Practised and performed for the parlour

Paul Sparkes
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Newfoundland’s choice of music in bygone years was not limited to rollicking sea songs

Fifty-five years ago, “one of Canada’s foremost interpreters of folk songs,” Alan Mills (1912-1977) wrote that some of the “inherited ballads from Ireland and the west of England were still sung in various forms in the villages that dot the rugged coasts of Newfoundland.”

The introduction to “Think on Me,” printed in 1931. These notes, introducing, as they did, a well-known tear-jerker, would certainly have brought a hush over an audience.

But, for the most part, Mills added, “the older gems have been replaced in the affections of the people by home-made songs which grew out of the minds and experiences … these are the true folk songs of Newfoundland, loved beyond all others and little known to outsiders.”

That was part of Mills’ introduction to the 50-page music book, “Favourite Songs of Newfoundland,” published by BMI Canada, whose copyright on our songs included “the right of public performance for profit.” (Good luck policing that!)  

Mills was right, of course. And he characterized the familiar songs composed here (often humorous, often keenly tragic) as “simple fare to be tossed off on the spur of the moment.”

All well and good. But the point I wish to make is that we have more music in our heritage — much more.

There are hundreds of songs which may not have been written here, but which were practised and performed here and held close to the mind and heart — and dearly loved.  

There was a time, for instance, when the words of “Think on Me” would not fail to bring a tear to the eye of a listener; and sure, I’m speaking of a time when sentimentality “sold” very well. There was a time when the  piano introduction to many a song could hush a roomful of people. A few chords, a scale, a trill and the anticipation was released. These were “parlour” songs with their precise wording and voice-challenging composition.

We not only had “times,” but also “concerts.” We not only sang the long and drawn-out tale of tragedy set to an easily absorbed score, but we aspired to the loftier — I have an old copy of the music and words for “Handel’s Messiah” with dog-earned pages and small pencil marks where the owner was reminding himself of where he was likely to trip. It was locally owned by a person who made biscuits for Purity Factories during the weekday. The well-marked pieces of Messiah were clearly studied and practised … “He was despise-ed, despise-ed and rejeck-ted. …”

Among the stacks of musty old sheet music on my lowest and widest shelf (I begrudgingly delegate storage space to them, but you can’t just pitch them out) I can easily turn up everything from “The Roses of Picardy” to the “Wiffenpoof Song.” I can flip through several volumes and find “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep” and that hopelessly mawkish song, “Woodman Spare That Tree.” And I can show you that “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls” was anything but mute in Grandmother’s day.

All these sheets and books were owned and used here — and by a variety of people. They are not all of single-family provenance.

Of real curiosity to me is a songbook (words with right-hand music only) in a homemade cover of red cloth and cardboard. It is missing any preamble, except some small print shows that it was entitled “The New National Song Book.” Penned across the top of the first song (“Begone, Dull Care!”) is Bishop Spencer College.

To my great surprise on thumbing through this book, apparently considered adequate and correct for use in a girls’ school, there is on Page 177 a song entitled “Marching to Candahar.” One of the verses goes like this:


Marching and Marching,

So swift and far by sun and star

Oh marching and marching

Away for Candahar.

They say she’s sore beset,

But through the Afghan net,

We boys will break, and no mistake

And save the city yet.

Google turned up this (in part): “The song commemorates a famous exploit from the Second Afghan War in 1880, where British troops under General Roberts rushed from Kabul to Kandahar to save the south of the country after a terrible defeat; it serves as a sudden and poignant reminder — this is not the first time we have been where we are now in Afghanistan.”

From serious matter we can flip a few pages for some fully ridiculous renderings. Please try to imagine some of the stalwarts of the Spencer faculty from the stage at assembly blending their voices to the following song:

When mighty roast beef

was the Englishman’s food,

It ennobled our hearts and

enriched our blood;

Our soldiers were brave and

our courtiers were good.

Oh! The roast beef of old England!

And oh! For old England’s roast beef!

Impossible to imagine, right? I would suspect this was one song that was never flung from that august body. I believe it was Samuel Johnson who said that a poem should be written about roast beef, but the above proves that his gauntlet should never have been picked up.

The Pennant was a runaway bestseller “way back.” It seemed always to be very much at home on the top of a piano. An American songbook, it was small, but held 126 pages replete with music of different countries and music for celebratory events. There were love songs, hymns, carols, children’s rounds and rhymes and, of course, tear-jerkers:

“Soldier Boy”;

“Go Down, Moses”;

“See-Saw Margery Daw”;

“I Ain’t Gwine Study War No More.”

I have a copy that, like its proud, current owner, has been coming apart at the seams for some years.

There were songs (a portion of one follows) that were designed to make the American pause by the cornucopia and become humble for a moment, sort of a lest we forget:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures

And count its many tears

While we all sup sorrow with the poor:

There’s a song that will linger forever

in our ears,

Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.


Familiar entertainment pieces included “Last night the nightingale woke me” and for sure, our good voices sang it here, even if we do not have nightingales, to say nothing of the fact that if we are awakened at night by birdsong, it would more likely be that of the crow:

I opened my window so gently,

I looked on the dreaming dew,

And oh, the bird, my darling,

was singing, singing,

Of you, of you.

“Dreaming dew”? Give me a break.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:

Organizations: BMI Canada, Google

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, England, Kabul Kandahar Afghanistan

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