Forget Paddy’s Day — visit George Street any night of any week and you’re bound to find a live performance celebrating this province’s Irish roots. Bodhrans, tin whistles and songs like “Black Velvet Band” are part of many traditional Newfoundland band’s repertoire.
Ireland is not the only Old Country, though, says local musician Fergus O’Byrne.
“It seems to be, being from Ireland, that there’s always been this push of the connection between the Irish music and the Newfoundland music, which is good and which is true, but I sometimes feel that the British connection is lost in the shuffle sometimes, because of the population of St. John’s being so Irish-oriented,” said O’Byrne, a Dublin native who’s been living here for more than 30 years.
O’Byrne and the rest of the traditional band A Crowd of Bold Sharemen left earlier this week for England, where they’ll embark on an extensive tour as part of musical ties made with a group of English musicians, and a project celebrating the Newfoundland-England connection.
The Sharemen, also featuring musicians Jim Payne, Daniel Payne and Gerry Strong, were formed in 2001 to play at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival. Since that time, they have performed at the Juno Awards and East Coast Music Awards ceremonies, appeared at various festivals across the country and had successful tours of Ireland and Australia, including Tasmania.
Last summer, A Crowd of Bold Sharemen and Wren Music — a cultural organization based in Okehampton, Devon, England, which claims the celebration of cultural identities as part of its mission — produced a mini-tour and workshops in this province, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Cupids, the first permanent English settlement in Canada.
This month, the same type of events are happening in England. Together with Wren Music musicians, the Sharemen will travel England on a concert tour and will participate in workshops for local singers and instrumentalists in the different regions of the country.
“I’ve been working with Wren Music on various projects since 1983, highlighting these musical and cultural ties between our two regions,” Jim Payne said. “In fact, the first time was with (fiddler) Rufus Guinchard when he and I toured regions of the West Country of England. At that time, I was quite taken with the close connection Rufus had with local musicians over there.”
There’s a big connection between Newfoundland and England, O’Byrne explained, just as huge as our Irish connection.
“The songs are so close. The prime example of that, and we used it when we did the tour last year, is ‘We’ll Rant and We’ll Roar,’ which is ‘Farewell and Adieu to You, Spanish Ladies,’ an English maritime song,” he said.
“It seems to be, being from Ireland, that there’s always been this push of the connection between the Irish music and the Newfoundland music, which is good and which is true, but I sometimes feel that the British connection is lost in the shuffle sometimes, because of the population of St. John’s being so Irish-oriented.” - Fergus O’Byrne
The earliest known reference to “Farewell and Adieu” is in 1796.
The chorus of the song goes:
“We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors
We’ll rant and we’ll roar on all the salt sea
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of England
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues.
“The similarities of the repertoires of singers and musicians from both areas is uncanny,” said Wren Music’s Marilyn Tucker. “As an organization (which) celebrates cultural identifies, we are delighted to host our Newfoundland friends, A Crowd of Bold Sharemen, on this tour of England, and are excited with the prospects of introducing our audiences over here to the wonderful music and stories that your province has maintained and held dear to your hearts over centuries.”
While the connection with Newfoundland isn’t as widely known in England as it is in Ireland, O’Byrne said, there are pockets of England where it is recognized, and not just in terms of music.
“Jim and I have been back and forth over there at least six times over the past 10 years, and toured both the Yorkshire area, where they don’t know so much about Newfoundland, and down around the Devon and Dorset areas, down in Poole and Torquay, and people are aware of Newfoundland and you can see references to Newfoundland,” he explained. “Poole has a Newfoundland House, and there used to be a place called the Newfoundland Hotel. It was an inn house where people used to stay when they were catching the boat over to Newfoundland.”
The English tour will feature a mix of jigs, reels, polkas, ballads, sea shanties and work songs as well as contemporarys songs documenting current social and environmental situations in both Newfoundland and England, combined with folk tales and recitations.
The tour will also coincide with the release of the CD “Shore to Shore,” featuring the local and English musicians.
The hope, O’Byrne said, is to engage English musicians and to introduce Newfoundland music and culture as similar to their own.
“It’s really all about passing the music on to the next generation, and spreading this indigenous music, you might call it, from Newfoundland, in our case, out to the general population and letting them know that it’s a strong culture that deserves to be preserved.”