For most, the phrase "Newfoundland music" suggests shanties and ballads and jigs and reels, a
spirited sound descended from the ancient folk traditions of England and Ireland. But the people of
Newfoundland and Labrador have always enthusiastically embraced the contemporary music of Europe
and North America, have absorbed it and made it their own.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many communities had choirs, bands and operatic
troupes performing the popular music of the day: church music, light opera and instrumental
favourites of the great composers. Local composers contributed marches and other band numbers
(a typical title being Henry Tillman's Newfoundland Camp Gallopade, 1853) and theatre companies in St.
John's presented "parody operas," in which the text of a popular opera would be rewritten to
reflect local tastes and references. Prominent musical personalities included Charles Hutton, who
staged Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and other shows in St. John's from the 1880s up until the
1930s, and Johnny Burke, who wrote songs reflecting both local and outside influences. Audiences
in the St. John's and Conception Bay areas also enjoyed frequent visits by performers and musicians
from Europe and the United States.
||Charles Hutton, March 27 1924.
Charles Hutton was a prominent musical personality in Newfoundland.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (MF-287, 1.06),
Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
The rapid expansion of radio in the 1930s is credited with popularizing the classics of Irish
and traditional Newfoundland music among local listeners. But radio also brought the infectious
sounds of America's most popular performers into kitchens and sitting rooms around the island. The
American influence gained momentum as US troops populated military bases in Newfoundland and
Labrador during World War Two, bringing country and western and swing music with them. The
Americans established VOUS radio to entertain soldiers at bases in Goose Bay, Stephenville, St.
John's and Argentia, and local listeners picked up the signal as well. Civilians and soldiers
mingled at clubs and dances, and local musicians formed several dance bands to provide the music.
Asked to recall the most popular songs of their youth, many Newfoundlanders who grew up in the
1930s and 1940s would name Gene Autry's South Of The Border or Glenn Miller's American Patrol along
with the Irish and Newfoundland favourites of the day.
The military bases remained after the war and VOUS radio continued to bring the latest American
hits to Newfoundlanders. But people were also hearing the music live. Jazz and swing reached new
levels of popularity through groups lead by Ed Goff in Gander and Ralph Walker in St. John's
(Walker was one of several American musicians who settled in Newfoundland after a military posting
on the island). Local radio stations, meanwhile, aired live performances by local entertainers. In
the 1950s a show called "The Great Eastern Oil Bargain Hour" turned Jimmy Linegar into
Newfoundland's first country and western star, touring the island to great acclaim.
The rhetoric of the early post-Confederation years portrayed Newfoundland as Canada's vibrant
young province, its people ready to push aside the old ways and join the modern world. The baby
boomers of the new province needed no such encouragement, as they were swept up in the mercurial
rise of rock and roll music, buying and dancing to the same hit records that thrilled teenagers all
over the western world. VOUS radio was the first place many young Newfoundlanders heard rock and
roll, but by the mid-1960s rock and pop hits dominated radio, clubs and dances. St. John's
television programs such as High Teens and Art Andrew's Dance Party featured early local groups
like the Ravens and the Sandels. West coast bands included the Shindigs and the Ducats, one of the
province's most popular acts for several years. The Keatniks of Labrador City were likely the first
pop group in the province to record a full-length album, released in 1964. Not content to simply
parrot hits from England and America, some of these bands also wrote songs of their own. The
emphasis on original material would become one of the hallmarks of local rock music.
Many of the same musicians would continue playing in the late 1960s and early '70s, forming
groups like the Philadelphia Cream Cheese Band, Garrison Hill, Mantis and Lukey's Boat. Those
bands kept pace with the current trends of rock music, playing electric blues and psychedelic
rock. But this time the drinking age had been lowered from 21 to 19, and the club scene was
thriving. Memorial University, with its growing student population, had also become a key venue
for local and international acts.
Though more closely associated with traditional music, groups like Figgy Duff and the Wonderful
Grand Band emerged from the early days of Newfoundland rock and roll, and those roots show in their
combination of original and traditional material, played with electric instruments and modern
production techniques. Other bands of the 1970s played contemporary pop and rock styles, with
original songs dominating the set lists more than ever before. The music of TNT, a Stephenville
band that also operated a recording studio, might not be "Newfoundland" music in the traditional
sense, but for several years the band filled clubs and dances with songs written, recorded and
performed by Newfoundland musicians for Newfoundland audiences.
As the 1970s gave way to the '80s, the province's contemporary music scene developed a new
diversity. Blues music proved hugely popular in the bars of St. John's and other towns, lead by
local players like Roger Howse and Dennis Parker. The province made a small but significant impact
on the Canadian jazz scene, with the emergence of the Jeff Johnston Trio and John Nugent from St.
John's. The popularity of "Newfoundland country" peaked with Simani, a duo from the Bay D'Espoir
area who became one of the province's top selling acts. Meanwhile, far from the mainstream
audiences of bars and nightclubs, bands like Da Slyme, the Black Auks and Dog Meat Barbeque
produced independent recordings of experimental music, punk rock and soundscapes. Though not
widely popular, these acts would be highly influential among future generations of artists and
|Dog Meat BBQ performing at the Ship Inn, August 27 1998.
Left to right: Wallace Hammond, Mike O'Brien, Tony Richards, and Doug Ivey
(Justin Hall is hidden in the back on drums. Missing from photo are Craig Squires
and Duncan Snowden).
Photo by Fionnuala McMahon. Reproduced by permission of Fionnuala McMahon,
By the late 1980s Newfoundlanders were promoting their music at the East Coast Music Awards and
other music industry events. Remarkable advances in recording technology made it more feasible for
artists to record and market their material on compact disc and cassette. Rock groups like Dead
Reckoning and The Thomas Trio And The Red Albino lead a new wave of independently released, locally
produced recordings. The Thomas Trio subsequently relocated to Toronto, where they became one of
the city's most popular bands before dissolving a few years later.
In the last decade Newfoundlanders have released more recordings than ever before.
Contemporary acts to emerge have included singer-songwriters like Chris Ledrew,
Sean Panting, Damhnait Doyle and Colleen Power, and the rock groups Fur Packed
Action, Timber and the Lizband. The boundaries between traditional Newfoundland
music and pop music continue to dissolve. Songwriters like Pamela Morgan and Ron
Hynes mix modern and ancient influences. The Punters recently recorded an album
that included original pop songs, a few old time Newfoundland favourites and a
song borrowed from the English rock band The Kinks. Great Big Sea has become one
of Canada's most popular bands by combining traditional music with original songs
that have become pop hits.
Labrador artists have also fashioned unique sounds by mixing traditional and
folk music with more contemporary influences. The region's most popular singer,
Harry Martin, presents his songs of Labrador in a modern folk music setting.
Selby Mesher writes country and western songs and David Penashue leads bands that
perform rock music with Innu lyrics. The Flummies have become one of the regions
best-known acts by playing a hybrid of folk, blues and aboriginal music. Happy
Valley-Goose Bay is home to a core of bluegrass musicians who entertain regularly
at clubs and community concerts.
||The Flummies, 2000.
Cover of Labradorimiut, the Flummies' latest album,
released in 2000. Left to right: Simeon Asivak, Tunker Campbell,
Alton Best, Leander Baikie and Richard Dyson.
Courtesy of the Flummies. From Kenamu Records,
Happy-Valley Goose Bay, Labrador.
The traditional music of Newfoundland is widely and legitimately viewed as a voice
of the Newfoundland spirit and identity, a statement of cultural self-definition. But several
generations of young Newfoundlanders have found an equally powerful means of self-expression in the
many varieties of popular music that have thrived here. For the thousands who have been thrilled by
the sounds of the Ravens, TNT, the Thomas Trio, the Dennis Parker Band, Great Big Sea or Timber,
rock and roll and other forms of pop music do not represent an "outside" cultural influence, but a
sound that is as much a part of Newfoundland as anything created with fiddles and accordions.
© 2001, Jamie Fitzpatrick