Songs for Newfoundland

Patrick Butler
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You know the songs. They’re the ones that seem to have been programmed into our DNA.

Ones like “I Had a Hat When I Came In,” “Whiskey In the Jar” and “We’ll Rant and We’ll Roar.” Songs whose titles we’re almost embarrassed about but still cherish as part of the fabric that forms our communal quilt.  

They’re basically anthems — songs that seem to ooze Newfoundlandia. And their collective appeal can always be depended on to draw a crowd and get people dancing.

They’re our songs.

I spent a Saturday night a couple weekends ago at Holyrood’s 26th annual Squidfest — a celebration of all things squid-related. Squidfest turned out to be a real trove of local talent, from Corner Brook band Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case to a drink tent stocked with Whitbourne’s Rodrigues wines.

But it was Shanneygannock and the dance tunes everybody wanted to hear that were the main attraction — as is often the case for any Newfoundland and Labrador summer festival, bar perhaps the ones with beer tents.

The band started with Newfoundland tunes and the crowd responded.

Pretty soon, people were waltzing, belting out lyrics and jumping up and down. The party had begun.

There is a certain pride that comes with connecting with your culture — whether it be through music or other means. But when a group of strangers can connect based on a shared experience that resonates with them, that’s something special.

That said, it’s true Newfoundland music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

I’ll admit, despite this column, I’m not an overly avid “jigs and reels” listener.

But those songs are part of who we are and what we identify with culturally.

They are unifying factors unlike any other cultural phenomenon. As soon as a Newfoundland song comes on, there’s that instant connection.

Nothing else needs to be said — we’ve arrived.

People talk about Newfoundland and Labrador’s disappearing culture, what with the province’s continuing rural exodus and the ubiquitous reach of pop culture. Fewer young people seem to be playing traditional instruments and fewer seem to be traditional music listeners.

But despite Newfoundland music’s apparent receding tide, it remains an extremely powerful unifying cultural factor for the province.

People in this province — by and large proud to live where they do on the edge of the world, and aware of how they’ve survived it all — are determined to preserve and celebrate the songs that have helped them get to where they are today.

The common connection and the enjoyment shared through traditional music — no more easily recognized than at concerts like Squidfest, the Kelligrews Soiree and the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival — is astonishing.

People revel in their culture, partly because the music is fun and the drink tent is open, but also because the songs they’re singing and dancing to are their very own.

With our wealth of traditional songs and artists, we have something special in Newfoundland and Labrador not replicated in much of Canada.

Our culture is one to be extremely proud of — and we are proud of it, although we may take it for granted every now and again.

The fact remains that we feel something whenever we wail “The Islander” at a show or hear “Song for Newfoundland” on the radio. How could we not?

There is a deep connection between us, the ground we’re standing on and the music the mix of those two has created.

And I don’t think that’s going anywhere soon.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.

Organizations: Carleton University

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Corner Brook, Canada

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