As with many Newfoundland stories, the history of Newfoundland music of European origin begins
Europeans first came to the island in the 16th century to harvest northern cod, and they brought
their music with them. That music grew to become the voice of Newfoundland and Labrador, a powerful
evocation of its lifestyle, heritage and personality. Music is our international calling card, and
at home it is by far our most popular art form. There are many thousands who have never read a
Newfoundland book or seen a piece of local theatre. But practically everyone here has heard The
Kelligrews Soiree or danced to a local rock band.
The music arrived with the Irish, Scots, French and English who settled along the island
shoreline and up the coast of Labrador. They sang shanties as they worked and shared ballads and
tunes at the end of the day. Over time, the settlers and their descendants reworked the old music
and created new songs to tell their own stories. Newfoundland music spoke of work, politics, humour,
fear, hope, tragedy and the ebb and flow of day-to-day existence. Whether it was the simple story
of Lukey and his boat or a lament for the oppressive life cycle of labour and debt, Newfoundlanders
recorded it in song.
In its evolution, folk music varied significantly from one harbour to the next, but remained
true to its old world roots as it was passed on through generations. Other musical genres developed
on a more modest scale. By the end of the 19th century a few communities had church choirs,
military or civilian bands and amateur troupes performing operettas and other light entertainment.
The centres of greatest activity were St. John's and Harbour Grace, where visiting bands and
companies occasionally played and local songwriters like Johnny Burke became popular. In Labrador,
Moravian missionaries introduced Protestant spiritual music to the Inuit people, forming choirs and
brass bands in every community. In the process, the aboriginal music of the Inuit was virtually
|Cast of "Abie's Irish Rose," 1929.
Operettas such as this one were entertaining
audiences in Newfoundland communities by the end of the 19th century.
The orchestra of this show was directed by Gus Stafford.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (MF-287, 1.02),
Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
It wasn't until the 20th century that Newfoundland folk music truly emerged from the kitchens
and sitting rooms to take its place as a broader cultural voice. In the last 80 to 100 years the
music has been heard by more people and has changed more rapidly than in the previous four
In the first half of the 20th century several printed collections helped spread and popularize
the music. The most popular was Gerald S. Doyle's Old Time Songs And Poetry Of Newfoundland. The
Doyle songbook first appeared in 1927 and eventually found its way into thousands of homes. By the
1930s Newfoundlanders were hearing homebred music performed on local radio. Shows like The Big Six
and The Irene B. Melon included repertoires of Irish and Newfoundland favorites.
Radio also introduced listeners to music from afar, such as American popular songs and British
dance hall numbers. But it was during the Second World War any cultural separation between
Newfoundland and the rest of the western world was broken for good.
American soldiers arrived at military bases around the island and Labrador with their own
musical tastes. Their radio stations and visiting entertainers played jazz, pop and country
Social and cultural change accelerated following the war, with Confederation and the push for
modernization. In the 1950s and 1960s young Newfoundlanders embraced rock and roll. The new
generation of musicians picked up electric guitars instead of fiddles and accordions. Nightclubs
and radio stations were dominated by rock and roll and country. In the new, more worldly
Newfoundland, the old music was relegated to the venues where it had originated: kitchen parties
and family gatherings.
A revival of interest in traditional music can be traced as far back as the debut of the
television program All Around The Circle, which first aired on the CBC in 1964. Another revival was
underway in Ontario, where expatriate Newfoundlanders popularized the traditional and
country-influenced music played by Harry Hibbs and others.
By the end of the 1960s young musicians and artists were taking a new interest in traditional
culture. Searching for an alternative to mainstream pop music, they turned to the music of their
forebears. By the mid-seventies, young bands were playing the old tunes and ballads with electric
instruments, sophisticated arrangements and the driving rhythms of the rock music they had grown up
with. The Wonderful Grand Band was perhaps the most popular of the new traditional groups. But
Figgy Duff left a towering legacy, bringing the music to national and international festivals and
recording albums of traditional and original material.
Figgy Duff - along with other young musicians like Anita Best, Kelly Russell and Jim Payne -
also helped search out and shine a spotlight on some of the best players of the older generation.
Émile Benoit, Rufus Guinchard and Minnie White were among those who toured the island and the
world. They were all over the age of 60 by the time they became public performers.
||Rufus Guinchard and Émile Benoit, 1979.
Guinchard (left) and Benoit performing at the St. John's Folk Festival. Both musicians
did not begin performing publicly until they reached their sixties.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives
(Coll - 154, E 1043), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's,
The 1970s and 1980s were also a time when the term "Newfoundland music" broadened, as audiences
and musicians confidently embraced indigenous and outside influences. Rock, pop and blues thrived
at nightclubs and high school dances. A solid classical and choral music community took shape,
centred on the Memorial University School of Music and the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra. A few
notable jazz players emerged, including the Jeff Johnston Trio, now recognized as one of Canada's
finest jazz groups.
The last decade has seen unprecedented optimism about the commercial potential of Newfoundland
music. Showcased and glamorized by the East Coast Music Awards, Atlantic Canadian music has been
promoted as an industry, an untapped economic resource. For many Newfoundlanders the packaging and
star-making style of the entertainment industry is a poor fit. Ron Hynes, for example, recorded two
albums for the multi-national company EMI, but has since returned to being an independent artist
and composer based in St. John's. But others have prospered in the mainstream. The Irish
Descendants released several gold records. The Thomas Trio and the Red Albino were briefly
considered one of Canada's most promising rock groups before breaking up in the early 1990s.
|The Irish Descendants, n.d.
Left to right: Kelly Russell, Byron Pardy, Mike Hanrahan, Paul
"Boomer" Stamp and Con O'Brien.
Photo by Justin Hall. Reproduced by permission of Michael Greggs.
The province's greatest musical success story is Great Big Sea, a quartet based in St. John's
that has enjoyed a hugely successful national career. With the proven combination of traditional
material and original pop-oriented songs, GBS brings Newfoundland music to a younger and larger
Canadian audience than it has ever reached before.
The latest wave of activity has also focused new interest on aboriginal music and the music of
Labrador. With his songs celebrating the land and its people, Harry Martin is perhaps Labrador's
most popular artist. At the 2001 East Coast Music Awards both Martin and the Flummies, a Labrador
folk group, were nominated for Aboriginal Artist of the Year. Others to emerge recently include
David Penashue, whose band Tipatchimun plays rock music with lyrics sung in Innu. On the island,
the Mi'kMacs of Conne River released a recording of drum and choir music.
As is the case everywhere, most musicians in Newfoundland and Labrador struggle to make a
living. Playing to enthusiastic but small audiences at local clubs, concerts and festivals is not a
lucrative venture. But talented composers, singers and players continue to emerge, live music
flourishes (particularly in the clubs of St. John's) and technological changes have made it easier
and cheaper to make quality recordings. There are now more local recordings in record stores than
ever before. There is a popular circuit of folk festivals and St. John's hosts international events
like Festival 500 and the Sound Symposium.
In most obvious ways the contemporary Newfoundland musician bears little resemblance to the
outport balladeer or fiddle player of centuries past. But the spirit behind the music suggests a
direct link between old and new. Like their ancestors, today's singers and players follow a
do-it-yourself ethic, combine outside and local influences, encourage experimentation, and treat
their musical heritage with both respect and irreverence. It is a formula that guarantees the
continued the vitality of the music in years to come.
© 2001, Jamie Fitzpatrick