Rollin’ Down the River is a musical look at the Niagara River, its history, and influence on the region.
Performed by the Great Canadian Songbook Band, the online musical event was scheduled to be part of a fundraising effort put on by Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery in support of The Friends of Fort George and The Niagara Historical Society earlier this month. Unfortunately, due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, the in-person dinner of the History in the Vineyard fundraiser was required to become a take-away event.
The musical portion that was to be presented at the fundraiser was recorded and eventually uploaded to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum’s YouTube channel on Dec. 23. It was written and directed by Barbara Worthy, an experienced writer, director, producer and performer. She was a drama and documentary producer for CBC Radio for two decades, and enjoyed a 20-year association with the Shaw Festival. She teaches at both Brock University and Niagara College, and is a creative producer and content provider for many local arts organizations in Niagara. Over the years, she has worked with the museum on specific projects and contracts, but joined staff in the fall of 2019 as the visitor and members services assistant.
Along with the musical and acting talents of Aaron Berger, Juliet Dunn, Laurel Minnes, and Joe Lapinski, Worthy takes the audience on a historical voyage down the Niagara River and its impact and influence on the Niagara area. Starting with the earliest records of original inhabitants, the group presents history through song, skits and stories. The accounts chronicle the river’s impact on trade, commerce, smuggling, and slavery. Highlights from the video include Juliet Dunn’s solo performance of Imma Gonna Take ‘em Back, which was both thought-provoking and touching. The song expresses the anguish of a black slave whose children have been taken from her, and her determination to get her children back. This song and the one that follows, I Have Faith, punctuate the role of the river in the Underground Railway for slaves escaping from the U.S. to freedom in Canada.
Other performances include an animated story by Aaron Berger, Laurel Minnes, and Joe Lapinski about prohibition and fishing rights in the river. Berger’s rendition of a maritime diddy was an entertaining way to bring this period of history to life. The group also highlighted the impact of steam boats on the lake and the river, by concluding with a song about the most famous steam boat, The Cayuga, when it sailed Lake Ontario from 1906 to her last voyage in 1957, carrying more than 15 million passengers from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto and other ports on the lake.
Worthy explains that she originally formed the Great Canadian Historical Songbook Band to perform historical songs and stories. They have a history of telling local stories through song, with support from the NOTL and the Niagara Falls museums. To complement the live shows, they created a podcast series that is recorded at Joe Lapinski’s WOW! Recording Studio & Creative Music Space in St. Catharines. This podcast is available through all podcast streaming platforms: https://anchor.fm/canadian-songbook.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to work with superb talent, diverse, local and passionate musicians, and our local museum, because that’s where I start with all the research,” Worthy says. “That’s what makes it so special. We can tell our local stories that include Black history, Native history, as well as stories that tell the settlement of Niagara and beyond,” she continues.
Worthy says she would like to thank the students and staff in the Niagara College Broadcasting department for making the filming of this part of their class project, and to the Niagara Region for funding through the Niagara Investment in Culture program. She says they were “thrilled to receive the Niagara Investment in Culture grant. The NIC program has been invaluable to local artists, and especially now, when everyone is scrambling to create digital content and be COVID-responsible.”
The full event can be watched on YouTube at https://youtu.be/JxaezsiIDAI.