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Oration honouring Anita Best

Thursday, May 28, 3 p.m.

Some 1,000 years ago an intrepid band of souls packed their belongings into a few small boats and set sail from a rocky island in the North Atlantic to another rocky island in the North Atlantic. They were typical North Atlantic island folk; men and women who could turn their hand to whatever needed to be done, farming or fishing, cutting wood or carpentry, hunting or homemaking, able to make the most of whatever the sea and the soil provided. They established a settlement on the tip of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula where they experienced adventures and misadventures, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

More than 1,000 years later, how do we know about these people? Most directly, we know because of the research of scholars like Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, who were certain that Thorfinn, Freydis and their compatriots were the first “Come From Aways” to settle on Newfoundland’s shores. What led to their convictions? How did they know where to search for the birthplace of Gudrid’s son? How did they know these people existed, let alone established the first outport community in L’Anse aux Meadows?

They knew, because 1,000 years ago these settlers had among them singers and storytellers who celebrated their adventures and misadventures, the ordinary and the extraordinary. The songs were sung and sung again, the tales told and retold as family and friends gathered on long winter evenings. Fortunately the occasional artist arose with both the skill and the foresight to gather these stories and preserve them.

Chancellor, today we celebrate a modern day skald, a Snorri for the 21st century. Anita Maud Best was born on Merasheen Island, Placentia Bay, when it was still a thriving community. As a child, she enjoyed many a kitchen party on winter evenings. Her father, Fred Best, and his brothers held forth with a seemingly endless repertoire of songs. Her mother Elsie contributed songs she learned in her native Tack’s Beach, while exceptional raconteurs such as Bride Fulford and Kate Wilson added their voices to the occasion.

Anita moved to St. John’s with her family shortly before resettlement became government policy. There she completed high school, then an undergraduate degree at Memorial, with the intention of becoming a schoolteacher. The death of her father in 1974 brought not only personal loss, but also the realization that the memory of the resettled outports, their people and their ways would gradually disappear as the singers of the songs and the tellers of the tales grew silent.

She took a teaching position in South East Bight, not far from Merasheen, and home to Pius Power, a legendary singer of traditional songs. Power and his son Young Pius, a respected singer in his own right, were fishermen, owners of the Annie F and Mary P, the last working schooner in Newfoundland. Anita married Young Pius and became a licensed fisherman. She lived and worked seasonally on the boat, hauling cod traps and lobster pots with her husband and father-in-law until Daughter Kate was old enough to be at risk of falling overboard. And always, when the work was done, there was singing, from the Powers and from the many resettled fishermen and their wives who returned to the Bight each summer.

So began Anita’s new career as collector, preserver and disseminator of the songs and stories of Newfoundland and Labrador. Inventive and inexhaustible, she began to seek out ways to ensure the continuing vitality of our cultural heritage as diligently as she sought out the songs and stories themselves. She returned to Memorial to pursue a graduate degree in folklore. She traveled the length and breadth of the Island, recording hundreds of tunes and tales in kitchens, on stage heads and aboard fishing boats, then set herself to the painstaking task of archiving them for Memorial’s Folk Lore Collection. In collaboration with Genevieve Lehr, she published Come and I Will Sing You, a selection of 120 of these songs.

Anita was a founding member of the traditional rock band Figgy Duff. Although she left the group to pursue her teaching career, she continued to share newly discovered songs with them. Encouraging fellow artists and creating opportunities for them to be heard is of paramount importance to Anita. She founded the production company Newfoundland Voices to present the province’s musicians and writers in unusual and exotic locations. She has worked with numerous folk arts councils and heritage groups to organize concerts and cultural events. Through her involvement with the St. John’s Folk Arts Council, she introduces townie audiences to artists from Beyond the Overpass.

Anita’s rich contralto voice has graced many a folk festival in Newfoundland, across Canada and beyond, singing in venues as diverse as concert stages, historic churches and the abandoned World War II bunkers at Cape Spear. During a festival in Brigus she sang for an entire afternoon in the Tunnel, never once repeating a song. She has recorded two CDs with Pamela Morgan, The Colour of Amber and An Amber Christmas. In her solo CD Crosshanded, Anita performs twelve songs without accompaniment of any sort, allowing the listener to focus on the beauty of the singing and the power of the words. Anita is also featured on recordings with Bristol’s Hope and The Newfoundland Symphony Youth Choir (now known as Shallaway), as well as several compilation recordings. More recently, she can be heard reading and singing on recordings of poetry and dramatic works.

In 1995 Anita took on the role of radio broadcaster with the CBC program “A Little Ball of Yarns.” Anita has also returned to teaching, offering a course in Newfoundland traditional song and singing through Memorial’s School of Music. She works with the provincial government as a cultural advisor and is one of five experts recently named to the new Provincial Historic Commemorations Board, part of the Provincial Government’s growing cultural program.
She lends her expertise nationally as a member of the Canada Council for the Arts Music Jury.

Chancellor, Ms. Best has not only accomplished all this, and more, she has accomplished it all exceedingly well. She has been widely honoured for her achievements. The East Coast Music Awards proclaimed The Colour of Amber Best Roots and Traditional Recording while the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland and Labrador named Anita Female Artist of the Year and Roots Traditional Artist of the Year for Crosshanded. Crosshanded was also honoured with the Noel Dinn Heritage Preservation Award. The YM/ YWCA has recognized Anita as Woman of the Year, the Newfoundland Historic Parks Association granted her the Manning Award for Excellence and the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council named her a winner of their Achievement Award. In 2003 the Folklore Studies Association of Canada awarded her their Marius Barbeau Medal for her contribution to Canadian folklore studies. The citation noted, “Few if any have attained her range of activities, yet in each category she has made contributions that equal or better the work of those who have specialized in these areas.”

Chancellor, if one thousand years hence, people are still enthralled by the songs of our province, if they are still entertained by the stories of our adventures and misadventures, both ordinary and extraordinary, it will be due in no small measure to the efforts of this daughter of Merasheen Island, Placentia Bay. I urge you to add Memorial’s voice to the chorus of those singing the praises of Anita Maud Best, and grant her the degree of doctor of letters (honoris causa).

Kjellrun Hestekin
University orator