No matter where you find yourself at Christmas - whether it's Joe Batt's Arm, Toronto or Timbuktu - it feels like home to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians if the mummers are there. Even at Paradise Shores in St. Petersburg, Florida, everyone forgets the sand and the palm trees the minute the mummers appear.
“Newfie parties,” as they’re affectionately known there, are a fairly regular thing at this condominium complex, home to dozens and dozens of downhome expats and come-from-aways who love a good time, too. And leading them all in jigs and reels is John Boland, a snowbird from Cambridge, Ontario, born and raised on Bell Island, Newfoundland. He’s been performing for decades and still loves to party.
“As long as I’m living, I will!” declares John, now 68, who’s known from one end of this continent to the other for his Newfoundland traditional/old time country music. In fact, just this summer John was inducted into the Cambridge Hall of Fame for his musical legacy. He’s performed with some of Newfoundland’s most treasured talent including Harry Hibbs, Dick Stoyles and Joan Morrissey. He even had a close encounter with an international sensation when he and his first band were entering Eastern Sound studio in Toronto to record their first album. “When we were walking in Rod Stewart was walking out. He had just done his recording there and said, ‘Good luck guys,’ and that was a highlight, I tell ya!” John enthuses. It was a big moment for a young guy from a small mining town in Conception Bay.
John grew up on Bell Island during the 1950s, one of 14 children in his family. He was surrounded by music in the 700-square-foot home. His mom played the squeezebox, and his older brother Dave entertained family and friends with his Elvis Presley impressions. “He did Presley like you wouldn’t believe,” John says.
But music couldn’t pay the bills or put food on the table, and a career in his father’s footsteps wasn’t an option either. His dad, a lifelong miner of 34 years in the Bell Island mines, cautioned his son in 1962 about the rumours of an impending mine closure. “He said, ‘Jack - he always called me ‘Jack’ - get off of the island because there’s nothing here for you.’ So, I was two months shy of my 16th birthday and I went to Cambridge.” Turns out it was sound advice, as many other Bell Islanders had to leave their home when those rumours became reality in 1966 and the mine shut down for good.
Within a few years his parents sold the family home on Bell Island and joined John on the mainland, where he had landed a job as a welder. It was through his connections on the job that he became good friends with fellow Newfoundlander, John Babb.
“I really didn’t know him on the island,” says John. “But when we all moved to Cambridge, as a lot of Newfoundlanders moved there, John and I became really good friends. We got together one night and started jamming, because I was playing guitar all the time and so was he.”
John soon realized that with a little managing, these impromptu jam sessions could be so much more and he suggested they form a band. With a few additional members, they founded the Five n’ Dimers and honed their skills over the next 18 months in John Boland’s basement in Cambridge. Word of their musical talent got around and soon they were asked to play a gig at the Newfie Club by Dick Stoyles, or “Mr. Newfoundlander,” as he was affectionately known around town. “He had an old baker’s warehouse and he was holding Newfie dances every week, where they had two or three Newfie bands up there,” says John.
When John and his band - then known as John Boland and the Beothuck, consisting of John Boland, John Babb, Fred O’Quinn, Mac Babb and Johnny Rankin - became a part of that circuit there was no stopping them. For more than two decades, Beothuck was one of the most-loved and cherished Newfoundland bands playing gigs all over Ontario.
“We played in Brampton, Toronto, Brantford - all around the circuit, and we did alright. We loved it,” John says.
In 1989, the band dissolved and the members went their separate ways, but the friendship remained. John Babb passed away two years ago; John and his brother-in-law and lead guitar player, Fred O’Quinn, still play together at parties and the occasional gig on Bell Island. Johnny Rankin still lives in Cambridge and plays in a Beatles tribute band.
John and his wife Coleen, an islander, too, also run a restaurant in Cambridge called Barnacle Bill’s, an establishment with a decades-long stellar reputation for great food. When they’re not tending to the affairs of that they’re busy with their real estate company called - you guessed it - Beothuck Realty Ltd. When they need a break from it all, they head to Florida for a few months of the year, and the partying and the music continues so much so that they now have a huge following there, too.
One of John’s friends and fans is Doug Haines. Like the Bolands, he divides his time between his Newfoundland home and his Florida home at Paradise Shores in St. Pete’s. “There was no entertainment there before John and them came - none at all,” says Doug. “And at the last outdoor BBQ we had about 120 people, and then another 100 or so came when they heard the music and we sprang the mummers on them. They don’t know what’s going on! You can visualize 13 condominiums, 350 units, and we’re right in the centre. You don’t know who the mummers are - I didn’t know - nobody did!”
Not only does John continue to perform, he’s still recording, too. Earlier this year he produced his latest CD: John Boland, Friends of Music. It’s a compilation of some of the band’s most loved songs, a mix of originals and covers, such as “Wabana,” “The Bottle,” and “Music and Friends.” One track is extra special to John: a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with piano accompaniment by his 21-year-old son Cole, who also plays the mouth organ on another track on this CD, “Dirty Ol’ Town.” John says a friend of his, who was receiving chemotherapy treatments in Halifax, told him she would play “Hallelujah” over and over as therapy and it was what got her through the ordeal. “I really felt good about that,” John admits.
John’s support of others is known in Newfoundland and Ontario, where he’s donated proceeds from his performances to local charities and organizations. It’s a fact that he’s reluctant to acknowledge, but people who know him know his generosity and his talent are as deep seated as his passion for his island roots and his love for music, family and friends. - By Shannon Duff