast members.

The EcclestonsJohn GogoMark HellmanTobin Stokes

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