There are hardly any songs that Bruce Coughlan doesn’t know how to play.
“Come on, Major Tom, something,” someone shouted out from a table at the Fort Pub & Grill last week.
“David Bowie, Space Oddity. I’ll give it a shot,” Coughlan replied, as he began strumming the first few chords.
“Let’s hear Hotel California,” another pubgoer yelled.
“Alright some Eagles, nice song,” he said back.
Coughlan’s impressive repertoire comes from years of training on busy street corners in Vancouver, and bustling taverns in Langley, including the Rose & Thistle (now Jimmy Macs), the Fernridge Arms, the Fox and Hound, and of course, the Fort Pub, where he began as a regular performer in 1981.
In fact, since Coughlan dropped out of the eighth grade at Brookswood Jr. High School in 1974, he has taught himself everything he knows about music.
“My dad took me to a Clancy Brothers concert in 1967, and I knew I wanted to be a musician ever since then — no doubt in my mind,” Coughlan said, as he worked his way through a bowl of chicken wings between sets at the Fort Pub.
“See, they told me in school that I couldn’t. They said I was tone deaf and that I had no musical aptitude whatsoever. That’s when I left school — when and why. I said, ‘You’ve got nothing to teach me here.’”
Playing in a number of local bands over the years — including the Bare Facts, which recorded their first 12” vinyl in 1984, and the High Tops, a pop band that released a couple of videos and cassette singles — it’s Celtic and roots music that Coughlan has become best known for.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of his Canadiana band, Tiller’s Folly, which launched at the PNE in 1997 with six musicians and eight Irish dancers as the Celtic Thunder show.
In the last two decades, they’ve transitioned from an Irish band to more of a “songwriter-driven acoustic roots band,” featuring Coughlan, now a Maple Ridge resident, on vocals and guitar, Laurence Knight from White Rock on bass and vocals and Nolan Murray from Birch Bay, Wash. on fiddle and mandolin.
“I like music that gives you a sense of fellowship, of belonging. I think people who relate to traditional music are trying to connect with their roots. I think that’s a good idea, it’s part of a certain identity,” he said.
“And one of the things I truly love about Celtic music is preserving history through song. Before there was written language, people preserved their history with songs and ‘recitable’ stories.
“So growing up knowing Scottish and Irish music about all of that brilliant history, I thought how great would it be to write songs about British Columbian history and western Canadian history? We have a very dynamic history, and I figured I was the guy to do it. So that was one of the first initiatives with the first album of the band, was to promote western Canadian history through song.”
And that’s exactly what Tiller’s Folly has done. Their latest album — Stirring Up Ghosts — features 24 songs depicting historically accurate events.
Coughlan estimates he’s written between 30 and 40 songs of this type, some of which take 20 minutes to create, and others that take several months.
“There was time when it was all I did, and you’d have to read three or four books on one subject just to get all the different sides and try to find the story behind the story, the human story behind it,” he said.
“Because it’s one thing to talk about bootlegging, but it’s another thing to tell a story that’s historically correct, that is interesting. Because history is notorious for being something from dusty old pages — and to be able to take 800 to 1,000 pages and turn it into three-and-a-half minutes that tells a story — that’s what people can relate to.
“So from Maritime exploration, from fur trade exploration, and the gold rush in British Columbia — both the Fraser and the Cariboo gold rush — there’s so much great history.”
Coughlan first discovered his passion for the past when he was 14-years-old. He was living on a ship called the Lady Valentine — which was formerly used as a brothel in San Francisco — and had been hired to polish the brass, scrape paint and do manual labour.
“So, imagine living on a boat that had previously been a brothel, you’re 14-years-old, and it burns down and sinks with everything you own. My parents had left home, they were in Europe,” Coughlan said.
“And it wasn’t until seven or eight years later that I found a book called The Columbia’s Coming. And it was a story of the Columbia Coast Mission, and their flagship was called the Columbia 2, until they sold it in San Francisco and it became a floating brothel.
“That’s what got me interested in B.C. history, because a ship that I had lived on had been a hospital ship for the Columbia Coast Mission, and then it had been used as a brothel.
“And that was the first song I wrote, John Antle, about the Columbia Coast Mission.”
Over the years there have been many topics that have captured Coughlan’s attention, but the era he keeps coming back to is prohibition.
The Bitter End — his favourite song — tells the true story of a father and son from B.C. who were murdered while attempting to smuggle alcohol into the United States in the 1920s.
“During prohibition, a fishing boat turned rum-runner — the Beryl G — and it’s crew, Captain William Gillis and his teenage son, left Sidney harbour with a load of whiskey one night to go to Port Townsend Washington,” he explained.
“The next morning they found the Beryl G floating in the Haro Strait, decks splattered in blood. No sign of the whiskey or the crew. So the B.C. provincial police pulled into Victoria harbour and they started an investigation. On the table in the galley, they found a camera. When they developed the film in the camera, they found pictures of three murderers disguised as US customs agents. When they boarded the Beryl G, William Jr. from the galley snapped the pictured. They shot his father to death, and as he came up on board, they beat him over the head till he died. He was like 16.
“So they found the pictures, they caught them. One stayed in provincial imprisonment, and two walked through the gallows. And the ring leader stood on the gallows and turned to the hangman — and I got this out of the Times Columnist — he turned to the hangman and said, ‘Step on It buddy, I haven’t got all day.’
“It sends chills down my spine, the guy was so mean and so ornery.”
Tiller’s Folly will be performing a free show in Langley on Thursday, Aug. 10 at the new outdoor amphitheatre in Willoughby Community Park.
The show, beginning at 7 p.m., is part of the Township’s free summer concert series.
Residents are invited to bring lawn chairs, blankets and a picnic dinner.
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