Rediscovering Ourselves Through Music
By Pamela Morgan
When I was growing up in Grand Falls in the 1960s and '70s, Newfoundland music wasn't cool. I preferred the songs played on the radio and those from my older sisters' record collections. I think this was a commonly held opinion at the time - a hangover from our recent Confederation with Canada, and an acceptance of the ridicule Newfoundlanders endured from our new family upalong. Persuaded to burn our boats, leave our past behind and to embrace "progress," many of us began to believe that our way of life (and, consequently, our culture and music) was backward and embarrassing.
But in high school I met a teacher who changed my life. He was a fierce Newfoundland and Labrador nationalist who taught us to love and respect our own culture, and to value that which we were in danger of losing. Burned upon my memory is the vision of him saying, through clenched teeth and with barely controlled rage, "I come from a place that doesn't exist any more."
As it turns out, he was a part of a huge backlash against cultural assimilation - a massive wave that seemed to happen all at once in every sector of the arts here in the province in the early '70s. People were beginning to take pride in a cultural uniqueness that had been largely suppressed and derided. There were Codco, Mummer's Troupe, Breakwater Books, Gerry Squires, Lukey's Boat and others, all fighting back against the shame we had been carrying for too long and celebrating our culture through painting, literature, theatre and music.
That pride and recognition of our inherent strengths has transcended our cultural expression. It has made this province one of the strongest artistic communities on the planet. One need not look very far to find a musician, writer, visual artist, comedian or actor from Newfoundland and Labrador who has made an impact on the world stage.
When I first met Noel Dinn, Anita Best, Neil Murray and the musicians in the fledgling Figgy Duff, they were all listening to the great folk-rock bands of the 1970s - Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Planxty, Jethro Tull - and I couldn't believe my ears! Here were versions of the same songs from the traditional collections done in Newfoundland and Labrador, but presented in such a cool and unique way. They blended rock instruments with acoustic folk instruments, and instruments from other world cultures. And the beauty of it all was that we had, right here, our own source for material - a living tradition with people still singing the songs they learned from their forefathers! We set out to find them.
As our guide, we had Kenneth Peacock's anthology, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports. We would identify a place with a lot of singers and get a gig there. We'd show up and ask around for the singers. Often they'd come to the gig, and we'd all end up sitting around tables singing and playing tunes until daylight, then be invited somewhere for Sunday dinner and sing our way through the next day as well. People were so generous, fun-loving and kind. We'd make friends and often go back, sometimes with their songs included in our repertoire.
Figgy Duff toured for years after that, helping blaze the trail for what has now become a huge industry. The discovery of and demand for "Celtic" music has enhanced market interest for all the province's music makers - choirs, rock bands, songwriters, pop idols. We come from a nation of strong, determined, hardworking people, and our natural grace and wit is evident in all forms of our artistic expression. Granted, there are still a few (at the Globe and Mail, for example) who cling to the old notion of Newfoundland and Labrador as backward and inane. But they are becoming more rare as artists from the province continue to make their mark on the national and global stage.
With the advent of "cultural tourism," our new challenge is to beware the danger of becoming a caricature of ourselves. Times are rapidly changing. We are losing more people than ever before, and the old folks who lived the life we romanticize are all but gone. We must find a way to move ahead with dignity and pride, while continuing to embrace and celebrate that which makes us unique, honouring the legacy of our tradition bearers.
Pamela Morgan was the lead singer of the breakout folk/rock band Figgy Duff for more than 19 years. Since 1995, she has produced three solo recordings and in 1996, she launched her own recording company, Amber Music. The pride and recognition of our inherent strengths has transcended our cultural expression and made this province one of the strongest artistic communities on the planet.