Lore of the shore
Musical project pays homage to Lake Winnipeg’s rich and stormy history
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It’s one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, a mammoth expanse of unpredictable waves breaking along shores of rolling prairie, boreal forest and rocky lowlands.
Lake Winnipeg is a force to be reckoned with and the source of much local lore — lore Daniel Jordan has become intimately acquainted with in recent years.
In 2018, the Winnipeg singer-songwriter was one of 10 artists selected for Chautauqua: The Interlake Trail, a multidisciplinary roving art program from Theatre Projects Manitoba that saw dancers, documentary filmmakers, painters, musicians, photographers and performers descend upon the Interlake to learn about the area and its inhabitants.
“We’d meet some of the folks, learn some of the history and get a vibe for the place,” says Jordan, who performs as Jonny Moonbeam and with the band Red Moon Road. “The idea was to reflect that back to the community as art.”
He made more than a dozen research trips to the region, chatting with residents and historians in Gimli, Riverton, Eriksdale, Selkirk and Arborg. Jordan grew up sailing on Lake of the Woods, but had little personal experience with the province’s largest body of water; through the project, he discovered that his grandmother was born in the small lakeside village of Matlock.
“We sailed from Gimli all the up to Hecla Island. And pretty much realized immediately after finishing it how stupid that was and how lucky we were to not run into one of these storms that just pop up sometimes.”
For Jordan and his now-wife, who hails from the East Coast, the Chautauqua program was an immersive way to explore Manitoba. The couple took along their 16-foot sailboat and spent summer nights sleeping on the water and tootling up and down the shore. After learning more about the treacherous nature of the lake, however, they upgraded to a more substantial vessel.
“We sailed from Gimli all the up to Hecla Island,” Jordan says. “And pretty much realized immediately after finishing it how stupid that was and how lucky we were to not run into one of these storms that just pop up sometimes.”
For generations, fishers and Indigenous communities in the area have warned about rogue waves that would swell up unannounced.
Elder and knowledge keeper Ruth Christie shared the backstory of the three waves, known locally as the Agnes, Mabel and Becky. The legend inspired Jordan to write a song called The Three Sisters.
“Becky is the last one, and she’ll sink the boat,” he recalls. “(What) a fascinating concept, but I couldn’t find any reason for the names, so one of the songs is sort of an imagined origin story for the three sisters.”
Tributes to historical events, such as the sinking of the SS Princess steamboat and J.R. Spear cargo ship, were inspired by conversations with historian Andy Blicq and hours spent combing through local archives.
Blicq also turned Jordan on to a quarantine wedding that took place in the late 1800s amid the smallpox pandemic.
“This couple wanted to get married in the middle of January in Manitoba — so that tells you how much of a rush they were in — but there was no priest in town and nobody could go in or out of the RM of New Iceland, which is now Gimli,” Jordan says. “So, apparently, they wrote a letter to this priest and he came as far as the boundary line, which was Netley Creek. The priest stood on one side and the bride and groom on the other side and they shouted their vows across.”
Altogether, he wrote seven songs about the mythos and history of Lake Winnipeg through the Chautauqua project, with plans to perform them in the communities he visited.
Then the pandemic hit. Instead of live performances, screenings and exhibits, the artists involved in the program were left to present their work online.
Jordan recorded music videos for several of the songs, but the endeavour felt unfinished. This weekend, Songs from the Inland Sea — a seven-track album — will finally get its due.
“It was such a cool thing that I didn’t want it to only live online,” he says. “I thought it would be a good idea to finally book a show and do a bit of a tour so we could actually play in front of real live humans.”
Songs from the Inland Sea will be available on all major streaming services on Saturday and Jordan has a limited batch of CDs for listeners who prefer a hard copy.
When contemplating venues to host an album launch, he had one, somewhat challenging, requirement: “It had to be on a boat.”
On Saturday, Jordan, along with musical friends Heitha Forsyth (Sol James) and Daniel Péloquin-Hopfner, will transform the Nonsuch exhibit at the Manitoba Museum into a stage.
“The drummer will be playing at about a 22 degree angle, because (the Nonsuch) isn’t flat,” Jordan says of the ship, a replica of the 16-metre ketch that originally sailed into Hudson Bay in 1668. “It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”
“The drummer will be playing at about a 22 degree angle, because (the Nonsuch) isn’t flat.”
Ticketholders will experience Songs from the Inland Sea in full, while watching from the gallery’s viewing platforms around the landlocked boat. To bring the concept full circle, Nonsuch Brewing has created a Three Sisters Pilsner Lager for the event, with proceeds from beer sales donated to the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.
Through October and November, Jordan will be again travelling around the Interlake to share the album with the people who inspired the music. He’s looking forward to returning to an area that has captured his imagination.
“I have a better appreciation for the people and the place,” he says. “And seeing it from the water… you get an appreciation for how dangerous that lake is. It’s a big, big lake and it deserves your respect.”
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.