By David Friend
The Canadian Press—Toronto
Traditional folk music thrives on being reshaped by each generation that embraces it, but Alan Doyle didn’t expect his Celtic-spirited song for Russell Crowe’s “Robin Hood” to take on a life of its own.
Nearly seven years after the Hollywood film was released, the former Great Big Sea frontman was clicking around on YouTube in search of a particular scene in which he belts out a hearty rendition of his tune “Row Me Bully Boys Row.” It lasts barely a minute, but Doyle thought hearing it might jog his memory so he could re-record it for his new album, “A Week at the Warehouse.”
He discovered many fans had come up with their own versions.
With little more than the chorus and a verse from the movie, singers from countries including Sweden and Ireland built an entire song. A trio from Poland amplified the gusto with guitars and violins, while another video showed a group from Alaska beatboxing a new storyline while dressed in traditional Irish garb.
“In some cases they used the lines from those couple of verses,” Doyle said in an interview. “In other cases, they completely rewrote their verses.”
As he recalled his discovery, the Newfoundlander rose from his seat and began waving his hands with expression, as if he was recounting a story for the ages.
“There were a couple of them I wanted to use they were so friggin’ good,” he said, while pacing behind his chair.
The musician stuck with his original lyrics for the retitled “Bully Boys,” which appears on his album, though he’s still electrified by the passion people have for the song. He draws parallels between YouTubers who perform covers and the timeless sharing of folk tales.
“They were the first viral sensation and that’s what’s so cool about that discovery,” he said.
“With or without the aid of viral Internet, folk tradition is still alive and well.”
Doyle injects a similar sense of mythos into his second book, “A Newfoundlander in Canada,” a collection of tall tales and good humour that extends beyond the storyline in his 2014 memoir, which recalled the culture shock of moving from the little fishing town of Petty Harbour to the comparably large St. Johns.
Most of this outing focuses on hitting the vast roads of Canada and flying the country’s skies — an entirely different feeling of being a fish out of water.
One story recalls the painful day when Great Big Sea was unknowingly booked in the opening slot for Barney the dinosaur. Not surprisingly, the audience of children preferred the purple entertainer over the folk band.
The musician found a catharsis of sorts in spilling old stories he gathered in journals years ago and others he more recently shared on his blog.
“Writing books is a strangely excellent companion to a travelling musician’s life just because you have so much time,” he said, listing the hours spent on tour buses, in lonely hotels and sipping cups at local coffee shops.
“I’m not really cut out for writing books for any other reason. My attention span is not that long and I get distracted very easily.”
Doyle could probably squeeze in another book over the coming months as he hits the road again. His latest tour speeds through a number of key Canadian cities over the next month before heading to the United States in January. Early next year he’ll also return to Canada for another round of shows.
All of that leaves little hope of a Great Big Sea reunion any time soon, though Doyle insisted he’s always willing to consider the option. The band parted ways after founding member Sean McCann decided to make some changes in his life, which included focusing on a solo career.
Doyle said that doesn’t mean he’s against getting back together at some point.
“I would love to do it if everybody wants to do it,” he said.
“I’ll do my own thing, that’s fine, and when everyone wants to do it, I’ll be the first guy there. I’ll sing the loudest.”