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(June 13, 2002, Gazette)

Wednesday, May 29, 10 a.m.
Oration honouring Ronald Hynes

Shane O'DeaThis stage has seen musicians of all kinds. It is, after all, a performance venue and must take what can be sold; art being merely business in bright lights and flashy clothes. And, as a convocation stage it has also seen its share of musicians: singers, conductors, composers. But always, as befits the occasion, they have dealt in music of an elevated kind. Why then, Mr. Chancellor, country music, and if country music be seen to be fit, why Ron Hynes?

Country music is often considered to be the majority taste of minor minds — today’s lyrics are derived from the delights of highway diners and suburban rec-rooms as yesterday’s were from the small tragedies of small towns on the great plains. Country music lives beneath the fingernails of hands which haul a net or drive a cab — the quintessential voice of rural sensibility. It is, after all, George Bush’s musical taste. The style relies heavily on what a caustic critic once called “the metaphor of the mindless,” the cliché, and for its effect, according to the late Harlan Howard, on “three chords and the truth.” These are songs where the whole narrative line can be conveyed in the title. Two examples: the legendary I Took Her to the River (But She Wouldn’t Come Across) and Loretta Lynn’s Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin (With Lovin’ On Your Mind). Deemed shallow in content and form, it is not surprising that country does not even merit an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Music.

It does, however, merit quite complex and thoughtful entries in the major music encyclopedias. So this dismissal misses the essence of country music because, being grounded in the specifics of life, country music has an unusual capacity to capture the reality of ordinary existence in ways which the more general pop song cannot. And in capturing that reality it embodies a contradiction. It is regional, yet speaks the yearnings of the continent; it is class-based, yet echoes feelings across the social spectrum; its situations are particular, yet their application is universal. It takes the cliché and transforms it into a new and living image. It has, in the last eighty years of its development, become the voice of the people, their spoken heart. It has become the true folk music of North America.

There is problem here though — the candidate does not consider himself a country-song writer. That may lead you to think that this wonderful disquisition on country music is irrelevant. But, Mr. Chancellor, if we accepted the candidate’s views too readily he would not be on this stage and we would be ignoring his role as the star in the production of Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave or his constant references to country figures in his own songs. He thinks of his music as a folk/country blend for which he has coined the term “county music,” borrowing, I suspect, from his Irish as much as from his Southern Shore background. The songs of Ron Hynes do come out of the country music tradition but, launched on his soft sense of the rhythm of words, they achieve a level of high art attained only by the best in the business. If you need universal reach think of his major hit, Sonny’s Dream which the Irish seem to think is theirs and of which Ron tells a wonderful story: that a woman from Prince Edward Island heard it being sung in German by two Chinese buskers outside a railway station in Stockholm. The song reflects his own immediate experience but works into the soul to touch a world of hearts. This is the essence of his song-writing that it, as Ron Hynes says, “requires you to be able to stand in anybody’s shoes.” His most haunting song is the one that drew a long and laudatory essay from Stuart Pierson, Atlantic Blue, the song of the Ocean Ranger disaster. As subtle a song as ever came from this land, it moves through a series of unanswerable questions turning on images of sight, soul and sound to convey the desolation of that eternally-Valentineless day. Like many of his songs, it is written from the perspective of a woman into whose shoes he seems to step with some ease. And this is most strongly seen in 11:11, the album he wrote and produced with Connie Hynes and which features the voices of the best female singers in Newfoundland today.

An 18th century Scots patriot commented that “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” Ron Hynes has taken that notion to heart and seen his songs serve his nation for, while not overtly political, his music has fed the sense of self that has shaped Newfoundland over the last thirty years. From his first album, Discovery, a breakthrough in its use of original material, to his theatre work with the Mummers Troupe and Wonderful Grand Band, to his starring role in the Confederation conspiracy film, Secret Nation, Ron Hynes has been in the musical avant-garde of our cultural revolution — winner of a Genie, three-time winner of East Coast Music Awards, Artist of the Year in 1992. I present to you, Mr. Chancellor, for the degree of doctor of letters, (honoris causa), that man of a thousand songs and this one place, Ronald Hynes.

Shane O’Dea
Public Orator