Encyclopedia of Music In Canada

Dick Nolan Country

NEWFOUNDLAND. The folk music of Newfoundland reflects a rich cultural heritage from the British Isles, nurtured in the New World into a unique tradition. The relative isolation of the outports and the extensive travels of seafaring Newfoundlanders are the basic factors behind a body of music which is at once firmly local and broadly eclectic.

Singing styles. The major published collections of Newfoundland folk music have dealt almost entirely with the province's vocal (rather than instrumental) traditions. Newfoundland folksinging is unaccompanied and is characterized by a straightforward undramatic solo performance with little dynamic variation from stanza to stanza. Personal styles may include vibrato (generally only on lingering notes) and melismatic ornamentation. Tone production usually is clear rather than raspy but may be relaxed or tense depending upon whether the upper or lower portions of the singer's natural range are used. Often the final words of a song are spoken. Emphasis within the tradition is upon words rather than tune (or 'air').

Categories of song. Two very broad categories of song are used by most Newfoundland singers. The 'ditty' is a non-serious song with satirical, derogatory, bawdy, or children's lyrics. The 'story-song,' often simply called a 'song,' is a serious narrative folksong of the type usually called 'ballad' by scholars. The latter is the more important of the two categories, both numerically and in terms of local values.

Newfoundland ballad traditions. The stylistically heterogeneous body of ballads traditional in Newfoundland includes the old English and Scottish popular ballads (see Child ballads in Ballads), British and North American broadsides of the 17th to 19th centuries, 19th- and 20th-century sentimental ballads from British music hall and US popular music traditions, songs from the flourishing 19th-century-Maritime and lumberwoods traditions, sentimental ballads from 20th-century 'cowboy' traditions, and locally composed ballads.

Most of these songs describe a single incident. Stories of disasters such as shipwrecks are popular. Other common motifs include lovers separated and adventures in foreign lands. Settings include sealing, fishing, war at sea or on land, lumbering, and local communities. Such content reflects the environment and daily concerns of the singers and their audiences.

Most of Newfoundland's folk music has been preserved and passed on by oral/aural means, but print has played an important role in the introduction of new material. Principal printed sources have been Irish and US 'songsters,' the 'Old Favourites' page of the Montreal weekly the Family Herald, the broadsides and songsters of St John's ballad poets like James Murphy and Johnny Burke, and the five editions of Old-Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland published by Gerald *Doyle.

Phonograph recordings from England, mainland Canada, and the USA of music hall, popular, and cowboy songs also have influenced the folksong traditions of the province. After confederation with Canada in 1949 and especially after the mid-1960s, Newfoundlanders in their recordings have reintroduced the older traditional songs as well as new material from indigenous sources. Examples of this can be found in the recordings by Dick *Nolan, *Figgy Duff, Rawlins Cross, Harry *Hibbs, The Wonderful Grand Band and others. Another important influence upon recent song traditions has been the music of immigrant Irish pop groups.

Song performance contexts. Folk singing in Newfoundland occurs most frequently at informal parties called 'times.' Held in outport kitchens or fish stores, 'times' typically involve solo performances by one or several singers. The song commands the attention of all present; words of encouragement are spoken to the singer between verses or during pauses within the song. The end of the song is observed with similar comments and may precipitate a discussion of its contents. Generally there is drinking, the usual fare being dark rum. 'Times' occur almost always at night on weekends, and most frequently in the winter when there is more leisure. There is a 'time' every night somewhere in the outport community during the 12 days of Christmas.

Other occasions for singing include work situations, such as those on shipboard or in the lumberwoods, and formal community 'concerts' held in local church or school halls on religious and national holidays. Usually organized by the teacher or clergyman, concerts involve dramatic skits, dancing, recitations, and other kinds of stage performance by members of the community. Often local singers compose songs for specific concerts. These deal humorously with recent local events and local personalities, and some are sufficiently memorable to become part of local folksong traditions.

Instrumental music. While after 1949 the guitar increased in popularity as an accompanying instrument for young singers, instrumental and vocal traditions generally have been quite separate in Newfoundland. Instrumental music was dance music, and the most popular instrument was the button accordion. Among other instruments used were the harmonica, the tin whistle, and the violin. When no instruments were available for a dance, the tunes would be sung - a practice known variously as 'gob music,' 'mouth music,' or 'chin music.' A great many Newfoundland dance tunes appear to be from Irish traditions, and those in 6/8 and 9/8 meters are as popular as those in 2/4 and 4/4. Dances were held in community halls, kitchens, and fish stores and in the summer on wharves and bridges. A dance had from three to six segments, each of which had its particular rhythm. A good instrumentalist had to know the appropriate tunes for each section and also might be called upon to provide music for solo 'step dancers' between segments of the dance. Occasionally singers would perform between dances; usually a 'mug up' or tea was served afterwards.

Recent trends in Newfoundland's folk music. With the introduction of paved roads, electricity, and TV many of these musical traditions have been altered or become moribund. Younger musicians and singers are apt to perform rock, Irish, or country-western music rather than perpetuate the traditions of their fathers. Dances rarely involve the intricate patterns of earlier times, although step dancing still is quite popular. Increasing emphasis on instrumental virtuosity in playing traditional dance music has replaced the older concern with the ability to accompany dancing properly. Song-writing and local composition still are relatively common, reflecting the fact that Newfoundland's musical culture still is flexible enough to cope with and adopt from mainland influences.

From the 1960s on an indigenous popular music with important connections to local folk music has developed. Based on a synthesis of Irish popular folk, North American country and western, and local traditions, it owes much to the work of Harry Hibbs and Dick Nolan, and by the early 1990s had found its popular expression in the work of the duo Simani (Bud Davidge and Sim Savory). With the accordion in the foreground, this vocal-instrumental ensemble genre usually includes guitar, drums and bass, some or all of which may be electronic. This form, now the most popular type of dance music in rural Newfoundland, draws from Newfoundland's storehouse of traditional lyrics and melodies and contributes new songs on local topics.

From the 1970s on folk revival activity centred in St John's has rekindled local interest in Newfoundland's folk music through a folk club, annual folk festivals, and other activities, many of them organized by the St John's Folk Arts Council. This has led to the popular recognition of older representatives of Newfoundland's traditions such as fiddlers Rufus *Guinchard and Émile *Benoit, and to important roles as presenters and performers for younger interpreters such as Figgy Duff, Jim Payne, and Kelly *Russell. This activity has been considerably influenced by ideas from the folk revival movements of Great Britain and Ireland. Most recently considerable attention has been paid to the revival of the complex old dances.

See also 'The Anti-Confederation Song'; Ballads; 'The Banks of Newfoundland'; 'The Blooming Bright Star of Belle Isle'; Disaster songs; 'Hard, Hard Times'; 'Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor'; 'Lukey's Boat'; Occupational songs; 'She's Like the Swallow'; 'Squid-jiggin' Ground'; 'We'll Rant and We'll Roar like True Newfoundlanders'.


Buffet Double. Baxter Wareham. 1989. Pigeon Inlet PIP-7324

Outport People. Simani. 1986. SWC Productions SD-

Songs and Ballads of Newfoundland. K. Peacock. 1956. Folk FG-3505

Songs from the Newfoundland Outports. 1966. Folk FE-4075

Songs from the Newfoundland Outports. 1984. Pigeon Inlet PIP-7319

Tradition: A Sampler of Newfoundland. Guinchard, Benoit, Figgy Duff, et al. Pigeon Inlet PIP-7316

See also Émile Benoit; Omar Blondahl; Figgy Duff; Rufus Guinchard; Harry Hibbs; Ed McCurdy; Alan Mills; Dick Nolan; Ignatius Rumboldt; Arthur Scammell; and Discographies for Émile Benoit; Alan Mills.


Peacock, Kenneth. 'The native songs of Newfoundland,' Contributions to Anthropology, 1960, Part II, National Museum of Canada (Ottawa 1963)

Szwed, John F. 'Paul E. Hall: a Newfoundland song-maker and his community of song,' Folksongs and Their Makers (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1970)

Casey, George J., with Rosenberg, Neil V., and Wareham, Wilfred W. 'Repertoire categorization and performance-audience relationships: some Newfoundland examples,' Ethnomusicology, vol 16, Sep 1972

Mercer, Paul. The Ballads of Johnny Burke (St John's, Nfld 1974)

Taft, Michael. '''That's two more dollars'': Jimmy Linegar's success with country music in Newfoundland,' Folklore Forum, vol 7, 1974

A Regional Discography of Newfoundland and Labrador 1904-1972 (St John's, Nfld 1975)

'A reference list on Canadian folk music,' compiled by Barbara Cass-Beggs and Edith Fowke, CFMJ, vol 1, 1973; rev enl vol 6, 1978; rev enl vol 11, 1983

Mercer, Paul. Newfoundland Songs and Ballads in Print 1842-1974: A Title and First Line Index (St John's, Nfld 1979)

'Interview: Jim Payne,' Canada Folk Bulletin, vol 3, Jan-Feb 1980

Cox, Gordon S.A. Folk Music in a Newfoundland Outport (Ottawa 1980)

Thomas, Gerald. 'Contemporary traditional music in Newfoundland,' CFMB, vol 15, Fall 1981

Madison, R.D., ed. Newfoundland Summers: The Ballad Collecting of Elisabeth Bristol Greenleaf (Madison, Wisconsin 1982)

McNaughton, Janet. 'Variation and stability in two murder ballads of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland,' CFMJ, vol 12, 1984

Quigley, Colin. Close to the Floor: Folk Dance in Newfoundland (St John's, Nfld 1985)

Hiscock, Philip. 'Newfoundland folklore and language: a bibliography,' RLS, 12, Dec 1989


Hutton, Charles. Newfoundland Folio of Over Fifty Old Favorite Songs (Springfield, Illinois 1906)

Greenleaf, Elisabeth Bristol, and Mansfield, Grace Yarrow. Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933; repr Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1968)

Karpeles, Maud. Folk Songs from Newfoundland (Oxford 1934). New version (London 1971)

Doyle, Gerald S. Old-Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland (St John's, Nfld 1940, 1978)

Leach, MacEdward. Folk Ballads and Songs of the Lower Labrador Coast, National Museum of Man (Ottawa 1965)

Peacock, Kenneth. Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, 3 vols, National Museum of Man (Ottawa 1965)

Ryan, Shannon, and Small, Larry. Haulin' Rope and Gaft (St John's, Nfld 1978)

Songs of Labrador (Northwest River, Labrador 1982)

Lehr, G., ed. Come and I Will Sing You: A Newfoundland Song Book (Toronto 1985)

Encyclopedia of Music In Canada

Dick Nolan Country

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