By Linda Browne
No matter where you go in Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s no trouble finding folks who can carry a tune or play an instrument. Whether it’s a shed or kitchen party, a wedding or a wake, chances are that at some point an accordion or guitar will appear. Music is woven into the very fabric of our culture. It brings us together like nothing else can – as beloved Newfoundland musician Bud Davidge sings in Simani’s seminal song, “Nothing seems to turn things ’round again, and make the whole world right like music and friends.”
Visit practically any community, cove or island in the province and you’ll find a song associated with it, like “Feller from Fortune,” “The Kelligrews Soiree,” “The Northern Lights of Labrador” or “The Cliffs of Baccalieu.” You might’ve heard these tunes time and time again. You might know all the words. But do you know who originally penned them or the stories behind them?
These are just a few of the songs included in the Musical Map of Newfoundland and Labrador, a new website that profiles some of our most beloved (and some lesser known) folk tunes while preserving our musical heritage.
Trad & Tech Collide
A project of the Soundbone Traditional Arts Foundation (a non-profit that’s dedicated to teaching and preserving the musical, dance and storytelling traditions of Newfoundland and Labrador), the Musical Map is a result of several ideas colliding. It started about four years ago when Heather Patey, a traditional musician who is also on Soundbone’s board of directors, was having difficulty tracking down some different folk songs to sing, outside of the usual repertoire. She started digging through Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative (DAI), “which is amazing,” she says. “It has a huge, huge number of paper documents scanned in, and recordings and articles and theses. And it’s all completely available online for free.”
As she pored through songbooks and other materials, “I was getting seriously into the rabbit hole, finding out about this amazing stuff. And it really captured me,” Heather recalls. “But there was still an awful lot that I was just running into by accident, that was hard to find.”
A computer programmer who specialized in databases, Heather put her tech skills to use and spent several months transforming a scanned index from the DAI, titled “Newfoundland Songs and Ballads in Print 1842-1974,” into a searchable, clickable one. From there, she tracked down some of the old songbooks.
“Something that I wanted to be able to do was search across all of these sources – from the published works from the collectors who went around Newfoundland and Labrador with tape recorders, and paper and pencil in the ’20s… [to] the huge amount of professional recordings that have been done,” she says. “I built this up into a bit of a monster. But I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Meanwhile, Jean Hewson, a song instructor with Soundbone’s Vinland Music Camp and director of the Soundbone Folksong Choir, had been working on some musical projects of her own.
“One of the things that I had been doing was whenever I travelled, I would go and sing a song – like I sang a verse of ‘Pat Murphy’s Meadow’ while standing in Pat Murphy’s meadow – and I put that up on my social media… I did a few of these and they were quite popular,” she says.
Jean had a chat with Eric West, Soundbone’s president and artistic director. She proposed the idea to connect communities and folk songs “because it makes the song so much more personal when you’re standing in that space where those events happened,” she explained to him. They married this idea with Heather’s work and, with a grant from the province’s Come Home 2022 Cultural Funding, the Musical Map of Newfoundland and Labrador was born.
A Living Tradition
Launched at The Rooms in St. John’s in the summer of 2022, with an event that included performances by local musicians, the Musical Map currently includes 52 songs from all over the province, with plans to add more in the future. Visitors to the website (MusicalMapNL.ca) can click on a map pin to learn more about a location and the songs associated with it, or browse a song or location list. Included is the composer of the tune, background information and lyrics. Users can also listen to a recording of the song or watch a video of its performance, with information about the performers included and, in many cases, links to purchase their music.
“We wanted to make sure that there were opportunities for the users to give back to the artists… You know, if you like what you hear, go and find the artist and buy their music, see what they’re up to, go and see them perform,” Heather says.
Many hands were involved with pulling the various threads of the project tighter. Heather developed and maintains the website; Jean is the repertoire and artist consultant; Jane Dennison, who is also on Soundbone’s board and teaches traditional dance at the Vinland Music Camp, is the content researcher and editor (who also had the onerous task of tracking down copyright holders for permission to use particular songs); and Eric coordinated the project while his publishing house, Vinland Music, provided historical notes and lyrics for many of the featured songs. In addition, St. John’s-based musician Ian Foster recorded local musicians performing some of the tunes at his studio, while graphic artist Graham Blair created a poster and web page design for the project.
“I think for me, one of the important things was that we really get a good representation of performers from beyond the overpass,” Jean says, pointing to recordings by west coast artists and siblings Daniel and Stephanie Payne, as well as Paul Pike, a Mi’kmaq musician also from the west coast.
The Musical Map also highlights musicians who are helping carry the torch of traditional music, like Madison Mouland, a folk musician from Musgrave Harbour who’s also worked as a cultural ambassador with Soundbone. Featured on the map is a video of her performing her song “Sarah,” a true story about a young woman in the early 1900s who fell ill and died a week before her wedding.
“One of the nice things that I kind of appreciated as we were going through the process was the ongoing line of songs and songwriters in that style that are still telling stories, not just from the past, but from contemporary events and from their own lives. Like Dave Penny… who did a recording for us, and he’s written songs about historical events, but also comedic songs like ‘Chase the Ace’ up in Bay de Verde,” Jean says. “That’s the thing I really like about this map… it shows how it really is a living tradition.”
The Musical Map of Newfoundland and Labrador, say Jean and Heather, is for everyone, from tourists who want to learn more about the music associated with the communities they’re visiting, to local residents, researchers and youth working on heritage projects.
“We would like to encourage people to interact with us, too,” Jean says. “If there’s one thing that somebody would like to see, they could suggest it… the more we hear from people in terms of how they’re using it, or what they found as they were using it, or if they thought of any other information that would be useful, it would be really good to have that feedback from them.”