A new song by a former member of the 1970s rock band Trooper, Frank Ludwig, who grew up on Vancouver Island, captures a moment in Chemainus history that’s relatable to many communities across the country.
The Day They Closed The Old Mill Down is destined to become a piece of Canadiana, much like the storytelling in well-known songs like The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot or The Tragically Hip’s Fifty-Mission Cap and Babcaygeon.
Ludwig, now 73 and living in Tsawwassen with his wife Lorraine, is best known for his time as the keyboardist for Trooper from 1975-79 but has a long and storied career as a musician and music teacher. He’s worked alongside some of the best in the business, including Randy Bachman and Fred Turner and music promoter/manager Bruce Allen, and has been part of numerous bands, the best known being Trooper.
Ludwig was born in Port Alberni and lived in Alberni before his family moved to Vancouver during his Grade 4 and 5 years.
“We moved to Chemainus for Grade 6 and 7 which were in the old up-on-the-hill elementary school,” he recalls.
Ludwig went through high school at Chemainus Secondary School and graduated in 1965.
“I spent the year after graduation in Chemainus because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said.
Ludwig wound up working for Island Shipping Ltd. doing customs paperwork for deep sea vessels in Crofton and Chemainus. He loved doing that, but after a year decided to attend the University of B.C.’s music school.
The rest, as they say, is history with a lifelong career in music, highlighted by his time with Trooper.
“When I joined, they had already put one album out,” said Ludwig. “They were like a power trio and a singer.”
Almost immediately after Ludwig joined Trooper, they went into the studio with producer Randy Bachman and recorded the Two For the Show album that went gold.
Over the years, Ludwig sang lead on two Trooper hits: Round, Round, We Go, which he wrote, and Moment That It Takes.
Trooper wasn’t all glamour, however.
“I remember one Maritimes tour where we did 86 different towns in 90 days,” Ludwig indicated. “And the four days off were at the end and needed to drive to Toronto. In those days there were no video games or music/videos on cell phones or tablets and trying to read in a moving vehicle is a great way to make yourself sick, so driving was mind-numbing boredom.
“I used to like to do a lot of the driving so that at least I had something to do. Usually, we drove through the night so we could get into the next town early enough to get at least some sleep in a bed, as opposed to a bouncing vehicle. We’d then head to the venue for 4 p.m. sound check, then head back to the hotel for dinner and shave and shower, before heading to the concert. The show itself would be all-out energy for that hour and a quarter and I guess that’s what we lived for on the road.”
For many years, Ludwig continued to create music for films, commercials, animations, etc. Upon retirement from teaching, he put together a compilation of his previously unreleased songs titled, It’s About Time.
He’s been gradually releasing new material with videos online, including I Been Consumed and You’re Scaring Me America in the fall of 2020, Talk To Me, Not At Me in January of 2021 and now as of April 6 The Day They Closed the Old Mill Down.
His recent material has stayed true to his roots and he’s not trying to emulate any of today’s styles.
“The new stuff, there are some good artists out there,” Ludwig said. “Most of what makes the big show is just rubbish.”
In the mill song, he incorporates different aspects of the forest industry in Alberni and Chemainus, as well as the burgeoning mural project in Chemainus when the mill shut down. Ludwig also pays tribute to his friend Leslie Knowles who died after getting his arm caught in a conveyor belt while working at the pulp mill in Alberni, just two weeks after graduation.
He knows all about small town life and the importance of the mills to the communities and wanted to reflect that in the song.
“It’s not a depressing song,” Ludwig said. “It’s really about the spirit of a Vancouver Island town, specifically Chemainus and Alberni.”
The Chemainus sawmill closed on May 15, 1982. A new smaller-scale mill opened in January of 1985, the fifth mill on the site.
The actual date of the closure isn’t important, Ludwig said, it’s more about the impact on the communities.
“Once I come up with a title, the songs usually progress quickly,” noted Ludwig. “I had wanted to write a song that captures the struggles and triumphs of small industrial towns, in this case those of Vancouver Island.”
He’s always been a fan of songs like those performed by the Cape Breton Miners Choir, Lightfoot’s classic and, more recently, Sting’s The Last Ship, that depict the lives of real working people.
“Musically, I was influenced by Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up,” Ludwig added. “It gave me a starting point feel-wise. Once I had the opening figure, the story essentially told itself and was simply bringing back memories, especially of the death of my friend Leslie. I didn’t want the song to be too painful, so the choruses became essentially a drinking song where we toast the town and our friends.”
When writing a song, Ludwig said he finds one important step helpful in fine-tuning the lyrics. “I read them out loud to myself when I’ve written them.”
The release of the song coincides with a YouTube video that features a variety of photos Ludwig collected to set the scene.
“I had the song and I thought this would make a really good historical video,” he said.
The process started for Ludwig by going through some old photos which included family and pictures of his first band playing in the St. Michael’s Church Hall in Chemainus.
“In then searching online for Chemainus historical images, I eventually came across the wonderful collection of the Chemainus Museum archives,” he noted. “My son Chris made contact with the various owners of images and in many cases was able to get better quality ones than what I initially found. With the help of the Festival of Murals Society, we were able gain access to the mural photos I had chosen to match the lyrics.”
Further contact with the principal and librarian of Port Alberni District Secondary School brought a successful search for a yearbook picture of Leslie. And he was pleased to find a photo of Dale Henderson, who had lived across the street from him on Pine Street in Chemainus and at one point was the world belly flop champion, to complete the project.
“It was fun to put these images together along with some really good shots,” said Ludwig.
Find out more about the song and Ludwig’s career at frankludwig.ca.