(June 13, 2002, Gazette)
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
todays lyrics are derived from the delights of highway diners
and suburban rec-rooms as yesterdays 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 Bushs 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 Wouldnt
Come Across) and Loretta Lynns Dont Come Home ADrinkin
(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
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 candidates 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, Sonnys 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 anybodys 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.