Another feller to publish his story

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Musician Ray Johnson writing about influences

From Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, Ray Johnson is working to complete a first book. Beginning as a text on song, it has transformed into a biographical work tentatively titled, "... And I Owe it All to Bridget and John."

"The first kind of thing I came up with was 'A Breath of Newfoundland' and I was really kind of dealing strictly with music. As time went on and I was beginning to write more and I typed the song 'Bridget and John' ... I said yes, this has got to change. This got to be written based on who I lived with, what they passed on to me by means of a bit of history, history in story, picture and song."

Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers (from left) Ray Johnson, Wayne Chaulk and Kevin Blackmore in St. Johns in August 2008. File photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram - File photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

From Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, Ray Johnson is working to complete a first book. Beginning as a text on song, it has transformed into a biographical work tentatively titled, "... And I Owe it All to Bridget and John."

"The first kind of thing I came up with was 'A Breath of Newfoundland' and I was really kind of dealing strictly with music. As time went on and I was beginning to write more and I typed the song 'Bridget and John' ... I said yes, this has got to change. This got to be written based on who I lived with, what they passed on to me by means of a bit of history, history in story, picture and song."

Johnson has made the book about his influences. Some of those noted, like Robert Service, were popular figures. However, the bulk of those he credits with molding his interest in poetry, song and performance are locals. For example, there's Francis Colbert of Jobs Cove.

"Mr. Francis Colbert was a writer of recitations himself and 'Jobs Cove Rock' was one of them of which I would recite. But it was through him that I was inspired, like my mom and dad who were dancers and singers - he inspired me to go to recite other recitations beside what he had written."

Johnson describes his mom and dad, his adoptive parents Bridget and John, as his most significant influences.

Speaking with The Telegram, he is open about his adoption and birth family.

"There was five of us all together," he said of his natural siblings. "We had the same mom, but we each had a different dad and the only child who actually lived with our birth mother was my brother Leonard, a gentleman who died in Salmon Cove. He was on a holiday one weekend and unfortunately there was a terrible cabin fire. Him and his son-in-law died in that fire.

"I had one sister who went to Roaches Line at an early age and she died at 13. I had a sister who was reared up by Mrs. Brennan in Ship Cove. Myself, I was taken to Jobs Cove when I was three, but adopted when I was five - by the parents that I'm referring to in my book. And John Ryan, who I met after my brother died. I was soul-searching for a brother we knew of but couldn't make contact, but after Leonard died, we found John Ryan, who was living in Cape Royal."

Johnson's sister in Ship Cove was the only sibling he had connected with before the death of his brother Leonard.

"The only time I made contact was with my sister and that happened because, when I recorded my first album in '69-70, I used to get a lot of mail, especially from young girls. I was young then, of course. And one of the letters indicated at the bottom, 'Your loving sister Barbara,' and that's how I got to know my sister. After I got back from Halifax - that's where I was going to college - I made contact and found her."

Johnson had left home for the college experience. Attending the College of Trades and Technology in St. John's in 1968, "from '68 to '69 I took my course in commercial art and graduated and then went on to NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) in Nova Scotia."

Having developed a love of music and performance at home, "I recorded six albums in Halifax while I was attending college," he said.

"'Fishing in a Dory,' of course, you may have heard of it, became a hit song. This all started long before meeting with Buddy Wasisname."

The musician learned the business of music through his early recordings. They were lessons he would take home with him when he returned to Newfoundland in 1976.

"At that time, a lot of down east music was being recorded by labels like Art Records and Audio Atlantic - whom I recorded for. The sad thing about all of that was that they'd get you in the studio and sometimes ... the first album didn't have a chance to materialize in terms of selling enough copies to convince people that this was something worthwhile. They'd get you in and have you make more."

He estimated he made "at the most $2,500" from his mainland work.

"It was time for me to start waking up to the fact that if I do form a band, I get together with someone, that we'd look at royalties and we'd make sure that we weren't taken to the cleaners and give things time to materialize."

In part to supplement his income, Johnson taught part-time for three years while at school, before he left Halifax.

After returning to Newfoundland, he took an art teaching position in Glovertown. He taught at the school for the next 11 years.

"Of course, the rest is history, because that's where I met with the boys," Johnson said.

Eventual author of "Saltwater Joys," Wayne Chaulk, knocked on Johnson's art room door one lunchtime. He was aware of Johnson's musical experiences and the two began playing tunes together. Johnson said the two "found Kevin Blackmore" in town.

"We were asked, the three of us were asked, to do something for an assembly at the school. We got out and did our thing and it was complete magic. The ceiling opened up in the classroom, the clouds opened up and there was a voice that cut me in for 10 per cent," Johnson deadpanned, breaking into a laugh a moment later. "I can't put it any better than that."

The group practised in Johnson's classroom in the evenings, they began playing "little sheltered pubs" and, by 1984, were travelling to Gander and Clarenville.

In 1985, the group played in Toronto and were a hit with the crowd. A year leave of absence from school ran into a second year and, instead of asking for a third year, the teachers left teaching to become full-time performers in 1987.

However, emphasizes Johnson, he could never have been another feller without his home in Jobs Cove - without the influence of his rural community and of his adoptive parents.

"Because my dad was a musician himself, he was playing the accordion, it was from his first attempt at showing me how to play it that he went out and purchased an instrument for me and from that I was able to gradually get into more playing. And because mom was a dancer, both of them were dancers, you can see how all of this started to build up in that home from 1950 up to 1969, when I went away.

"If I didn't go to that home, maybe I wouldn't be what I am today. I might be off somewhere else in some other direction. But I think I'm blessed to have been able to find two people like that, who took me into their home and reared me up as best they could. And I want to share that story because I'm sure there's other people out there who were kind of molded or brought up the same way," he said.

Johnson said the book is set to be released by DRC Publishing sometime in early fall.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, College of Trades and Technology, Johnson's Robert Service Cape Royal DRC Publishing

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Halifax, Ship Cove Salmon Cove Nova Scotia Glovertown Gander Clarenville Toronto

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  • Janet
    July 02, 2010 - 13:35

    That is such a beautiful story & I will be buying the Book for sure when it comes out.

  • Janet
    July 01, 2010 - 20:25

    That is such a beautiful story & I will be buying the Book for sure when it comes out.