As a cultural touchstone, both a shared experience and national badge of honour in Newfoundland and Labrador, only the codfish can rival traditional music. With its narrative power, distinctive sound and strong links to Western Europe, traditional music represents the province's history and culture, and forms a vital link between the past and present. For many it is also a proud and powerful manifestation of the “unique Newfoundland and Labrador character.”
No less important is the fact that the music continues to evolve and flourish as popular entertainment. Although it has been conveniently cleaned up, packaged and promoted for tourism purposes, the music itself has refused to devolve into cliché or artefact. In nightclubs, recording studios and living rooms it remains a potent and deeply felt sound. The “traditional music” label does not apply solely to melodies and songs passed down from previous generations. It also identifies new music that is steeped in those time-honoured influences, and in that context traditional NL music is being created and re-invented to this day.
It is often called “Celtic music,” and its connection with music made by the Celtic peoples of Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and Wales is obvious. But other roots must also be acknowledged, including those of settlers from the West Country of England. Newfoundland and Labrador music is distilled from a broad mixture of European styles (which, in turn, have a long history of overlapping and influencing each other) and it continues to absorb fresh influences to this day. By bringing their own creativity and experience to this mix, generations of local musicians and composers produced a distinct sound that could only come from Newfoundland and Labrador. A well-known classic like I'se The B'y or The Cliffs Of Baccalieu echoes sounds from the old countries. But subtle differences in melody and rhythm, along with local stories and references in the lyrics, give such songs a singular Newfoundland and Labrador stamp.
There is evidence to suggest that the earliest explorers and fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador entertained themselves with music. Historical records mention the popularity of church hymns, military bands, fiddling, flute playing, bagpiping, and the singing of shanties and ballads. The growth and evolution of the music was accelerated by Newfoundland and Labrador's first and only substantial wave of immigration, during the early 19th century. All along the coastline, singers and players performed ballads and tunes carried over from Europe. But they also wrote new songs to reflect the stories, tragedies, hopes, fears, personalities, idiosyncrasies and everyday experiences of their immediate communities. Many NL folk songs can be traced back to England or Ireland, but many more are of local origin.
It was not until the 20th century that the first attempts were made to document the music. One of the early and most popular publications was The Old Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland, compiled by Gerald S. Doyle and published in several editions from the 1920s through the 1960s. The Doyle songbook established the Newfoundland and Labrador musical canon, and various editions helped popularize songs like The Badger Drive, Jack was Every Inch A Sailor, The Old Polina and others that would come to represent the essence of Newfoundland and Labrador music. Kenneth Peacock's huge and seminal collection Songs Of The Newfoundland Outports saw many songs put on paper for the first time. From 1951 to 1961, Peacock gathered over 500 songs, which were published in three volumes in 1965.
The Birth of Radio
Radio also brought the music to a wide audience. In the 1930s, programs such as The Big Six and The Irene B. Mellon featured recordings and live performances of Irish and Newfoundland and Labrador favourites. The earliest recordings of Newfoundland and Labrador songs also appeared around this time. Among the most popular were those made by the McNulty Family, an Irish-American group that appeared frequently on radio and visited the island for concerts. Art Scammell's 1943 recording of his song Squid Jigging Ground sold over 15,000 copies, making it the most successful Newfoundland and Labrador record of its time. By this point the accordion had joined the fiddle and voice as a popular and accessible instrument. Local performers and music were a fixture at garden parties and community concerts. The music also thrived in workplaces, where shanties were sung, and homes (where the "times" and "kitchen parties" central to popular Newfoundland and Labrador culture originated).
The advent of radio also exposed listeners to popular music from America and Great Britain, and during the Second World War the influence of that music increased. American soldiers stationed in Newfoundland and Labrador were entertained by military radio stations, which played country and western, jazz and pop music. Local audiences were also listening, and the popularity of this music continued after the war. In the 1950s young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were swept up in the spectacular rise of rock and roll. Radio stations began playing rock and pop almost exclusively; young musicians preferred the new sounds to the old, and traditional music largely fell from the mainstream, relegated to the kitchens and parlours where it had always thrived.
"Old Time Music"
But within those kitchens and parlours remained an enthusiastic audience for what many called "the old time music," and several performers were able to connect with that audience. In 1955 Omar Blondahl arrived in St. John's and began working at the VOCM radio station. For the next two decades, often using the name Sagebrush Sam, Blondahl played and recorded dozens of songs from the Doyle songbook. Another local star was Wilf Doyle, an accordion player who toured the island with his band. Musicians like Blondahl and Doyle helped maintain a public profile for traditional music at a time when radio was dominated by country and western and pop music from Britain and the United States.
The revival of a fuller appreciation of traditional music can be traced back to 1964, when the show All Around The Circle debuted on CBC Television. By featuring Newfoundland and Labrador music on television – especially at a time when the medium was dominated by shows and films from central Canada and the United States – Circle helped legitimize the music for many viewers. The show brought local songs and tunes directly into homes around the province and would prove to be a seminal influence on future musicians. It also turned John White into a star, his face and voice instantly recognizable to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
Traditional Music on Television
Expatriate Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, thousands of whom had moved to places like Toronto and Alberta to work, were also embracing traditional music. Harry Hibbs of Bell Island became a sensation at the Caribou Club in Toronto, where he found a devoted audience longing for a taste of home. Hibbs starred in his own television variety show, which was popular in both Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador. Others, like Dick Nolan and Roy Payne, also found huge audiences among the expatriate population. They brought a new twist to the music, playing traditional and original songs heavily influenced by the sounds of country and western.
Another successful television show was hosted by Ryan's Fancy, a trio of Irishmen who had immigrated to Newfoundland and Labrador. Ryan's Fancy travelled the province, filming and presenting singers and players who had previously been known only in their communities. By this time other young musicians, like Kelly Russell, Pamela Morgan and Anita Best, were also travelling the province. They were seeking out the old masters, eager to learn songs and jigs and reels, some of which had never been heard outside a particular community or bay.
Having spent a lifetime playing for family and friends, some older musicians emerged as public performers in their senior years. Instrumentalists such as Rufus Guinchard, Minnie White and Émile Benoit played for national and international audiences, as did singers like Mack Masters and Paddy and Bride Judge.
Traditional Music Revival
The exposure of these older voices and the newfound enthusiasm for Newfoundland and Labrador culture helped bring traditional music to new levels of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. But the revival was driven and sustained by a younger generation. With their musicianship, songwriting skills, broad range of influences and passion for the old music, artists like the Wonderful Grand Band and Figgy Duff reworked and redefined the traditional sound. They often combined it with rock music and other contemporary styles, making it fresh and relevant to a young audience raised on pop music. There was some resistance to this movement, and many of the young performers struggled to sell records and find a consistent following. But their fundamental long-term influence is undeniable. The musicians who emerged at this time were part of a larger movement of writers, artists and performers who were concerned with preserving and enhancing the province's rich heritage. Many of them now stand at the centre of the Newfoundland and Labrador cultural community.
In Labrador a similar movement was underway. The Labrador musical tradition had been boosted with the 1965 publication of MacEdward Leach's collection, Folk Ballads and Songs of the Lower Labrador Coast. Performers such as Shirley Montague and Gerald Mitchell recorded many of the local songs. Another book of music and research, Music Traditions of the Labrador Coast Inuit, by Maija Lutz, appeared in 1982. New interest in Inuit culture lead to the emergence of several aboriginal singers and groups. Byron "Fiddler" Chaulk was widely regarded as one of the region's great songwriters by the time of his death in 1993. That same year an album called Our Labrador introduced several Labrador voices and classic songs to a wider audience.
In the wake of this revival, Newfoundland and Labrador's traditional music has regained a central place on radio, in nightclubs and on concert stages. Traditional performers are covered prominently in the media and the music is a fixture in locally produced television shows and films. Large crowds attend folk festivals around the province and the music is seen as a key attraction for tourism. Memorial University's School of Music now offers courses in traditional Newfoundland and Labrador fiddling, accordion playing and singing.
Those who continue to find new directions for the tradition include Kelly Russell and the Planks, who play jigs and reels with a hard rock edge, Gayle Tapper, who specializes in South American harp music, and Jim Fidler, who incorporates reggae and other world music influences into his sound.
Traditional Influence on Popular Music
Building on the groundwork of those who preceded them, today's most popular traditional entertainers have reached a wider audience than any before. Great Big Sea, the Irish Descendants, the Ennis Sisters, Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellas, the Fables, the Punters, and Celtic Connection are among those who have sold recordings and played concerts to large audiences inside and outside the province. While radio stations, record labels and concert promoters tend to market the genre as "adult" music, a few acts — most notably Great Big Sea — have a considerable following among teenagers and college students, not only in Newfoundland and Labrador, but across the country.
The popular music industry is notorious for its reliance on fad and fashion, so whether Newfoundland and Labrador traditional acts can continue to appeal to a wide national audience remains to be seen. The future direction of the music at the local level is also difficult to chart. The rural, sea-faring lifestyle, which nurtured the tradition and inspired so many great songs, has become less central to the common Newfoundland and Labrador experience. This suggests that the future of traditional music may rest with professional musicians, rather than continuing to evolve in workplaces and homes at the community level. But the continued prominence of the music itself is not in doubt. Newfoundland and Labrador's finest musicians continue to embrace it, explore it and find vitality and relevance in it. Local audiences of all ages continue to respond enthusiastically. Traditional music seems destined to retain its widely accepted standing as the distinctive and collective voice of the province, its people and its heritage.