MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada

Newfoundland Vernacular Song

Peter NarvÁez (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

The following assessment of sources for the study of Newfoundland vernacular song is an outgrowth of a larger ongoing investigation in which I have had to consider available data on Newfoundland song and judge their limitations. As an analytical concept "vernacular song" is more encompassing than "folksong" and less elastic than "popular song." (1) Vernacular here refers both to those traits of culture that people actually make for themselves, one of the designations of "popular," and to its more conventional meaning of indigenous culture, culture that develops in a given locale. Vernacular, therefore, signifies song as a sector of aesthetic development and social practice. In assessing singing activities, "vernacular," as culture of place, proves to be a more useful adjective than "folk," particularly since, as will be shown in the Newfoundland context, "folksong" is a label too often burdened with ideological preconceptions to be successfully employed in analyses that make even modest pretensions to "objectivity."

Any attempted appraisal of available sources for the study of vernacular song faces a central dilemma - "What songs do people sing?" Since the majority of vernacular songs in Newfoundland have been performed, created, re-created, and used by working-class people, an interpretation of such materials necessarily involves a reconstruction of working-class culture. It is imperative, therefore, that one not only examine the content of available data but that one scrutinize the processes of mediation that have reified them.

Paul Mercer's Newfoundland Songs and Ballads in Print, 1842-1974 is the most comprehensive scholarly tool for accessing the large number of published Newfoundland song texts (2) Although this index neglects broadsides and ballads printed in newspapers, (3) it still presents references for over thirteen hundred distinct songs. Approximately half of these derive from the scholarly editions of field collected songs by Elisabeth Greenleaf and Grace Mansfield, Maud Karpeles, MacEdward Leach, and Kenneth Peacock. Their publications provide lyrics, melodies, contextual data, and some annotation for songs directly recorded from singers in their own communities. In addition, since the publication of Mercer's index another field collection, Genevieve Lehr's and Anita Best's, Come and I Will Sing You: A Newfoundland Songbook has provided 120 more songs, eighty-one of which are not represented in Mercer. (4)

One might expect that such scholarly sources would produce the most accurate inventory of songs that people have actually sung. Unfortunately, this is only partially true. Three out of five of these publications, those of Karpeles, Leach and Peacock, (5) were extensively influenced by the conservative ideological biases about the "folk" and "folksongs" which developed in ballad scholarship and which were further cultivated by the British folksong revival, foremostly in the person of Cecil Sharp. (6) What I specifically mean by "ideology" is a normalizing mode of evaluation predicated on assumptions of sociocultural hierarchy. In broad strokes, Sharp and his supporters believed that authentic folksongs are ancient, anonymous products of British oral tradition; folksongs are moribund and in need of rescue from the undiscriminating preserve of the "folk," who are "noneducated" senior residents of isolated agrarian villages ("The people are going away fast, and in a couple of generations … there will be neither songs nor singers in the silent fields." (7)). True folksongs exhibit aesthetic qualities that are inherently superior to the contemporary songs of modern, industrialized, urban areas; and, in the final analysis, it is only the knowledgeable folksong collector who can decide what a proper folksong is ("We know a folk tune when we hear it; -- or we don't." (8)). The accents here on class distinctions, cultural difference, cultural appropriation, and authenticity were ideological impositions of aesthetic value that allowed for selectivity and the generation of cultural hierarchy. The narrow irrationality of such an ethnocentric perspective has been well captured in an analogy developed by Barre Toelken.

It is [like] insisting on judging all cats as if they must be Siamese in order to qualify as cats, but allowing that a few lesser kinds of animals, by virtue of fur color or regal bearing or tone of meow may occasionally be of interest to those who know what cats are really meant to be. (9)

Having served long years as Sharp's secretary, Maud Karpeles accepted the major tenets of Sharp's paternalistic position. Thus, in her song collecting she pursued "true" (British) folksong and ignored commercial songs and local songs because of their alleged literary and musical inferiority. When she conducted fieldwork in Newfoundland in 1929 to complete the work of her mentor who had died several years earlier, she was aggravated by the number of songs she encountered which were "constantly being made up about contemporary events such as exploits at sea, shipwrecks, etc.," songs which from her colonialist purview had "little aesthetic value." (10) She maintained that unlike her experience collecting songs with Sharp in the Appalachian mountains of southern United States, where "everybody knew the songs," in Newfoundland she "had to go through a mess of stuff [local songs] before you came on to the real folksong." (11) Therefore, she "did not note any of them [local songs]. (12)While her collection, Folksongs from Newfoundland, is remarkable in revealing the strength of the British repertoire in Newfoundland oral tradition, the fact that it is bereft of all other songs distorts the vision of anyone pursuing vernacular song. In terms of community importance, something admittedly that Karpeles did not care about, her ethnocentricity is most unfortunate, for, as the distinguished American folklorist MacEdward Leach found out during his song collecting along the lower Labrador coast for the National Museum of Canada in 1960,"it is the local songs that are the favourites." (13) Although Leach acknowledged the social significance of local songs, and published over thirty in his Folk Ballads and Songs of the Lower Labrador Coast, his commitment to literary aesthetics inclined him to dismiss these creations as inferior ("They are crude in meter, form, and style, and often the tune is pedestrian and halting." (14)) He also disparaged the skills of the people who participated in these forms. In his view, even though the culture of these Labrador communities constituted "a culture closer to a pure folk culture than perhaps any other in North America," it was a bad folk culture because "it is static, and not creative in any way." (15) In comparison with seventeenth and eighteenth century Scottish folk culture, "one in which new creations, especially in tale and story, were constantly appearing; one in which the people had taste, appreciation for the dramatic, for the nice turn of phrase," Newfoundland and Labrador folk culture was "important only as a repository." (16) But even here

.., as custodians of the tradition bequeathed them by their English, Irish, and Scottish forbears, [these folk] have not been very careful. Much of their lore they have let slip away; much they have imperfectly preserved; much they have not understood and as a result have garbled. (17)

It would appear that in order to repair the custodial sloppiness of Labrador singers, Leach had no qualms about "arranging" song lyrics for print when his informants provided him with songs that were, in his view, incomplete ("lines are missing"). (18) Given his condescending attitude toward the people of Labrador and their creations, one may wonder why Leach published any local songs at all. But he was an indefatigable collector with a strong commitment to the accuracy of musical transcription, and his extensive comments and annotations about the songs he recorded, even songs that he did not like, make his Folk Ballads and Songs of the Lower Labrador Coast a valuable collection to the student of vernacular song. In printing the lyrics to "the most popular song in Forteau," simply entitled "Country Song," Leach provides a practical reason for outsider collectors' antipathy to local songs that goes beyond simple elitist dismissal. He maintains that often such songs are "almost meaningless to the outsider." (19) In other words, the esoteric specificities and in-group "transformal meanings" (20) of local songs made them extremely difficult to comprehend without extensive interview research.

Although she was also influenced by literary folksong scholarship, Elisabeth Bristol Greenleaf's love of Newfoundland and its people overcame many of the biased preconceptions she may have been taught, and her attitudes toward vernacular song, especially local songs, greatly contrast with those of Karpeles and Leach. An American student from Vassar College, she volunteered as a teacher to the Grenfell Mission Summer School in 1920 at Sally's Cove on the Northern Peninsula. She found the experience so "delightful" that she volunteered again the next summer and within a short time she became remarkably integrated into the community. (21) Especially enamoured by the songs she heard during her teaching stints, and provided with intellectual and financial support from Vassar College, she returned to Newfoundland in 1929 with her friend, Vassar-trained musicologist Grace Yarrow (later "Mansfield"), to conduct a song collecting project she parodically called the "Vassar Folklore Expedition" because of previous, well-known, all-male college exploratory expeditions to Labrador. (22)

Isabelle Peere has noted that Greenleaf's approach to song collecting exhibited "little or no preconceived intention of collecting any type of materials but rather allow[ed] for the natural `relief' of the particular local traditions." (23) Thus, despite having a focus on "traditional" materials, Greenleaf found the "songs daily being composed in Newfoundland " of "exceptional interest." These local songs were so numerous that, as she explained, "a complete collection of them would, I am sure, give a complete history of the island … [in] a tone quite different from the historical ballads composed by the ruling classes." (24) Even pressures from ballad scholar George Lyman Kittredge, which compelled her to order the songs in her collection Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland in the "Child and other" format, (25) did not deter Greenleaf from printing over forty local songs, many from the files of the local song collector and entrepreneur Gerald S. Doyle. (26) The sympathetic reception that Greenleaf received as a collector (27) was due in no small part to her benign status, her amiable personality, and her open-mindedness. As Peere has observed, the fact that she did not look upon songs as "`precious literary gems' to be rescued from an ignorant and impersonal folk," was not due to her scholarly training, so much as to "her genuine interest in the whole life of the community." (28)

Cover of Peacock's Songs of the Newfoundland Outports: courtesy of the National Museum of CivilizationWhile maintaining something of Greenleaf's open attitude toward collecting Newfoundland songs, Canadian musicologist and folksinger Kenneth Peacock generally subscribed to elitist aesthetics and Sharp's patronizing and romantic view of the isolated "folk." In fact, in the introduction to his three volume collection, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, he directly linked himself to Sharp: "I like to think my work in Newfoundland has, in some small measure, compensated for Cecil Sharp's inability to continue his North American researches in Newfoundland." (29) Thus, he maintained that outport Newfoundland was a rare example of "neo-primitive white culture," having remote communities "with no class elite," where "a sort of independent `tribal' life developed" with "`tribal' customs" that "have left their mark on contemporary traditions." (30) In six field trips to Newfoundland sponsored by the National Museum of Canada between 1951 and 1961, Peacock collected approximately seven hundred songs, 412 of which he published. Although he admitted that "even a collection ten times as big would not be `complete,'" he judged that his publication was "representative of Newfoundland's repertoire of traditional and native song[s]," which he assessed "are found in the approximate ratio of five traditional to one native," (31) a figure that has been widely accepted and quoted ever since. (32) It is a telling legacy of Sharp and Karpeles that Peacock used the word "traditional" rather than "European" for it implies that "native" songs cannot qualify as traditional. But like Sharp, this dichotomy simply betrays the usual diachronic appraisal of song--the older, the better, the more vital the tradition. That the process of songmaking itself might be the most vital tradition in a community seems to have been a possibility that eluded Peacock as it did his mentors. Diachronic appraisal, of course, further allowed Peacock to prioritize songs on the basis of subjective aesthetic assessments. He had no qualms in referring to some songs as "duds," as "second-rate" or, as manifesting "inferiority." (33) Moreover, as paternal guardian of the songs he collected, Peacock felt no obligations to faithfully produce verbatim texts. Thus, he corrected "obvious mistakes" and refashioned songs, even to the extent of producing a composite text of She's Like the Swallow in order to heighten its sexual symbolism! (34) The filter of ideology was at work again.

Like Leach, Peacock's work was also conforming to the ideological constraints of publication. As he indicated, while he could have published more native ballads to serve the historian, "my purpose has been to provide a balanced selection which will be of interest and use to the greatest number of people" [my italics]. (35) Another of Peacock's purposes, was to counteract "the impression that Newfoundland folksongs consist entirely of locally composed material," an impression created by the popular songsters of local collector Gerald S. Doyle. Here Peacock was responding to a national, Canadian impression. (36)As previously cited, he estimated a five to one ratio of traditional to native songs; a page later, Peacock argued that Doyle had "devoted his attention exclusively to the one-in-five native songs" which characterize the Newfoundland repertoire. (37) I wonder if Doyle counted. Clearly Peacock didn't. A ratio of five to one indicates that one sixth (16.7%) of the repertoire is native. That one in five Newfoundland songs are native reveals that through an interval of one page Peacock's impressionistic fraction of local Newfoundland songs has gone up to one fifth (20%)! While Karpeles encountered so many local materials that she believed her triumph to be the gathering of a significant amount of real European folksong amidst a sea of local detritus, it is paradoxical that thirty years later, Peacock would only find one-fifth or one-sixth of the Newfoundland repertoire to be local amidst a sea of European gems! What is absurd, of course, is not Peacock's mathematics, but that he would so doggedly adhere to fractions based on an ideologically biased sample of vernacular song that did not take into account such variables as his own outsider "government" status, his gender, and the effects of his reactions as a critical "audience" to the performances of difficult to understand local songs vis-a-vis the more familiar songs he did enjoy. As George Story appropriately queried, "how many compositions don't get into print, or even recorded by visiting collectors, because the singers-or even the communities-don't wish them to be set down or given out?" (38)

Similar to Greenleaf's and Mansfield's work in its appreciation of local songs, Genevieve Lehr's and Anita Best's, Come and I Will Sing You: A Newfoundland Songbook provides a refreshing alternative source for vernacular song texts. Compiled from field recordings made between 1975 and 1983 by Newfoundland performer-revivalists, Lehr and Best, the primary purpose of the volume was participatory, that readers would learn and sing the songs. For this reason, Lehr explains, forgotten verses have been "completed in most cases with words from another singer's version in our collection," and these few inclusions are explicitly cited in the brief but informative notes that accompany each song. (39) Approximately eighty of the one hundred and twenty songs presented are local songs. Apparently this focus on native materials had less to do with the proportion of song types encountered by the collectors in the field, which was often "material that had been learned from recordings or radio broadcasts," (40) than with a sense of the importance of local songs: "some of the local songs may not be as aesthetically pleasing to the uninitiated, but they are cherished by the singers who so graciously and joyfully sang them for us. (41) While the producers of this collection had popular rather than scholarly aims, the preponderance of local songs therein is a useful corrective to the disparagement and neglect of these materials by previous collectors.

Cover of Burke's Popular SongsThe student of vernacular song must look for other correctives to mediated scholarly works. Many examples of the vitality of local song are to be found in the popular press on broadsides, sheet music, song folios, commercial songbooks, such as those previously cited by Gerald S. Doyle; and in earlier songsters such as those by James Murphy, Johnny Burke, and Nicholas Peddel and, in selective reprints such as those of Ryan and Small, and Kirwin. (42) In addition, periodicals, magazines and newspapers contain relevant materials, for as Mercer has noted, "the submission of poems and songs to local newspapers and magazines is an ongoing tradition in Newfoundland." (43) In the realm of electronic media, commercial sound recordings of regional artists have been well documented by Michael Taft's A Regional Discography of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1904-1972, but this source's references are two decades old and it is badly in need of an update. Cover of Taft's Regional Discography of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1904-1972: courtesy of Memoiral University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language PublicationsThe realm of television and Newfoundland vernacular song has been totally ignored (e.g., what about CBC's All Around the Circle?) and radio has barely been approached but suggestive initial studies include those of Philip Hiscock and Laurie Jones. (44) Perhaps the best barometer reading of the vitality of singing and songmaking in Newfoundland is the continuing practice of responding to significant events with poetics. In recent decades this has best been documented for individual songs in Michael Taft's examination of Aunt Martha's Sheep and Julia Bishop's study of the The Moonshine Can.(45) For a cluster of poetic responses from all over the province, Cynthia Lamson's Bloody Decks and a Bumper Crop (1979), an examination of songs and poetry that voiced counter-protest to the anti-sealing campaign of international animal rights organizations, is a model study. (46) More analyses of this type, e.g. the Ocean Ranger tragedy, are sorely needed. A final and most significant source for examining vernacular song in Newfoundland is archival. The splendid song collections of the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive, amassed largely by student collectors, contain a wellspring of material that remains largely untapped. (47).

In regarding vernacular song in a holistic sense, one must not artificially separate songs into imposed etic (analytical) categories by genre or provenance. In the latter regard, it has been academics like Leach, given their penchant for viewing European balladry as a sacred trust, who have prioritized the European over the indigenous. From the vernacular perspective the significant question does not concern provenance so much as real repertoire, i.e., "what songs have people actually been performing and creating?" The fact is, that despite provenance, given a vital song-culture, the process of "localization" continuously transforms the obscure into the understandable. As Leach himself observed about the Labrador singers he described as being "not creative:" "there is a tendency to localize even the old traditional ballads and make them a part of their own culture." (48)


1. Archie Green, "Vernacular Music: A Naming Compass," The Musical Quarterly 77.1 (1993): 37.

2. Paul Mercer, Newfoundland Songs and Ballads in Print, 1842-1974: A Title and First-Line Index. Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Publications. Bibliographical and Special Series No. 6 (St. John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1979).

3. For a recent historical treatment of verses and songs in Newfoundland newspapers see Jim Overton, " Newfoundland in the 1930s: Voices of the Unemployed, Pt. 1" Socialist Studies Bulletin 33 (1993): 8-19 and " Newfoundland in the 1930s: Voices of the Unemployed, Pt. 2" Socialist Studies Bulletin 34 (1993): 3-29.

4. Genevieve Lehr, ed., Genevieve Lehr and Anita Best, collectors, Come and I Will Sing You: A Newfoundland Songbook (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985).

5. Maud Karpeles, Folksongs from Newfoundland (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1970); MacEdward Leach, Folk Ballads and Songs of the Lower Labrador Coast, Anthropological Series No. 68 (Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1965); Kenneth Peacock, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports Anthropological Series No. 65 (Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1965).

6. See the following interpretations of Cecil Sharp's work and influence: Dave Harker, One for the Money (London: Hutchinson, 1980): 146-58; Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British "Folksong" 1700 to the Present Day (Milton Keynes: Open UP, 1985): 172-97; Georgina Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1993): 41-119.

7. Charles E. Marson, "Introduction" to Cecil J. Sharp and Charles E. Marson, Folksongs from Somerset. First Series. Vol. 1 ( London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Ltd., 1915): xv.

8. Cecil Sharp, English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (Taunton: Barnicott & Pearce, 1907): 87.

9. Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979):184.

10. Karpeles, 18.

11. Karpeles in 1970 quoted by Carole Henderson Carpenter, "Forty Years Later: Maud Karpeles in Newfoundland," Folklore Studies in Honour of Herbert Halpert, ed. K.S. Goldstein and N.V. Rosenberg (St. John's: Memorial U of Newfoundland, 1980): 118. For an interpretive account of Sharp's forays in the Appalachians see David E. Whisnant, All That is Native and Fine. Tbe Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1983): 113-27.

12. Karpeles, 18.

13. MacEdward Leach, Folk Ballads and Songs of the Lower Labrador Coast, Anthropological Series No. 68 (Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1965): 9.

14. Leach 9.

15. Leach, 12.

16. Leach, 12.

17. Leach, 12.

18. Leach, 299.

19. Leach, 10.

20. See James Moreira, "Place and Transformal Meaning in Nineteenth-Century Sea Songs," Canadian Folklore canadien 12.2 (1990): 69-84.

21. Elisabeth Bristol Greenleaf and Grace Yarrow Mansfield, Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland (1933; Hatboro. Pa.: Folklore Associates, 1968): xix.

22. See for example Jonathan Prince Cilley, Bouxloin Boys in Labrador. An Account of the Bowdoin College Scientific Expedition to Labrador Led by Prof. Leslie A. Lee of the Biological Department. (Rockland, Maine: Rockland Publishing Company, c. 1895); E.B. Delabarre, Report of the Brown-Harvard Expedition to Nachvak, Labrador 1900 (Providence, RI: Preston and Rounds, 1902).

23. Isabelle Peere, "Elisabeth Greenleaf: An Appraisal," Canadian Folk Music Journal 13 (1985): 24.

24. Greenleaf, xxxvii.

25. Peere, 27

26. On Doyle and his influence see Neil V. Rosenberg, "The Gerald S. Doyle Songsters and the Politics of Newfoundland Folksong," Canadian Folklore canadien 13.1 (1991): 45-57.

27. Greenleaf, xix-xxxix.

28. Peere, 24-5.

29. Peacock, xxi.

30. Peacock, xix.

31. Peacock, xx-xxi.

32. See for example Edith Fowke, "Notes," Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, Kenneth Peacock, recordist, LP (St. John's: Pigeon Inlet, PIP-7319,1984).

33. Peacock, xxii.

34. See Paul Mercer, "A Bio-Bibliography of Newfoundland Songs in Printed Sources," MA thesis, Memorial U of Newfoundland, 1978: 127-8.

35. Peacock, xxi.

36. See Neil V. Rosenberg, "The Canadianization of Newfoundland Folksong; or the Newfoundlandization of Canadian Folksong," Journal of Canadian Studies 29/1, 1994.

37. Peacock, xxi.

38. George Story, "`A tune beyond us as we are': Reflections on Newfoundland Community Song and Ballad," Newfoundland Studies 4 (1988):129-44.

39. Lehr, ix.

40. Anita Best, "Introduction," Come and I Will Sing You: A Newfoundland Songbook, ed. Genevieve Lehr, Genevieve Lehr and Anita Best, collectors, (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985): xi.

41. Lehr, ix.

42. George M. Story, "The St. John's Balladeers," The Blasty Bough, ed. Clyde Rose (St. John's: Breakwater, 1976): 159-70; Mercer, Bio-Bibliography 73-81, 118-23, 130-4; Shannon Ryan, and Larry Small, eds., Haulin' Rope and Gaff: Songs and Poetry in the History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery (St. John's: Breakwater, 1978); W.J. Kirwin, ed., John White's Collection of the Songs of Johnny Burke (St. John's: Harry Cuff, 1982).

43. Mercer, Bio-Bibliography, 37.

44. Philip Hiscock, "Folk Process in a Popular Medium: The `Irene B. Mellon' Radio Programme, 1934-1941," Studies in Newfoundland Folklore: Community and Process, ed. G. Thomas and J.D.A. Widdowson (St. John's: Breakwater, 1991): 177-90; Lauri Jones, "'We Gave Them What the People Wanted': The Performance Career of Joe Murphy," Culture & Tradition 14 (1990): 105-19.

45. Michael Taft, "Of Scoffs, Mounties and Mainlanders: The Popularity of a Sheep-Stealing Ballad in Newfoundland," Media Sense: The Folklore-Popular Culture Continuum, ed. P. Narváez, and M. Laba (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1986): 77-98; Julia Bishop, "The Song Complex of `The Moonshine Can': The History, Text and Tune of a Local Song and its Derivatives," PhD thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1992.

46. Cynthia Lamson, Bloody Decks and a Bumper Crop: The Rhetoric of Sealing Counter-Protest Social and Economic Studies, no. 24 (St. John's: Institute for Social and Economic Research, 1979): 33-85.

47. See Neil V. Rosenberg, "MUNFLA, A Newfoundland Resource for the Study of Folk Music," Studies in Newfoundland Folklore: Community and Process, ed. G. Thomas and J.D.A. Widdowson (St. John's: Breakwater, 1991).

48. Leach, 10.


This essay was originally published in the conference proceedings of Popular Music - Style and Identity, ed. Will Straw et. al. (Montreal: Centre for Research on Canadian Cultural Industries and Institutions, 1995, pp. 215-219). It is reprinted here with the permission of the author and the original publisher. The illustrations did not appear in the original publication.