Print this Page
Newfoundland Folk Music
Newfoundland is the easternmost island in Canada and a part of the province of
Newfoundland and Labrador. As the last province to join Canada
in 1949, Newfoundland and Labrador has a proud, separate history
from the rest of the country similar to that of Québec. In addition,
Newfoundland holds one of the sites of the earliest European
exploration and settlement of North America, where Viking settlers
from Norway established a short-lived settlement around the
year A.D. 1000. Of course, populations of Native Americans have
lived in the area for thousands of years, and today they still
comprise roughly 2.9% of the population. The native groups include
the Inuit, the Micmac, and the Montagnais-Naskapi.
Most of the population today claims mixed English and Irish ancestry, followed by smaller numbers of Scottish and French ancestry. This breakdown reflects the cultural influence these countries have had on the music traditions of Newfoundland. The first Europeans arrived around 1500 to fish the waters off the coast, which teemed with cod and other sea life. For the next 400 years, cod and fishing in general dominated the lives of the people on the island. As a result many folk songs still sung today are about the life of a fisherman, such as "A Great Big Sea" and "The Herring." Because of its bountiful resources and its strategic location, the French and English fought over Newfoundland throughout its history, and today you can still hear both languages spoken and sung on the island.
The first Europeans to settle in Newfoundland sang songs and played tunes from their homelands, both while at work and at home. Through the years musicians gradually adapted these songs to fit the new lives they led in Newfoundland. Many songs came to center on lives that revolved around the sea. Music expressed personal feelings and experiences but also maintained a historical record of important events. Because of the isolation of fishing villages from one another, to a certain extent musical traditions developed in pockets around the island. The centers of culture in Newfoundland were the capital city and main port, St. John's, as well as Harbour Grace. Church choirs, military or civilian bands, and groups of amateurs musicians were active music makers in the community.
In the twentieth century, folk music in Newfoundland began to change as printed collections and eventually the radio helped to share music from village to village. Though the uniqueness of the village music traditions was lost, new musical possibilities suddenly opened for Newfoundlanders.
Following a common pattern in modern times, music styles from outside Newfoundland-such as jazz and rock-infiltrated and became a major part of the music culture. The folk traditions began to slip away from the collective memory.
Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s, Newfoundland experienced a revival of interest in its folk arts, including writing, visual art, and music. In part a backlash against greater Canadian cultural hegemony, musicians like Pamela Morgan, Anita Best, and the band Figgy Duff looked to the past and reinvented the older traditions for a new era. Figgy Duff, in particular, sought out older musicians and singers like Émile Benoit, Rufus Guinchard, and Minnie White to learn the traditional music directly from the source. With the help of Figgy Duff and others, these keepers of the tradition were able to tour the world sharing the music of the island. As a result musicians from Newfoundland began to receive recognition more widely from Canada and beyond, establishing the folk music traditions of Newfoundland as a separate but equally important part of Canadian culture.
Great Big Sea, whose four members play various combinations of mandolin, guitar, tin whistle, bouzouki, bodhran, and bass, is the most successful group to come out of Newfoundland of late. Mixing traditional Newfoundland tunes and original pop-oriented styles, Great Big Sea has done more than its share to bring Newfoundland folk music to new audiences both at home and in the rest of Canada. Another wave of interest has surrounded music from Native American communities. In addition to new recordings from neighboring Labrador, a group of Micmac musicians from Newfoundland recently released a recording of drum and choir music.
to Folk and Traditional Styles