Stirring Up Ghosts: The Music of Bruce Coughlan and Tiller’s Folly

Bruce Coughlan

Bruce Coughlan is the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of The Tiller Folly.

The recorded history of the Salish Sea is filled with stories of heroes and scoundrels, triumphs and tragedies. Bruce Coughlan turns these human dramas into songs deeply rooted in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Coughlan is the singer and songwriter for the Canadian folk band “Tiller’s Folly.”

This week KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty sits on a Vancouver beach with Coughlan and explores that history, and the music it inspires.

Click to listen to the story

Liam Moriarty: Tell us about where we’re sitting right now.

Bruce Coughlan: Well, we’re sitting on Jericho Beach, looking out over English Bay. Just around the corner there to the west, is Spanish Banks. Directly ahead of us is the bay where the Spanish and English explorers first met back in 1792.

Basically, here they were trying to claim this land for their respective countries. So the fact that they met on friendly terms and not aggressive terms was pretty interesting to start with.

(Lyrics from song)
I walked the road to Spanish Banks…
And where the cliffs rise over sandy shoals below.
I wondered how it appeared to them
Two hundred years ago…

Bruce: The Spanish were giving places all the Spanish names – you know, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Galiano and Gabriola Islands – the English were doing the same – English Bay, Howe Sound, Mt. Baker – all these points of land throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The Tillers Folly (L to R) Bruce Coughlan: vocals, guitar - Nolan Murray: fiddle, mandolin - Lawrence Knight: electric bass

(Lyrics from song)
…venturing on to each new horizon, charting as they sailed.
What if they had seen the years unfolding?
Would they have believed a world so changed?
Could they have foreseen in all their wildest fantasies
This place that bears their name?

Liam: You mention in the song, Spanish Banks, you have a line, “Names that leap from my atlas pages were present on that day.” I thought that was an interesting observation. When you look at a map, you see all these names, and they were there.

Bruce: They were there. A lot of the people were aboard. Quadra Island was named after Quadra – he was the captain.

Liam: One of the historical based songs that you guys do that I got a big kick out of was Steamboating Jamiesons, which is basically about five brothers named Jamieson who were renowned steamboat pilots throughout the Northwest, and each of them met an untimely end.

A medley of Tiller’s Folly historical songs

(Lyrics from song)
There were five brothers Jamieson, pride of the great Northwest,
When it came to steamboat piloting, well, the Jamiesons were best.
Their story’s told of the captains bold who plied the Northwest chuck.
The steamboating Jamiesons had the hardest luck!
It’s said the trouble all began back in 1854
When the first of the fated Jamiesons was standing on the wharf.
Oh, Canamah town heard a frightening sound and a great horrific roar,
The Gazelle was flung into kingdom come and that left only four.
Four?
Four steamboat Jamiesons, the pride of the great Northwest…

Liam: Were they actual characters or were they just sort of guys you’re having fun with?

Bruce: Absolutely true.

Liam: Really!

Bruce: Absolutely true story. As a matter of fact, when we toured Scotland six years ago, we visited their home; a place called Broddick. And we discovered that there had been a sixth brother who had had the good sense to stay at home. The night we played at the Alpine Hotel in Broddick, Scotland, we had three generations of non-steamboating Jamiesons in attendance.

Liam: Really… (chuckles)

Singing folk music or folk-inspired music about people long dead and livelihoods that no longer exist; it seems to be an invitation for modern people to put themselves in another human’s shoes 100, 150, 200 years ago and kind of walk around in those shoes for a while. Is that a part of what goes on with you?

Robbie McBeath video

A member of the famed Scottish regiment the Seaforth Highlanders, Robert McBeath was decorated for bravery and survived the carnage of World War I to emigrate to Canada.

He joined the Vancouver Police Department, only to be killed while making an arrest in 1922. Tiller’s Folly performs this tribute with the Vancouver Police Pipe Band.

Bruce: That’s the intrigue for me, is to be able to see things with one extra dimension; with that dimension of time I can look out at this bay and imagine it without the big tankers. I can imagine it without all the high-rises on the far shore.

Can you imagine what it was like? The creaking of the sails and the rigging, coming around the corner and spying another expeditionary force from a rival country. The hearts would have been thumping at that time. People would have been crying out commands. They were going to come alongside and figure out what was what.

That moment in history defined who we are today as Pacific dwellers.

Liam: Well, Bruce; thank you for inviting me out on this walk today.

Bruce: Thanks, Liam. It’s been a lovely day. It didn’t rain.

Liam: That’s always a good day when it doesn’t rain in the Pacific Northwest.

Thanks a lot.

Bruce: Cheers; take care.

(Lyrics from song)
Yes! The steamboating Jamiesons had the hardest luck!

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2 Comments to “Stirring Up Ghosts: The Music of Bruce Coughlan and Tiller’s Folly”

  1. Yes, but how do we account for the abundance of names which are clearly derived from the native population who were here before the Spanish and British Expeditions?

    In B.C. many, many locations are clearly from the “First Nations”. I’m looking at a map of Esperanza Inlet (obviously Spanish origin) and it has Nuchalitz Inlet, Tahsis Inlet, Tsowwin Narrows, and so on.

    In Washington almost every River has an obvious name derived from native peoples. I look out the window at Lummi Island, live on Samish Island, etc.

    Will there be any research on how these other place names came to be officially fixed? Will it recognize the historic background of place names coming from native peoples?

  2. Hi Dave,

    You raise an excellent point. Over the course of the “Reflections on the Water” series, I’ll be talking with several native folks, from different points around the Salish Sea, on both sides of the border. I don’t know that we’ll revisit the place-naming aspect of the story, but the original inhabitants of these waters will definitely be heard from …

    Thanks for listening!

    – Liam

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