Sounds Like the Real Newfoundland

By Eric Gall

To many of their fellow Canadians, the words “Newfoundland music” mean shanties, jigs, ballads and reels — songs and dances from the folk music traditions of England, Scotland and, especially, Ireland.

But while these remain an extremely important aspect of the local culture, there’s so much more to the music and contemporary sounds of Newfoundland and Labrador. Theirs is a tradition that has always absorbed and re-interpreted changing musical styles from the US, the old countries, and …all over.

Take opera. Even the late 1800s, the music of the day found its way to “The Rock,” as Newfoundlanders refer to their homeland. Just as today’s musical acts tour their hits, famous choirs, ensembles and operatic troupes of the day brought popular church music, operas and instrumental pieces to the people of what would become Canada’s Eastern-most province in 1949.

In turn, this music influenced Henry Tillman and other local composers, who created their own Marches and Parody Operas (famous pieces re-written with lyrics based on local people, references and events).

As happens today, some local stars, such as singer Georgina Stirling, became famous as far away as Europe. When vaudeville replaced opera as the new popular music in the early 20th century, the popularity of local composers and performers such as John Burke only grew and spread.

The invention and burgeoning popularity of radio, and the arrival of movies with sound in the 1920s and 30s, more classic Irish folk music into people’s living rooms and kitchens, but also the American hits of the day. US troops based in Newfoundland during World War II brought even more of their favourite music to The Rock, including jazz, swing and country and western.

With their records filling the airwaves and their bands playing the clubs and dancehalls, it was inevitable that this American influence would spawn local sensations like Newfoundland’s first home-grown country and western star, Jimmy Linegar, who rose to fame on the new medium of television in the 1950s and toured the province to great acclaim.

Not that this American invasion meant the death of traditional music in Newfoundland and Labrador. During the middle part of the 20th Century, a great many people were keeping the province’s musical heritage very much alive. Both folk songs and modern tunes were still being played in traditional style by artists and composers such as Otto Kelland, and by Art Scammell, whose 1943 hit, “Squid-Jiggin’ Ground,” was the first by a native performer.

As well as the musicians themselves, radio and television shows, like All Around The Circle and Ryan’s Fancy, along with songbooks, such as Gerald S. Doyle’s Old Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland, and even scholars all played their parts in celebrating and keeping traditional Newfoundland and Labrador music uppermost in people’s hearts, minds and ears.

Fast-forward to today, when local acts such as Hey Rosetta, and Great Big Sea – whose music combines traditional Newfoundland instruments and sounds with modern popular music and state-of-the-art production – rose to fame both inside and outside their home turf. Although both groups have recently split, their members and their contemporaries in the local music scene, continue to blur the boundaries between traditional and popular sounds.

It is important to note that Labrador artists have their own identities, distinct from the part of the province known as Newfoundland, but similar in the way they, too, have always taken outside influences and made them their own. Artists like local superstar folk musician Harry Martin, country crooner, Selby Mesher and Innu-language (indigenous) rocker David Penashue have all been influenced by music “from away,” both modern and traditional, turning it into something uniquely, powerfully, Labradorian.

There is a spirit that links the old and the new in Newfoundland and Labrador music. A spirit that continues to inspire today’s singers and players to make their own music by incorporating outside influences, trying new things, and both revering and having fun with the music of their ancestors. It is a spirit that seems destined to keep their music evolving and thriving for generations to come.

Take a journey through the influences and roots of Newfoundland’s musical history with our Folk, Celtic, and Violin music channels.


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