A song can summon so many memories.
That was the case Monday afternoon at Alderwood Estates in Witless Bay. Several residents of the retirement home, all from St. Mary’s Bay, got to reminisce about the region they grew up in during a visit by Jocelyn Kelland, daughter of Otto Kelland, who’s song “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s” has become one of the most iconic Newfoundland and Labrador songs ever penned.
Kelland was at Alderwood Estates participating in its visiting author series.
Residents, Helen McAvoy (Admirals Beach), Bride Martin (St. Vincent’s), Elizabeth Lee (Riverhead) and Teresa Bowen (Gulch) were stirred by memories as Kelland led them through several readings from books by her late father as well as a stirring rendition of the song that has evoked emotion in this province for more than 70-years.
“It’s heartwarming that this song and his works still means something to people today,’’ Kelland said.”
“Just hearing Teresa and Bride, these new stories. Teresa’s story was heartwarming, I almost cried, but I was able to hold it together.”
“On the day my husband was buried, we had gathered at the graveside and they sang ‘Let Me Fish of Cape St. Mary’s’ as he was lowered into the grave.”
Teresa Bowen’s story was especially poignant as it was Kelland’s 1947 song that was used to bury her husband.
“I have sung that song hundreds of times. You know, you have a few drinks and it was on,’’ Bowen said. “On the day my husband was buried, we had gathered at the graveside and they sang ‘Let Me Fish of Cape St. Mary’s’ as he was lowered into the grave. They lowered him to the tempo of the song so that when it was over, he had reached his place. It took away from the sadness that was tearing my heart apart. I listened to the words and it gave me some peace.”
Bowen said her husband and her brother were both fishermen, so her ties to the fishing life are strong.
Like Kelland’s work, Bride Martin’s legacy will also live on in her community.
The retired teacher from St. Vincent’s started a fisherman’s museum there in the 1980s.
“I saw the decline in the fishery had started and wanted to do something to make sure we remembered it,’’ she said. “It was wonderful. I got one of the oldest houses there, and any help I wanted, I got.”
She said she was able to accumulate an array of items quite quickly to display in the museum, including the type of enamel mug commonly used by fishermen in those days, a china dish, trawls and jiggers, and many items that are not in use today.
“It is able to tell the story of the fishery as it was years ago and all through the years,” she said.
The value of the museum is not lost on Kelland, who has visited it on a number of occasions.
“I love museums and the one Bride did is done so beautifully. All of the displays are marked so well. It means a lot that she takes the time to do that. It expresses the people’s lives along the coastline,” Kelland said.
Her father and Bride corresponded on a number of occasions and he donated one of his model boats — a dory — to her museum.
Helen McAvoy’s husband and brothers were all fishermen.
She was pleased to be part of the visiting author’s event as it spurred her to think back to her days in her home community and her ties to the sea.
“I used to love going out on the boats to haul in the nets,’’ she said.
Elizabeth Lee said her father left home and went to the United States in his younger days, where he worked on the big boats. Once he came home, he started to build boats and work in the fishery.
“I am a fisherman’s daughter. My father was a boat-builder who made small boats – dories and motorboats,’’ she said.
All About Otto
Otto Kelland was born in 1904 in Lamaline and died in Flatrock just a month shy of turning 100.
He worked as a police officer with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, served as warden and superintendent at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary and he and his wife raised 10 children.
“Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s” is full of romanticism and fatalism about the sea. He wrote the song in 1947 after having a conversation with a homesick sailor, taking a mere 20 minutes to write it.
In addition, he wrote several books, including “Dories and Dorymen” and “Strange and Curious: Unusual Newfoundland Stories”, as well as a book of poetry, “Bow Wash.”
Kelland was also a hobby model shipbuilder. His attention to detail on the ship’s models made them widely sought by craft collectors. And he spent 10 years as this province’s master shipbuilder, a position he was recruited for by Joey Smallwood. Many of Kelland’s models are still on display at sites around the province, including the Marine Institute.
“Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s” has been recorded by more than a dozen artists and performed by countless choirs and symphonies. And, with its depiction of the hardships of working on the sea, the song resonates with people in the province — even those who’ve never fished in their lives; it’s a throwback to a simpler time.
Kelland was named to the Order of Canada for his contributions to Newfoundland culture in 1994.
“Keeping Dad’s memory alive is vitally important for me and the rest of my family,” said Jocelyn Kelland.
“I’m happy for the opportunity to do that and to remember the people from St. Mary’s Bay, who worked on the ocean.”
Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s
— By Otto P. Kelland
Take me back to my western boat
Let me fish off Cape St. Mary’s
Where the hog-down sail and the fog horns wail
With my friends the Browns and the Clearys
Let me fish off Cape St. Mary’s
Let me feel my dory lift
To the broad Atlantic combers
Where the tide rip swirls and the wild ducks whirl
And old Neptune calls the numbers
'Neath the wild Atlantic combers
Let me sail up Golden Bay
With my oilskins all a-streaming
From the thunder squalls when I hauled my trawls
And my old Cape Ann a-gleaming
With my oilskins all a-streaming
And let me view that ragged shore
With the beaches all a-glisten
With the caplin spawn where from dusk till dawn
You bait your trawn, and you listen
To the undertow a-hissin’
And when I reach that last big shoal
Where the groundswells break asunder,
Where the wild sands roll to the surge’s toll
Let me be a man and take it
When my dory fails to make it
Oh take me back to that snug green cove
Where the seas roll up their thunder
There let me rest in the Earth’s cool breast
Where the stars shine out their wonder
And the seas roll up their thunder