Bringing It to the World
In their minds' eye, most Newfoundlanders can see the "kitchen party":
Drinkers and carousers crowd around a woodstove or step dance across the
floor, while a few musicians sit in the corner trading songs and tunes.
The kitchen party has been enshrined as an iconic image of the Newfoundland
lifestyle, turning up in television shows, music videos and tourism promotion
||Kitchen party, Conche, n.d.
The kitchen party has been enshrined as an iconic image of the Newfoundland
lifestyle. Pictured here are Stan Fitzgerald, Jerome Flynn, Gerard
and Alice Simmons, and Kathleen Flynn.
Reproduced by permission of Candace Cochrane.
From Candace Cochrane,
Outport: Reflections from the Newfoundland Coast,
edited by Roger Page (Don Mills, Ontario: Addison-Wesley
Publishers, ©1981) 126.
The tradition of household entertainment continues to thrive, and on a
Saturday night makeshift jam sessions still unfold in kitchens, living rooms
and basements around the province. But over the last century Newfoundland and
Labrador music has grown far beyond the kitchen, absorbing a broad range of
influences, adapting to new technology and developing as an entertainment and
a business. Today's professional musicians strive to strike a balance,
retaining the spontaneity and intimacy of the kitchen party while bringing
their work to concert halls, sophisticated recording projects and
Like other folk traditions, Newfoundland and Labrador music first evolved
as a pastime shared among friends, neighbours and co-workers. Many tunes and
ballads were well known in homes and workplaces long before they were heard
in more formal settings. The evolution of Celtic-based music, in particular,
cannot be separated from the daily life of early settlers. Jigs and reels
were played for dancing, "chin music" originated as a way to sing a tune
when no instruments were available, shanties were matched to the rhythms
of manual labour and ballads were, among other things, stories told to
help pass long and uneventful evenings. More formal musical performances
were usually reserved for church services, spiritual music having been
sung and played since the first settlements were established and first
churches built. Military and church bands also provided entertainment during
public occasions and ceremonies.
The first professional musicians of note were the balladeers and theatre
companies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Johnny Burke, James
Murphy and several other singers were popular in the St. John's area. They
also sold "broadsides", printed copies of songs they had written. The songs
were usually topical, referring to local characters and events, which helped
assure their success. A few, such as Burke's Kelligrew's Soiree, are still
among the province's favourites. Many of the balladeers worked with local
theatre troupes to produce operettas and other musical shows, which became
particularly popular in St. John's and Harbour Grace. By the turn of the
century folk musicians were also beginning to emerge publicly and were
commonly heard at garden parties and community halls.
|Cast of "The Prince of Pilsen," a musical comedy
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, operettas and other musical
shows became popular in St. John's and Harbour Grace.
Photo by Holloway. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives
(MF-287, 1.13), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Local music found a wider audience and new commercial potential with the
advent of radio. In the 1920s and 1930s Newfoundland's most popular radio
programs included The Big Six and The Irene B. Mellon, both of which featured
live performances of Irish and Newfoundland music. Much of it would have been
familiar to listeners, while other songs were introduced via the radio
broadcasts and absorbed into the local folk tradition. Entertainers such
as John White would later credit the early radio shows for inspiring a love
of music, teaching them songs and creating an enthusiastic audience for their
The first songbooks also appeared early in the century, with the Gerald
S. Doyle songbook, in particular, finding its way into thousands of homes.
Record players also became fixtures in many homes and stars like the McNulty
Family, a popular Irish-American group, sold thousands of records across the
island. By 1943 Newfoundland had its first local hit record, Art Scammell's
Squid Jiggin' Ground.
Songs and tunes continued to be shared among families and neighbours.
But people now demanded entertainment in nightclubs, dance halls and other
public venues. Singers, accordion players, fiddlers and small ensembles
moved from the household to the stage and their music changed to suit the
new setting. Microphones and amplifiers were used, allowing performers to
become more adventurous and varied in their styles of singing and playing.
As the century progressed through World War Two, Confederation and the baby
boom, Newfoundland and Labrador were exposed to a greater variety of music
than ever before.
People embraced swing, country and western, pop and rock
and roll, styles of music designed for large audiences and venues. It was not
long before drum kits and electric instruments were commonplace and the
different styles began to bleed into one another. Among the most popular
performers of the 1950s and 1960s were Wilf Doyle, a traditional accordion
player who formed a touring band, the Solidaires, specializing in big band
swing music, a local country singer named Jimmy Linegar and various rock and
roll dance groups.
In Ontario singers like Harry Hibbs and Dick Nolan appealed
to large audiences of expatriate Newfoundlanders with dance music rooted in
the Irish and Newfoundland folk repertoire. Most successful acts were now
releasing long-playing records and singles and earning radio airplay. For
several years Harry Hibbs was one of the top selling acts in Canada, though
he ultimately saw little income from his record sales.
||Harry Hibbs, 1971.
With record sales of over 1.5 million, Harry Hibbs is one of the
top-selling Canadian artists of all time.
Courtesy of The Estate of Harry Hibbs.
By the 1960s nightclubs rivalled homes and churches as the primary social
and musical venues. An ambitious generation of musicians had emerged, intent
on selling records, performing concerts and bringing local music to listeners
around the world. All Around The Circle, a
variety show made in St. John's and emphasizing local music, was a staple
on CBC Television throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Another key television
series was Ryan's Fancy, hosted by the group of the same name. They
travelled to communities around the island and the Maritimes, featuring
local musicians in their home settings. Harry Hibbs and The Wonderful
Grand Band also hosted popular television shows.
Despite the increased activity and exposure, commercial gains were modest
and Newfoundland artists struggled in a competitive entertainment industry.
But the music was gaining a national reputation for its singular sound and
local acts travelled frequently to folk festivals across Canada and in some
regions of the United States and Europe. The traditional sound continued to
evolve as artists absorbed international influences and raised their
musicianship to new standards expected by audiences. Advances in technology
also coloured the music and assisted the quest for broader audiences. In the
1980s the means to create records, tapes and compact discs became cheaper and
more accessible, leading to a substantial increase in Newfoundland recordings
on the market. The widespread availability of recording technology encouraged
artists to improve their technical, musical and business skills.
The 1990s saw new efforts to establish local music as a viable business
with untapped potential. The performing arts gained more government recognition
as commercial industries, seen as particularly valuable to tourism.
Organizations such as the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland
and Labrador offered support and education to local artists. There were
renewed attempts to build a music business infrastructure, with local
entrepreneurs playing a greater role in artist management, cd distribution,
publicity and promotion.
The annual East Coast Music Awards, beginning in 1991, suggested exciting
new possibilities for commercial success among local musicians. A glamorous
televised awards show accompanied by a three-day business conference, the
awards brought Atlantic Canadian music to the attention of promoters, record
companies and the media in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Only a few artists
have fulfilled the promise of mass-market stardom suggested by the event.
But the ECMA's ongoing promotional efforts cannot be discounted. Many
Newfoundland artists have found new levels of success in niche markets:
rock bands use networks of musicians and promoters to reach new audiences,
folk musicians find work on the "folk circuit" of coffee houses and festivals,
songwriters sell their material to other recording artists. There are still
very few Newfoundland artists who can sell thousands of copies of a new
recording. But in the last ten years audiences outside the province have
embraced the music as never before. The success stories include the Irish
Descendants and Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers. The biggest is Great
Big Sea, a quartet that has sold traditional Newfoundland music to a new
audience of young adults and college students.
|Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, 2001.
Members of the group are (L-R) Wayne Chaulk, Ray Johnson
and Kevin Blackmore.
Photo by Bernie Hollett. Courtesy of Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers.
Many Newfoundlanders continue to perform traditional, Celtic-based music in
its more traditional form. But a self-conscious "purist" ethic is not strong
among musicians or audiences. Artists who specialize in styles such as
traditional, pop, country or classical music often set aside those
boundaries to work together. Most performers absorb new influences
in varying degrees and use new technologies to enhance their style.
There are inevitable tensions between outside and indigenous sounds,
between audience expectations and the musicians' desire to break new
ground, between the pursuit of music as an art form and its exploitation
as a commercial product. But these tensions have helped the music grow and
retain its vitality. This vitality must be maintained if Newfoundland and
Labrador music is to find new audiences in the future.
© 2001, Jamie Fitzpatrick