Almost a year ago to the day, I completed my Master of Arts Degree in Public History. As part of this degree, I wrote a Major Research Essay, and now that I’ve had enough distance from it to look back on my research without cringing *too* much, I think it only makes sense to start rewriting it for this space. I am a public historian after all!
This series of posts will break down my MRE into slightly more digestible chunks, and I am going to try my best as I go along to make sure that it is more accessible than academic, while still maintaining the rigorous historical approach that I originally wrote it with. Basically less wordy and theory-heavy, but still with lots and lots of footnotes. I’m not a barbarian after all. I am also hoping that this series will eventually include new research as and when I come across new and exciting things.
My research looked at how the ethnomusicologist (a person who studies the relationship between music and culture) Kenneth Peacock contributed to the invention of the Newfoundland folk music tradition that we experience and enjoy today.
Originally, Peacock completed a degree in music at the University of Toronto and had intended to pursue a career as a composer. In the early 1950s, however, Peacock was sent to Newfoundland to record the traditional music he found there. This initiative was a project of Marius Barbeau, the head of the Folklore and Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Canada at the time (1).
Barbeau made it his life’s work to collect traditional and folk music, which he hoped would contribute to the preservation of what he perceived to be traditional cultures on the brink of disappearance (more on this in a later post). Newfoundland was added to this list when, in 1949, the island became a province of Canada and joined Confederation. Up to this point, the Museum had no collections pertaining to Newfoundland, and so it became essential for Barbeau to collect as much as possible, and as quickly as possible. Hired by Barbeau for this job through his academic relationship with him (Peacock had used some of Barbeau’s earlier recordings as inspiration for his composition work), Peacock made a total of six trips to the island.
Before we continue, it is absolutely essential to understand what I mean when I talk about folk music, or rather, what Kenneth Peacock understood folk music to be. The genre and what is included in it has changed dramatically throughout history. Today, popular folk music is a broad category that seems to be applicable to any songs that are either acoustic, or use “traditional” instruments. Paul Chafe discusses this in his exploration of Newfoundland folk-rock: “[a]nyone enjoying a folk night in any Newfoundland pub will quickly notice that this ‘culture’ is truly a ‘hybrid product.’ On any given night, ‘traditional ‘ instruments like the mandolin and bodhran will share the stage with a booming electric bass or a Fender Stratocaster.”(2) The definition of folk music in Peacock’s time was equally subjective and depended entirely on the anthropological and ethnographic perspective of the individual collector.
A lack of uniform regulation and professionalization meant that what was collected and considered traditional music differed from one fieldworker to the next. As will be discussed in more detail at a later point, Peacock considered songs to be of the folk tradition if they originated in rural, isolated areas, such as the Newfoundland outports, and if they could be traced back to demonstrate a long historical transmission. Peacock’s definition of “folk music” was and is important to keep in mind because it problematizes its connections to “tradition”. In fact, despite Chafe’s assertion that what can be considered traditional music today is a fairly open category, popular audiences of “Newfoundland Folk Music” now expect an historicization similar to how Peacock approached his fieldwork.
I experienced this phenomenon first-hand when I attended a small concert in January of 2016. I found myself sitting in a church in Ottawa’s Centretown neighborhood listening to a concert featuring songs from the Gerald S. Doyle Songbook. Gerald Doyle was a mid-century business man and folk music collector in Newfoundland, who published songbooks of traditional Newfoundland music popular at the time, and distributed them throughout the island. His collection was music by Newfoundland and for Newfoundland. The concert I attended was no ordinary performance of Newfoundland folk music, however. What I heard over the next two hours were elaborate choral arrangements of traditional folk songs performed by Atlantic Voices: The Newfoundland and Labrador Choir of Ottawa.
This performance was a hub for displaced East Coast natives. I must have been the only person there under seventy. I ended up sitting with a lovely woman named Kathy who was originally from New Brunswick, but had been in Ottawa for over twenty years, and we bonded over the fact that neither of us were familiar with the church, choir, or the rest of the people in attendance.
Many of the key themes in my research appeared in microcosm that evening, not only in the music that was performed but also in the way in which that music was presented to us. Repeatedly, the audience was presented with what we were told was “traditional” Newfoundland music and culture. With the entire choir decked out in tartan sashes to visually indicate “tradition” in a loose sense, the musical director, Scott Richardson, took the time in between songs to not only explain and introduce each piece, giving credit to the various arrangers that made its performance possible, but also taught the crowd about Gerald S. Doyle, and his collecting and preservation efforts in Newfoundland throughout his life (3). Much to my surprise and delight, the director also briefly mentioned Kenneth Peacock’s contributions to Newfoundland folk music. I had already settled on Peacock as a focus for my research at this point, but I was struck by the fact that this “historical” actor and his work were now part of my own and others’ cultural present.
For the choir director, however, it was Gerald Doyle whose legacy was most powerful for that evening’s performance. He repeatedly emphasized that Doyle “was interested not in antiquity but in the recent song-making culture of the island.”(4) The program handed out to the audience, however, worked against this somewhat. As shown in Figures 1 and 2, the program features images of original covers from four of Doyle’s songbooks, and an envelope sent from Doyle with his official stamp in the corner.
Representations and invocations of history dominate the covers, and inside the program this continued as each song was performed that night was also accompanied with a short written history which traced the origins of the song. In some cases, Doyle includes songs first collected by Kenneth Peacock during his time at the National Museum of Canada from the early 1950s to the early 1970s.
Doyle and Peacock were very different collectors, however. Doyle considered these songs to be representative of a vibrant, contemporary Newfoundland popular culture while Peacock, as will be discussed later, approached his collecting efforts with the intention of preserving musical examples from what he (and others at the National Museum) perceived as a disappearing rural folk culture. Such differences were muted in the program by how Doyle re-presented Peacock’s collection, a tension that I did not yet appreciate while sitting in the audience, but which became an important theme in this research.
Despite all of Doyle’s and the conductor’s efforts, however, the Ottawa audience was there for something much more similar to Peacock’s approach. The audience expected a performance of Old-time Songs of Newfoundland; the expectation was not just that the songs be entertaining, but that they also look, sound, and feel “old-timey.” We were there to hear “traditional” Newfoundland music as we had already come to expect it, and which Newfoundland expatriates specifically had come to rely on for their sense of self.
James Overton discusses the important connection that expatriate Newfoundlanders have maintained to the island through a various traditions of cultural expression, the most important of which has been music: “[m]uch of this music is the epitome of emigre culture, containing recollections of ‘home’ and expressing a longing for Newfoundland. Like the various artifacts and customs that people keep, music provides a symbolic link to the other life from which they have been exiled.” (5) Overton answers only some of the questions that this performance raised for me, however. As I experienced the concert and program in person, I found myself then and now wondering: How did this concert come to take form? From where and whom does “traditional” Newfoundland music come? Why was I, by far, the youngest person in the audience?
Understanding Kenneth Peacock began for me with the deep biographical research conducted by Anna Kearney Guigné. Guigné describes Peacock’s fundamental contribution to the folk music revival that gained momentum in Newfoundland through such bands as Figgy Duff in the 1970s. Guigné contends that previous scholarly critiques of Peacock’s work are overly focused on the problematic aspects of his fieldwork, such as the editing that he applied to some songs, and the exercise of his personal aesthetic judgment over a song’s quality. Guigné is especially interested in restoring Peacock’s place both within the history of Newfoundland and with the broader development of folklore scholarship in Canada.
My own research set out to complement Guigné’s work by situating Peacock more firmly within the context of mid-twentieth century cultural federalism, especially that which stemmed from the National Museum. In doing this, I explore more broadly the mobility and malleability of the same Newfoundland folkmusic culture that both Guigné and Overton recognize as essential to the province’s collective sense of self, but I did so deliberately from both Peacock’s place in Ottawa and my own.
My relationship to this research began because of my own personal love of the modernized Newfoundland folk music tradition through popular bands such as Great Big Sea. Is there any “traditional” or “folk” music that you connect with? What is it that you like about it or that draws you in? Feel free to share your thoughts on this, and to continue considering your relationship to this genre with me as I unpack my own relationship to the Newfoundland Folk Music revival.
- This museum was originally located in what is now the building for the Museum of Nature, and upon moving to the Gatineau side of the river in 1982 eventually became the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1986, and is now known as the Canadian Museum of History.
- Paul Chafe, “Rockin’ the Rock: The Newfoundland Folk/Pop ‘Revolution’,” Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 22 (2007): 346.
- One such preservation effort includes the Gerald S. Doyle Memorial Museum, located at King’s Cove in Bonavista Bay. The museum is dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the local history of King’s Cove. Information about the museum can be found here: http://www.manl.nf.ca/index.php/newfoundland-labrador-museums/regional-listings/eastern/gerald-s-doyle-memorial-museum.html
- “Republic of Doyle: Old-Time Songs of Newfoundland from the Gerald S. Doyle Collection,” Program, 24 January 2016 (no publisher, 2016), n.p. A copy of the program is in the author’s possession.
- James Overton, Making a World of Difference: Essays on Tourism, Culture and Development in Newfoundland, (St. John’s: ISER Publishing, 1996): 127.