Writer of jovial songs also had a serious side

Published on February 17, 2014

"Our sons, a part of us, went forth to slay their brothers, and themselves were slain.”

The line is from “Exchange,” a poem written at the 1937 dedication of a war memorial in Bonne Bay. The war which it memorialized had by then been over nearly 20 years. The next war would commence in two years’ time. After that, more memorials would be erected and more tears shed upon cold marble.

It is hard to believe that the author of the poem was the same person who wrote what is arguably our best-loved folksong, “The Squid Jiggin’ Ground.” That is a happy, jovial folksong, celebrating with a barely disguised love the foibles and strengths of the men who hauled in squid for bait from the waters around Change Islands, Notre Dame Bay.

Arthur Scammell was a teenager — a boy of 15 — when he wrote “Squid Jiggin’ Ground.” To my mind, the song is amazing for its gentle but keen and endearing insights — “The man with the whiskers is old Jacob Steele, he’s getting well up, but he’s still pretty sound,” “There’s poor Uncle Billy, his whiskers are spattered with spots of the squid juice that’s flyin’ around” — as mini portraits they would be appreciated. But they are to be cherished, coming as they did from the pen of a teenager.  

Scammell was born a century ago in Change Islands and he lived to age 82. Since his “Squid Jiggin’ Ground” is so well known (he also wrote the “Six Horsepower Coaker”: “You fishermen free that go forth on the sea, with your engines of various makes”) and his other creative efforts are not so well known, it came to me as something of a jolt to read some of his more serious thoughts.

In the poem “Exchange,” he places the yearning for lost sons into the thoughts of mothers who are bringing beautiful and real flowers to a cold and unresponsive memorial. It is a poor exchange. They gave their “laughing, keen-eyed men who loved all life” and the memorial gives nothing back.

War, Scammell says in verse, “takes its food from hungry, human hearts and gives them in return, dead things of clay, as cold as this white stone.”

The poem struck me as more sobering today than if I had read it when it was newly written, for Scammell lost a brother in the Second World War. Bernard Thomas Scammell had gone out from Notre Dame Bay and joined the Royal Air Force — a band that had a way of thrusting young men violently into death’s inexorable path.

Because there is an association of my family with Scammell’s, I know the death of Bernard Thomas was deeply felt. My father taught at Change Islands and as he was older than both Scammell boys, he may well have taught them. In those times, the teacher could easily be a mere two or three years older than the pupil.

Art Scammell went “all the way through school” as the saying once was; studied at Memorial University College, earned an honours BA in English at McGill, taught in Newfoundland and subsequently at Montreal where he headed the English department of Mount Royal High School.

He earned a Master’s at the University of Vermont and in 1977 was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws by Memorial University. In 1966 he wrote “A Newfoundland Come Home Song” and published a book of stories, poems and songs (“My Newfoundland”) through Harvest House, Montreal. This book was used in schools in Quebec and Newfoundland. In 1987 he published a small book through Harry Cuff Publications, “From Boat to Blackboard.” It, too, was stories, poems and songs.

If Scammell could write lines such as the one that starts this column, he also had within him a wonderful, and undoubtedly, curative sense of humour. I will never forget the little story which comes from a car trip he and his wife Rellie (Isabelle Butt) took in western Newfoundland when he had retired from his long teaching career.

Driving on from a roadside lunch, Mrs. Scammell soon apprised her husband of the necessity of finding “a rest stop.” There were not many such opportunities for the travelling public in Newfoundland at the time. Art drove on, absent-mindedly. Rellie made her position more abundantly clear.

On an impulse, Art pulled the car into a tiny parking spot in front of an equally tiny branch of The Bank of Nova Scotia in Rocky Harbour. He gallantly got out, entered the bank and approached a teller.

“I assume you have a bathroom here?”

“Yes, Sir. We do. This way.”

Art stopped his polite guide for a moment.

“No, I will go out to the car and get my wife — she is the one who wishes to make a deposit.”

It is said that Rellie, ever the lady, was very much of a mind to disown her husband that day.

In the small paragraph of credits at the beginning of “My Newfoundland,” all of Scammell’s obligatory thanks and credits run smoothly until he comes to Rellie: “Special thanks to my wife, Rellie, who made suggestions, most of them good, typed everything for the printer, put down the notes in rough form to the tune I ‘made up’ and made an excellent sparring partner when she differed from me over some point.”

The little joke he played on her in Rocky Harbour, by the way, came to me through privileged channels, as my parents always told “Art” stories with never-dimming delight.

“Squid Jiggin Ground” enjoyed popularity beyond Newfoundland, where it had been written in 1928. If the words were somewhat lost as it moved west, the tune was thoroughly contagious.

En route home one time from Montreal, Scammell had left the train in Halifax and found his way to the city’s waterfront where he would board his boat for home. On the docks, his ear suddenly picked up the bouncing first notes of his song. He found the source — a man whose lot in life it was to entertain travellers at the waterfront in the hopes of encouraging spontaneous cash flow.

Art came up to the man and stood close by. Within seconds, Art found his place in the tune and rendered “Squid Jiggin’ Ground” in a firm voice, never faltering (of course). There are 11 verses in the song and I am given to understand that as long as Art kept going, so did the old accordionist.

Ending the verse which commences, “Now if ever you feel inclined to go squiddin’,” Art brought the song to a close. The musician took the cue and stopped, turning only slightly to the singer and mumbled something to the effect: “that seems to go with that.”

 I suppose, like anyone who knows something of Art Scammell, I had always associated him with “Squid Jiggin’ Ground” and heart-warming and humorous outport stories. When I pulled his 100-page “From Boat to Blackboard” from a shelf the other day, and paid it more attention than I ever had, I was surprised by his serious side.

If you need a lesson framed in verse of the hardship which Newfoundland could deliver, read Scammell’s “The Morning Lesson: Harbour Deep, White Bay, 1932” — which I feel sure is based on fact. Here is an extract:


I remembered what I had learned from the village folk

About the old woman’s past.  Of her four children

Born sickly, but reared to seeming ruddy health.

Of the eldest girl struck down by TB in her early teens.

And how, one morning after, The stricken mother, doing the daily tasks

By listless habit only, dragged her lagging feet

Down to the shore to wash floor mats on the beach,

And found there, gently floating, face downwards,

The youngest child.