DESCRIPTION: The singer dreams of William Coaker's death, rejection at Heaven, and acceptance and advancement in Hell. Coaker's plan to replace the Devil as boss is foiled; he is condemned to the furnace. The dreamer wakes before Coaker is demolished.
EARLIEST DATE: 1951 (Guigne; MUNFLA/Leach)
LONG DESCRIPTION: Coaker dies in the singer's dream. "Somehow underhanded" he got to Heaven, but is turned away by St. Peter. The Devil greets him: "I've been looking for you a long time." He talks the Devil into appointing him -- being the only Newfoundlander in Hell -- boss when the Devil leaves. When the Devil does go "out" Coaker runs an election to exile the Devil and make himself boss of Hell. Coaker loses. The Devil asks the crowd what is to be done, and they condemn Coaker to the furnace. He is headed into the furnace when the dreamer wakes.
KEYWORDS: rejection death dream humorous political Devil
1871-1938 - Life of William Ford Coaker
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Guigne, pp. 84-87, "Coaker's Dream" (1 text, 1 tune)
Frank Knox, "The Coaker Song" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
Ned Rice, "Coaker's Dream" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
NOTES [1569 words]: Guigne has a detailed review of William Ford Coaker's controversial life as a Newfoundland union organizer and politician from the turn of the century until the late 1930s. - BS
It was quite a career, and little wonder that no one trusted him at the end. Busch, p. 87, calls him "a strange, magnetic, gifted, melancholy, austere man, [who] had a greater vision in his mind than another craft union."
Coaker (1871-1938) was born in St. John's, Newfoundland, and left school young, in 1885 (DictNewfLabrador, p. 60; Noel, p. 78, says he was only eleven), although that still meant that he had a better education than most of his contemporaries. As early as 1884 had organized local fish handlers to strike for better wages. He drifted through several jobs, leaving St. John's at the age of sixteen (Noel, p. 78). His small business failed in the Newfoundland bank crash of 1894 (Cadigan, p. 178). He by then was involved in farming, on an isolated island, perhaps because he knew so little about fishing (Noel, p. 78). Eventually he put together a real union, the Fisherman's Protective Union (FPU), in 1909 (Cadigan, p. 178). This even though he personally seems to have preferred the seclusion of the farm to living among or working with others (Noel, p. 78). But he started visiting small towns and meeting halls, walking or accepting wagon rides or even snowshoeing in the harsh Newfoundland winters (Noel, pp. 82-83).
Coaker adopted as a motto "to each his own," and organized the group to in many ways resemble the Orange Lodge, which was strong in Newfoundland (Cadigan, p. 179; according to Noel, p. 82, his first speech on behalf of his Big Union was in an Orange Hall). He didn't just set out to improve the fishermen's bargaining position; he wanted a complex system of government involvement and a union-based business, the Union Trading Company (Cadigan, p. 179 -- a plan for his union to buy products in bulk and distribute them to members at prices they couldn't get otherwise; Noel, p. 86).
The FPU eventually decided it needed a role in politics (Noel, p. 87). And because they were concentrated in the north, in Protestant districts -- in an area which the merchants of St. John's, who dominated Newfoundland politics, did not pay much attention to -- they were in position to gain a lot of seats and hold the balance of power (Noel, p. 95). The FPU, disgusted with the corruption of the so-called "People's Party" (Noel, p. 111), ended up allying with the Liberal party in 1913 (DictNewfLabrador, p. 61) -- only to see the Liberals swamped, in no small part because the Liberals and FPU still didn't trust each other and refused to coordinate their campaigns (Noel, pp. 112-113). The result was a mixed blessing for the FPU; the People's Party controlled the House of Assembly, so the FPU had little power -- FPU had nine delegates in the legislature, making them the leading opposition party (Busch, p. 88).
Interestingly, Coaker still had humility enough to realize that he did not know legislative procedure well, and so allowed the new Liberal leader, J. M. Kent, to fill the role of Leader of the Opposition, even though Coaker was entitled to the post (Noel, p. 118).
After the 1914 Newfoundland Disaster (for which see "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)"), he went after Captain Abram Kean (for whom see "Captain Abram Kean"). Despite his disastrous mistakes, Kean utterly rejected any notion of blame, and quickly became involved in litigation with Coaker (for Kean's side, see Kean, pp. 31-37 or so). Kean really did bear a lot of blame, and Coaker was mostly right, but because Kean was considered so skilled a sealing captain, Kean was not dismissed and Coaker had to give in and make partial apologies. Coaker did manage to pass some minor reforms in 1914, at least (Busch, p. 88).
But then came World War I, forcing all parties in Newfoundland to work together (Noel, pp. 120-121). It was a disaster for Coaker and the FPU (and everyone else, of course, but in a different way). There should have been an election during the war, but (to vastly simplify) the government suspended the constitution and bought off some of the opposition by inducing the British government to give Prime Minister Morris (whom the FPU hated) a peerage and sending him off to Britain, never to return (Noel, pp. 124-125).
Coaker also was forced to support conscription, against the wishes of his members (Long, p. 27; Noel, pp. 126-127). He also supported prohibition, and many people, especially Irish Catholics, never forgave him or the FPU for that, either (Noel, pp. 132-133). It also made an alliance with the regular craft unions impossible (Noel, p. 135). And even as he was supporting those unpopular decisions, the war period took some of the newness off the FPU, and gave the merchants time to learn how to deal with it -- especially since the parliamentary majority for practical purposes turned the conduct of the war over to the merchants of St. John's who were the enemies of the FPU (Noel, p. 121). Noel thinks that, if the war had not come, the FPU would have taken over the government in the next election. But "by 1919 the impetus was spent" (Noel, p. 116).
In the election of 1919, Coaker made a stupid mistake. He allied the FPU to Richard Squires (Noel, p. 141), allowing Squires to lead the coalition ticket. The Liberal Reform/FPU forces won the election, taking 23 seats to 13 for the People's Party (Noel, p. 295), and Coaker became Minister of Marines and Fisheries (Noel, p. 291), but Squires was completely untrustworthy and associating with him didn't get Coaker what he wanted and surely tarnished him badly. (Among other things, Squires increased Newfoundland's national debt by more than 40% in just four years; Noel, p. 152).
The new power he had gained allowed Coaker to pass a series of reforms of fishing regulation, but bad timing caused them to fail -- and meant that he got the blame (Noel, pp. 145-147). Indeed, it arguably did permanent damage to the economics of the fishery, and it meant that many refused to trust him thereafter (Noel, p. 150).
In 1923, Coaker decided he was tired of politics and wanted to return to organizing, but he couldn't seem to stick with his resolution, retiring and un-retiring several times (DictNewfLabrador, pp. 61-62). And he could be accused of taking advantage of his power; in 1928, he bought a home in Jamaica, where he went in winter, allegedly to deal with a bronchial condition (Long, p. 58). These odd choices surely didn't help his cause; they just made him look bad. Noel's epitaph, on p. 216, is that he suffered a "sad and puzzing personal decline," which I think is true.
"Ed Roberts... suggested that Newfoundland's political history... cannot be understood without examining the contribution of William Coaker.... In contrast to most labour figures of his time, Coaker was not a socialist, though some of his comrades in the FPU were. He had more in common with the farmer-progressive movements of Western Canada and their appeals for group government and direct democracy, as the course of his political ideas eventually demonstrated. Coaker's failure to achieve lasting benefits for the 'toiling masses' of the Newfoundland outports is usually cited as the last great effort to save the country before the onslaught of the Depression" (Long, p. 12).
A lot of Coaker's ideas were laudable, e.g. his demand for a standard system for grading the quality of fish (the old system let the buyers both grade the fish and set the prices; Noel, p. 98) and his demand for free public education (Noel, p. 99). A lot of them were utterly impractical, too -- e.g. an automatic forgiveness of debts after two years (Noel, p. 99) and an unfunded pension reform (Noel, pp. 99-100) -- and he gradually became more and more disillusioned. As Newfoundland -- which had been deeply in debt for most of his life, and had never really been properly governed -- slid into the Great Depression, the one-time radical leftist decided that Newfoundland's answer was fascism (Cadigan, pp. 203-204). He was quite open to the idea of Newfoundland giving up its Dominion status and again being ruled by a British commission -- which is what happened in 1934 (Cadigan, p. 208); indeed, it was a variation on a suggestion he had made in the 1920s. It was the only answer he saw to Newfoundland's toxic party (and religious) divisions (Long, p. 19, and indeed that entire chapter of his book).
Coaker frankly strikes me as a rebel-without-a-cause; he wanted change, he knew things had to change, but he had no idea how to change them. And so, as often as not, he made things worse.
I can't help notice an item that didn't become folklore, but has a folkloric feel to it. In 1919, as he entered the cabinet, a schooner President Coaker was built by supporters of the FPU. In 1923, it set out on a trip to South America. Somewhere on its return trip, probably early in 1924, it vanished (Parson, pp. 201-205).
Incidentally, not all popular poetry about Coaker was hostile, although I have yet to see anything else about him that went into tradition. But Noel, pp. 88-89, quotes a couple of pieces (the source being apparently the writings of Joseph Smallwood) that make him almost a prophet or deliverer:
We are coming Mr. Coaker...
We are ready and a-waiting, strong and solid, firm and bold,
To be led by you like Moses led the Israelites of old. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- Busch: Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985
- Cadigan: Sean T. Cadigan, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2009
- DictNewfLabrador: (Robert H. Cuff, managing editor), Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
- Kean: Abram Kean, with a foreword by Sir Wilfred Grenfell, Old and Young Ahead, 1935; I use the 2000 Flanker Press edition edited and with a new Introduction (and new photographs) by Shannon Ryan
- Long: Gene Long, Suspended State: Newfoundland before Canada, Breakwater Books, 1999
- Noel: S. J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, University of Toronto Press, 1971
- Parsons: Robert C. Parsons, Cape Race: Stories from the Coast that Sank the Titanic, Flanker Press, 2011
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