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A John White profile from 1990

For this weeks Photo Feature, I present a portrait of the late John White, taken in May of 1990 for the cover of The Newfoundland Signal. The photo was also used on the cover of Whites album release a year or two later. Since I wrote a cover story to accompany this photo, I am posting that too. At more than 1,800 words, its a long piece but one of the few features that were written about John White in his declining years. (A bit later, Ted Blades of CBC Radios On The Go did a nice interview with John which was rebroadcast recently it was a pleasure to hear his voice again but I dont think it is archived online.) While John Whites story is tragic and its a crime that his final years were marred by poverty, some of his problems were self-inflicted. For example, he invested tremendous time and hope in writing commercial jingles for which there was no market. However, I think John also suffered from living through a time when people looked down their noses at Newfoundland traditional music. When this music saw a resurgence, through groups like Figgy Duff, Red Island and Wonderful Grand Band, he was not part of the wave. Yes, he received plenty of accolades, and some work his rendition of Signal Hill for Pigeon Inlet is a classic but not enough to make a living. The Newfoundland Signal was a weekly arts and entertainment magazine/TV guide that appeared in The Sunday Express for less than a year (remind me to tell you that story some day) so this article was written in Express style. Back then, we used honorifics such as Mr. or Ms. in front of names, which looks odd today but I am leaving it intact to remain true to the original. If I go in and start changing things I would probably rewrite everything, and that would be cheating. Around the circle: John White is starting over John White wants back in. The fast-talking folk singer has one of Newfoundlands most famous faces, and without doubt the most distinctive voice. His renown was built largely on the success of All Around the Circle, a show of traditional and folk music that aired for 12 years, and on a reasonably successful recording career (although Mr. White claims he never did receive a fair shake on royalties.) Alarming numbers of strangers still stop him on the street, to say hello or shake his hand, as if he were an old friend. But being recognizable doesnt pay the bills. And to be blunt, Mr. White could use the cash. Right now, hes collecting unemployment insurance. That soon will be running out though, Mr. White said in an interview with The Newfoundland Signal. To earn his UI stamps, Mr. White worked in the canteen at the Longside Club in St. Johns, a social centre for handicapped and disadvantaged people. He may yet be working there again. And some people think thats a shame. Musician Sandy Morris worked with White on numerous TV programs (including All Around the Circle and The Root Cellar) and toured with him around the province in nightclubs and concert halls. In an interview, Mr. Morris said Mr. White has compiled a great archive of Newfoundland folk material , and that he hasnt been accorded due recognition for his achievements. A lot of people dont take him seriously, Mr. Morris said. People seemed to send him up because of his style, but I think anybody who is unique, their style will often get (parodied). If somebodys got something thats different from everybody else, then people tend to laugh at it I think thats what happened to John: people didnt take him seriously. But he is a serious dude, in terms of his ability to entertain When hes hot and hes on, no one can even come close to him. Mr. Morris said Mr. Whites vocal style has left an indelible mark on his musical consciousness: Whenever I hear a song on the radio, Im always thinking of the John White version of it. I can just hear John singing Rod Stewarts greatest hits, you know what I mean? Its actually true: I keep thinking in terms of John singing Gilbert and Sullivan, even. He does have a unique style and you can identify the man, no matter what he puts his voice to. Local folk singer-songwriter Jim Payne said Mr. White is one of the few people who kept singing Newfoundland traditional songs all through the 60s, when such music fell from favour. Mr. Payne said he was a child when he first heard John Whites voice, on a commercial jingle for Fleischmanns yeast. I had heard a lot of songs sort of around the house and around the community, where people were into traditional music and that, but in a way it gave it an added boost just because I actually heard it on the radio, said Mr. Payne. And I remember being kind of amazed that this was a song I had heard my father sing. Mr. Payne said John White was pivotal in keeping a treasure of folk music alive, despite a period when people belittled his music and looked upon him as a caricature. And he wasnt making a great deal of money at it either He obviously had a deep connection with and a deep love for the music. Mr. Payne agreed that John Whites contribution to Newfoundland music has not been recognized. To my mind he fulfilled part of the same role as Rufus (Guinchard) did with the tunes by keeping them going through all these years I would like to see him given credit In a way, hes solely the reason why what we now call the popular Newfoundland songs are popular today because John recorded them back in the 60s. They were some of the first Newfoundland songs on records I think more people realize (his contribution) now, for instance, that they did while he was doing it. Mr. White said its hard to say whether hes been snubbed by history. But nobody calls me anymore, unless its something to do with charity work which I dont mind doing, of course. Now, Mr. White is plotting a comeback on several fronts: he has plans to release a cassette this summer, and would like to publish a book of verse. He talks of starting an import-export business with his brother. But most of his attention is being turned to marketing his vast collection of commercial jingles, a venture he dabbled with during the 60s. Unlike the shorter snatches of music and verse most of us associate with jingles, Mr. Whites compositions are long, rambling ballads that detail what the respective company is and who it purports to serve. They are cumbersome ditties that defy the usual commercial conventions which can be a blessing, in that the ads would stand above the usual commercial din of radio and TV. Mr. Whites distinctive voice is indeed an attention grabber as long as it remains a novelty. Which is the least of his worries right now. Mr. White has written a total of 5,997 jingles thus far, he said, each geared to specific Newfoundland businesses. The only problem is, he has yet to sell a single jingle. The codfish lays a thousands eggs; the homely hen lays one, Mr. White said, slipping into verse. The codfish never cackles to tell you what hes done. And so we scorn the codfish, while the clucking hen we prize. This only goes to show, it pays to advertise. A self-confessed corner boy, Mr. White was born February 3 1930, and grew up in the west end of St. Johns (he still lives in the west end, in a Patrick Street home he shares with his mother and brother). He began singing at age six in the Holy Cross School Choir, and soon joined the church choir (where he continued to sing until just a few years ago). He quit school at age 15 to work at the old Bennett Brewery, where he worked for 20 years. Mr. White said he didnt always talk as fast as he does now, but he did have a stuttering problem: When you try to get something out in a hurry you try to get a whole paragraph out in one sentence, and you get confused. His staccato style of speech is just a gimmick, he claimed, that he can slow down for public speaking engagements and the like. (If it is a gimmick, its one he never turns off: he must certainly be dogged by the phrases Pardon me? and What was that again? everywhere he goes.) Like many professional entertainers, Mr. White entered the business full time when he realized that people actually got paid for performing. In 1958, Mr. White was approached by the people at VOCM, who recorded several of his songs and put them on the air, sandwiched between the popular hits of the day. They gave me a call six months later and asked me to do a record VOCMs John White, it was called. Then CBC Radio approached him and Mr. White became a regular on the program Saturday Jamboree for 10 years. When CBC Television appeared on the scene in October of 1964, he auditioned for a spot on All Around the Circle. I put on a pair of overalls and an old raglan with the salt n pepper cap and the pipe, and went up in front of the camera, he said. And you wouldnt know if I had been in front of the camera all my life. The secret to looking relaxed on television, Mr. White said, is to pretend the camera is a private audience of one person. Otherwise youd be nervous. If you knew you were playing to a million people, like down at the Regatta, all looking at you, itd be like, Oh my God! But I think of one person and thats it. All Around the Circle enjoyed a 12-year run before being cancelled in 1976, and for some time was aired nationally on Saturday nights after the hockey game. The All Around the Circle era was followed by regular appearances on a string of locally-produced variety shows too numerous to list. Over the years, Mr. White has recorded a total of eight albums, all of which should now be considered collectors items. In an interview With The Sunday Express last fall, Mr. White claimed that he has never received his fair share of royalties from record sales (a director of the now-defunct record company that signed him said Mr. White didnt sell enough albums to recoup recording costs). And there were numerous live shows, With various players all over the province, though St John's was his favorite haunt. Mr. White worked for years and years at the old Porthole (later Paddy's Inn) on Water Street West, and the Horseshoe on Duckworth Street. Mr. White said there was a time when he knew everybody in a club, and could address most of his audience by name. That's gone, all gone, he acknowledged. Theres not much call for local entertainment when you have (recorded music) and artificial drum machines... You cant ask a machine to request a song: John, give us The Star of Logy Bay. You cant ask that from a machine. Whats there is there and thats it. The intimacy is gone. His only marriage came to a bitter conclusion, and Mr. White refuses to discuss it. When All Around the Circle came to an end, Mr. White threw himself full time into writing his jingles, an endeavour he has pursued off and on over the years. Mr. White said he intends to publish a book of traditional and original verse someday, paid for by the subjects of his stable of jingles, who would see their respective jingles interspersed with the books topical material. The upcoming cassette release, Mr. White said, will be a compilation of previously released material and excerpts from All Around the Circle. Fittingly enough, the tape will be titled John White: Alive and Well. In addition, Mr. White said he is forming a company called I'se Da B'y, in partnership with his brother Edward White, which will import exotic products from Europe and Asia and export Newfoundland souvenirs. As well, he claimed he and his brother have been appointed local agents for the largest bankruptcy dealer in Canada. But all these things are plans - they havent happened yet, or havent begun to bear fruit. John White is starting from scratch. Im not dead yet... People tend to forget after a while, you know what I mean? Youve got to create a new image now again, see. And this is the way to do it - put out the cassette, try to sell my music. Of course, with this article being published, that may help.

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  • Shawn
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    I hope you print more stuff like this, that was enjoyable but tragic. It is nice to read about the older guard. I am of course aware of Mr White and his style, enjoy his tunes, what I've heard, it's nice to get to read stuff like this. What NFLD needs is a music hall of fame, if they don't already have one. Many musicians from the past need recognition for what they've done. MUSICNL does their thing whic is great, but a permanent exhibit thing would be pretty nice.
    Anyway, hope you have more stuff like this in our pocket!