Susan Charters and Paul Court - Blood and Fire: The Donnelly Primer
Blood and Fire: The Donnelly Primer, combines stories by Susan Charters and songs by Paul Court that examine the century-old debates surrounding the brutal murders of five members of the notorious Donnelly family of Lucan, Ontario, in 1880. The massacre and lack of any final judgement on the perpetrators, has never ceased to be controversial. The truth was so well hidden at the time that the story cannot help but emerge from history told in bits and pieces offering differing opinions of the justice or the brutality of the killings. Blood and Fire reflects this kaliedescope of viewpoints.
Blood and Fire: The Donnelly Project
The Donnelly Project began when Orillia singer/songwriter Paul Court responded to a Steve Earle song, Justice in Ontario, claiming innocence for the Donnelly family, brutally murdered in 1880 in Lucan, Ontario. Paul's first take on the story became the song, Hang the Jury, written with the feeling that the family deserved what they got. But there was more to the massacre than one song could tell, and as Paul read more about the famous murders, more songs came, full of stories and different voices, some showing sympathy for family members, particularly Patrick Donnelly, who distanced himself from the family and encouraged them to leave the Lucan area.
Paul was considering a way to present the songs in performance when Susan Charters, a former band-mate, and a storyteller, offered to collaborate on linking the songs with stories to present The Donnelly Project in a concert setting. Her understanding of the massacre, unlike Paul's, tended to centre on the Donnelly's dangerous dealings with a community hardened enough to close ranks after the killings and hide those responsible. Surely tales told against the Donnellys would be the likely ones to flourish, she reasoned, since the town wanted to absolve itself of the murders. Her own grandfather's family moved away from Lucan, family lore has it, because "they were not a violent people."
The murder of the Donnellys, and the lack of any final judgement on the perpetrators, was sensational at the time it happened, and has never ceased to be controversial. The truth was so well hidden at the time that the story cannot help but emerge from history told in bits and pieces offering differing opinions of the justice or the brutality of the killings. There is a wide range of material, from newspapers of the day to 20th-century collections of oral history from the town, that support almost every interpretation of the facts.
Blood and Fire: The Donnelly Project reflects this kaleidoscope of viewpoints. Like the songs, which Paul composed from different points of view, the stories are told by different characters involved in or watching the events play out. There are also stories from an Irish perspective to remind us all that what happened here had roots abroad. Based on research, the songs and stories are meant to have a flavour of oral history, and reveal many facts known about the conflict.
First performed in a house-concert setting, Blood and Fire: The Donnelly Project was recorded at that time (December 2007) for a CD, with the support of musicians and friends. The CD is a fine blend of song and story about the incidents surrounding the massacre. Like the full performance, it does not draw conclusions. Both the show and CD are intended to draw you into the story, let you hear the voices that are willing to speak, revealing or hiding what they wish, and letting you form you own opinion, as so many have, about the brutal events of February 1890 in that small Ontario Township.
Susan Charters is a storyteller, writer, teacher and musician from Orillia, Ontario. She is deeply committed to the power of oral storytelling, as an art and an entertainment. Convinced that stories heal and bring people together, and that stories gain meaning when they are told aloud and shared, she performs in her local community at a variety of gatherings. Her repertoire includes modern and traditional tales, many from the British Isles, Biblical stories told from a spectator's perspective, and wolf tales. An active member of Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada, she has performed in group and school settings, in central Ontario, in Toronto, and at the Ottawa Storytelling Festival, the Orillia Arts for Peace Festival, and the Mariposa Folk Festival, where she has also helped to organize a storytelling corner in the festivals' Folk Play area. At one time a teacher in the Parent-Child Mother Goose Program®, Susan leads storytelling workshops for adults and children, and facilitates a storytelling group at the public school where she teaches.
Blending music and story is a special joy for Susan, whose performances often incorporate music, either through song or with the accompaniment of another storyteller/musician. She has collaborated on an evening of stories from A Thousand Nights and a Night, which included a belly dancer to set the scenes. When Paul Court began sharing songs from The Donnelly Project, Susan saw immediately how stories could connect with them to create a strong and fascinating presentation of the century-old debates surrounding the Biddulph massacres.
Susan's storytelling style is welcoming and compelling, and she builds on a strong connection with the audience to carry the tales she shares.
Paul court is a singer/songwriter in Orillia, Ontario. He is a founding member and past Treasurer of the Orillia Folk Society, which runs a monthly concert series featuring Canadian roots performers, a weekly song circle and various cooperative events with the Mariposa Folk Festival, local arts groups and other community organizations. He is also the co-founder and organizer of the Barrie and District Association of Singer/Songwriters, a monthly writers’ group.
Paul teaches songwriting at Mariposa ArtsU, folk festival workshops and through classes with Orillia Parks and Recreation and Stellula Music in the Schools, and leads an annual DIY Getaway for 35 musicians and writers at Wildfire Outdoor Education Centre, Wyevale, ON.
Paul’s performances, like his songs, are charged with emotion and infused with the joy of sharing his music. He writes mostly personal songs, considering his music to be gifts for specific people, or for his listeners in general. In the last few years, however, Paul has found himself as a teller of stories in song, beginning with an arduous journey writing a song for his late father, imaging the latter’s lonely ocean crossing in February 1929 at the age of fourteen. The resulting song, Orphan Ship, is a tour de force of musical emotion.
Parallel to Paul’s newfound skill in telling stories was a growing obsession with the tales of the Donnellys of Lucan. Circumstances, such as the gifts of a mountain dulcimer and the Ray Fazakas book The Donnelly Album, the fact that among his friends were a passionate storyteller, a brilliant recording engineer, a gifted cellist and women singers who could masterfully take on the female characters’ voices, combined to make the Donnelly Project a reality, as a live show and then as the cd, Blood and Fire.