Johnny Burke (1851-1930)

Johnny Burke was a St. John's balladeer. Several of his songs, such as Cod Liver Oil, The Trinity Cake, and The Kelligrew's Soiree, remain popular to this day.

"The Bard of Prescott Street," as he became known, was the son of a well-known sealing captain. He worked as a poet, actor, singer and playwright, but is best known for writing songs about contemporary events and personalities, songs that revealed Burke's sharp eye for detail and deft touch with wit and satire. The Kelligrew's Soiree includes references to well known St. John's characters like Flipper Smith and Caroline Bowden. The Spring Maurice Crotty Fought The Old Dog-hood describes the escapades of a druggist named Crotty during his first sealing season. The title Who Shipped The Moonshine To St. John's speaks for itself.

Johnny Burke, 1903
Johnny Burke, 1903
Burke was known as "The Bard of Prescott Street".
Photo by Vey. From The Newfoundland Quarterly 3.2 (St. John's, NL: Creative Printers and Publishers, September 1903) 4.

Burke also wrote and staged musical comedies. His first, The Battle Of Foxtrap was an immediate sensation when it opened at the Total Abstinence Hall in 1881. Later shows include The Runaway Girl From Fogo, The Topsail Geisha and Cotton's Patch, another seal hunt story.

Burke marketed his songs on "broadsheets," printed pages of lyrics that sold for two to five cents a copy. He became the most popular member of a busy songwriting community that also included T.M. Lannigan, Michael Power, Johnny Quigley, Johnny Quill and James Murphy. Several of his songs have endured to become standards of the Newfoundland repertoire, still recorded and sung today.