A Few of our Finest Singers and Players

Photo Courtesy of Eric West

Songs and Dances

The Placentia Bay area has a rich history of song, in the European ballad tradition, American balladry and popular music styles particularly since the 1940s, and in local compositions. Many songs still exist today, preserved and recorded by people like Placentia Bay native, Anita Best and Genevieve Lehr, and in the active repertoires of families from the region. Most of the recordings on this website were collected by Newfoundland traditional musician Eric West in 1978, and are located in full at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA). These recordings reveal performance practice, repertoire, as well as the attitudes and values regarding various historical events, way of life, and relationships (imagined or real) with other places in the world.

Local Songs

A substantial number of songs Eric West collected were written locally. These songs demonstrate the range and diversity of the song writing tradition in Placentia Bay. Some of these songs are influenced by more contemporary, popular songs, while others emulate more “traditional” ballad styles. North American ballads (termed this because they originate in North America, not due to a connection with aboriginal peoples) are particularly common in the Eric West collection.

Often characterized by the opening line “Come all ye,” Native American ballads focus on how a particular event relates to a community, and frequently focus on labour-related events, like fishing or logging. Although there are a myriad of ways which these songs can be organized, for the purposes of this collection, the songs are divided into four categories based on local significance: Resettlement, People and Places, Historical Events, and Social Commentary.

Resettlement

The resettlement plan was one of the most controversial events in Newfoundland history. It was a culmination of the social and economic changes of the time, like the industrialization of the fisheries, the province joining the rest of Canada in confederation. In an effort to provide better social services like healthcare and education to the province, as the low population density spread over a large geographic area was proving to be costly, and inefficient.

There were, however many problems with the plan. Resettlement was intended as a means for modernization. What this meant to many a transition to an entirely new way of life. While it is true that government run social services were more effective after relocation, it also forced once independent fishers and farmers away from a subsistence lifestyle to one of economic consumption. Some people felt that it was an improvement, but others were unhappy to abandon the land their family had lived for generations, and their traditional way of life.

As something that affected Placentia Bay significantly, there have been a number of local songs written the resettlement program. They express concerns about bureaucracy, a lack of government understanding, and most of all, unhappiness of leaving one’s traditional family home.

People and Places

Placentia Bay was home to over one hundred communities. Eric West conducted his fieldwork in Placentia, Freshwater, and Ferndale, though many of his informants had originally lived other smaller, outport communities. Newfoundland outports like these have been the focus of the majority of folksong collection over the years, and as a result, outport life as depicted by songs like these has become an important part of many Newfoundlander’s identities through collections like the Doyle’s Songbook, and Peacock’s Folksongs of Newfoundland Outports. A significant number of locally composed songs are dedicated to the memory of particular places, and the people that lived there. Sometimes based on a particular event, other times much more general, these songs lend insight into Placentia Bay life, and well-known people of the area.

Historical Events

Although many songs are written as a narrative of specific events, these songs are ones that tell the story of events that are of great magnitude, most of which focus on a disaster of some sort. A considerable number of these songs are dedicated to ship wrecks, and others document the aftermath of natural disasters. One song in particular, “The Tidal Wave Song,” describes the 1929 tidal wave that was caused by an earthquake off the Grand Banks, which left 28 dead and 10,000 homeless. “The August Gale” similarly recounts a violent storm that devastated Marystown in 1935, killing forty fishermen. These songs serve as a memorial to those lost in these tragic events, and a reminder to those who survived them.

Social Commentary

A number of local songs in this collection were written with particular messages in mind. Clearly examples of how folksong should not be dismissed as low brow or unpolished, they discuss issues surrounding class tensions and social injustice. One common theme in these songs is how profoundly economic challenges (i.e., poverty) can affect one’s life. “The Rogues of Merchants” in particular, reveals difficulty of life as a fisherman, and condemns exploitative business practices of local merchants. A number of others tell the story of murderers who are caught and subsequently put to death. These songs demonstrate a keen social awareness and comment on social problems in historic Newfoundland life.