A reluctant hero

Ray Walsh being presented with Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Published on August 3, 2013

Legendary musician Ray Walsh will be honoured by the Newfoundland and Labrador Art’s Society with a lifetime achievement award during the 37th annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival Aug. 9-11. — Photo by Keith Gosse/ The Telegram

By Tara Bradbury The Telegram “Accordion folk hero,” is how the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Arts Society describes Bay de Verde native Ray Walsh, although Walsh is not so sure the description applies. Still, he’s honoured and proud to be accepting the society’s award for lifetime achievement, to be presented next weekend at the 37th annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival. “Ray Walsh is one of the best-known and most recognized accordion players in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Tom Power, board member of the festival, in a written statement. “He has always been a proud advocate of traditional music in this province, however, there is nothing more wonderful than listening to the passion and enthusiasm which Ray shares though his performances.” Walsh can’t quite remember when he started playing music. His father and grandfather were both fiddlers and he played it, too, though he admits it wasn’t always the most fashionable instrument, and he later picked up the guitar. “It was all about Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and, later on, Elvis, back then,” Walsh explained, “and the guitar was the thing to play. Elvis didn’t play the fiddle.” Walsh would often be among the musicians playing at dances in the local hall, choosing the accordion, he said, because it was louder. He got his first broadcast exposure in the 1960s, on CBC Radio’s “Saturday Night Jamboree.” As a young teacher in Marystown, where he found the accordion was popular, Walsh came across a piano accordion for the first time, and fell in love with it, learning to play. For a year or so, he performed with The Marystown Band, first on drums, and later on guitar (“I was an absolutely terrible drummer. I had never seen a set of drums in my life but wanted to get in a band so bad,” he explained), and went on to become a featured performer on the musical variety TV show “All Around the Circle.” Starting out as a program only seen in Newfoundland in 1964, “All Around the Circle” was broadcast to a national audience through a regional exchange, picking up a regular slot on the national network in 1973. One of the show’s benefits, Walsh said, was that it legitimized Newfoundland traditional music in the eyes of some. Walsh’s broadcast experience happened by fluke, he said, after he moved into St. John’s to teach and go to MUN. A guy staying in the same boarding house as he was had a connection at the CBC, which led him into radio and then television. National exposure was a big deal to him, Walsh said. “To go from a fellow who played guitar in a little band to national TV was really, really something,” he explained. “I had always been quite a shy person — I’d play in the parish hall in Bay de Verde which could fit 150 people, but was at least as big as Maple Leafs Gardens, and I’d be nervous. I still don’t think it’s something you ever get over; you just learn to deal with it. I’m always wondering what’s going to go wrong and generally, something always does, but at this point, everything that could go wrong already has, so I know how to deal with it. “I think if you’re not a little bit uptight before you go on stage, you just don’t care.” Moving back to Bay de Verde with his family in 1983, Walsh taught high school, ended up as a school principal, and conducted school choirs. He also played in church, and reckons he played for every wedding and every funeral in the area over a 20-year period. He has played on countless local recordings as a session musician, and has toured with the likes of Joan Morrissey, Anna McGoldrick and Kevin Collins, with whom he will embark on an Arts and Culture Centre tour of the province this fall. In the mid-90s, Walsh started the Walsh Family Band with his brother Ron, son Greg and daughter Michelle, with brother Gerard and nephew Neil also joining in at a certain point. The band plays at venues and festivals across the province and has a handful of full-length recordings of traditional and original tunes under its belt, in addition to “Generations,” a special album put together by Walsh and Greg of songs and tunes passed down through four generations of their family. The family band is still going strong, and a new generation has started to be included: the Walshes performed at the Burin Folk Festival earlier this summer, and Walsh’ young granddaughter, Maggie, sang. Traditional Newfoundland music might be his first love, but it’s not the only music he’s interested in. Walsh said he’s played just about everything, from country western to the twist. “If you’re going to be professional or semi-professional in music in Newfoundland and Labrador, you learn to play everything. If you’re being paid to play, you learn to play what people want to hear.” Walsh was presented with the Stompin’ Tom Award for lifetime achievement by the East Coast Music Association, the first award he said he ever received for his music, in 2009. The awards are given out annually during East Coast Music Week to the unsung heroes of the music industry in Atlantic Canada. When it comes to next week’s award, Walsh doesn’t have a speech written, and said he’ll probably come up with something a few minutes before he gets up on stage. He doesn’t consider the award — or any award — to be a solo recognition, and he wants people to know that. “An award usually has one person’s name on it, but a lot of people behind it,” he explained. “There are a lot of people who have contributed to this as much as I have, and I’d like to thank them. I’d also like to thank the countless people who’ve called or emailed me about the award. I supposed you’d call them fans — because I don’t have that many relatives.” This year’s Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival will take place in Bowring Park (due to ongoing renovations in Bannerman Park) Aug. 9-11. Tickets are available online at ticketpro.ca, by calling 1-888-311-9090, and in person in St. John’s at the MUNSU Copy Centre, University Centre, O’Brien’s Music Store, the Heritage Shop in the Avalon Mall and Brewed on Bernard in Corner Brook. A full schedule can be found at www.nlfolkfestival.com. tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury