In 1953 and 1957, Peacock wrote and performed a series of radio lectures for the CBC about Newfoundland folk music. In these lectures, he discussed recurring themes in the folk music traditions of the island, played a selection of his field recordings, and discussed the historical origins of many of the songs that he featured. These lectures were a multi-part lesson for Canadians about the notable features of Newfoundland life and culture. In presenting them, Peacock provided an education on what was then still a “new” province of Confederation, and a place the majority of Canadians had never visited.
Discussing the two broad categories which Newfoundland folk music fell into, Peacock noted, “[t]he Old World songs are usually of a higher musical and literary quality, while the local songs are often of greater historical interest, especially now since Canada and Newfoundland share a common destiny.” (1) This “common destiny” was both political and cultural. As Peacock told his audience, “[a]fter Confederation in 1949 the National Museum extended its research coverage to the new province and I spent two summers collecting material for its folklore archives. Travelling by car, train, and boat, I managed to collect some 200 songs in scores of outports on the eastern half of the island where most of the older settlements are situated. All types of songs are represented in the collection, from recent logging songs of the forties to ancient ballads from Britain hundreds of years old.” (2)
Peacock’s aim, as stated in the introduction to his songbooks, was to record a representative collection of Newfoundland music (3). This goal was framed by the broader aim of Barbeau and the National Museum to collect as much material as possible on the folk cultures of Canada. Newfoundland, as the new province of the nation, was now part of this collecting effort.
Peacock situated the unique qualities of Newfoundland folk music in the isolation of the island and the people, finding that the shared hardships and struggles bred customs and traditions particular to the place (4). For Peacock, in such conditions, life was simple in its difficulty, and a young Newfoundlander was predestined for a particular life of repeated customs and unchanging communities communities: “[a] child growing up in these settlements doesn’t have to ‘make his way in the world’ as we say – a world is already there. He inherits a complete set of customs, a dynamic literature and music, an unquestioned religious orthodoxy – in short, a total outlook on life, a complete culture. Of course all this presupposes plenty of leisure time for each individual to participate to the extent of his interests or abilities; a leisure which most of us no longer possess, and wouldn’t know what to do with if we had it.” (5) Peacock described Newfoundland natives as not only being born into a prescribed culture that was simply absorbed and unquestioned from the time of childhood, but also as a self-preserving culture. Its customs were “complete.”
According to Peacock, because they had been handed a complete culture that did no need to be altered or adapted in any way, the Newfoundlander had time at his disposal for leisure and recreation, a luxury which people from other regions of Canada did not enjoy to the same extent. Peacock’s depiction of Newfoundland outport life did not include the difficult conditions associated with communities that survived on the fishing industry, as well as how much harder people would have to labour to accomplish the same tasks as urban locals, but with much fewer resources.
This characterization also seems to be at odds with the way in which Peacock described the creation of folk music. Peacock described folk music as something that was not composed on a whim, like popular music of the day, but rather something that was born out of necessity. Importantly, folk songs continually changed as they were passed from one singer to the next “[w]e call it oral tradition, and it’s the oldest library in the world. Nowadays such libraries are few and far between, so you have to go further than downtown to find out what’s in them. Perhaps to an Indian reservation or to the Arctic among the Eskimoes. Or if you want to stay closer to home, to the coastal villages of rural French Canada and the Maritimes. Any where, in fact, where modern technology and methods of education haven’t made too much of an impression on the older culture.” (6) In addition to defining folk music by its deep-set historical origins, Peacock attributed the common characteristics of Newfoundlanders to the creation of the particular types of music found on the island and the subject matter of songs.
Peacock asserted, “[t]he outport Newfoundlander is too independent and ingenious to be satisfied with merely preserving the past. He’s always been confronted with the hard facts of his present life and has told of his struggles in numerous stories and songs, both humorous and tragic. But whatever their mood, these songs and stories are the real history of Newfoundland. Official histories may give correct dates and important events, but only folksong can reveal the spontaneous, unrehearsed quality of day to day living.” (7) Peacock identified a culture in which the music therefore preserves traditions and history, but the music itself is fluid, adapting and changing between time and people. In making these claims, Peacock expressed an apparent conflict between “history,” in the sense of official narratives, and the “memory” transmitted through local traditions, songs and oral culture.
In transmitting his research and the music through radio, Peacock replicated to a degree the orality of Newfoundland folk culture but in other respects this orality was compromised. However, in recording that music and depositing it in the Museum, Peacock also fixed the songs such that they did lose the very fluidity and capacity to evolve which he attributed to them in Newfoundland. For a non-local audience, the songs were only heard one way, according to whichever recording Peacock selected to best exemplify the piece. In this way, Peacock’s work was akin to writing a music score, to be followed by future performers. This effect was a byproduct of his fieldwork.
Indeed, Peacock himself became that composer which he described as being contrary to the creation and permeation of folk music in his fieldwork. Peacock discussed his practice, saying that in most cases he copied down the melody of the song when it was first being performed for him, and then afterwards the singer would tell him the words so that he could note them separately: “[m]ost singers were very adept at reciting the words, but the occasional one, usually very gifted musically, couldn’t remember a line of the song unless he sang the tune with it. In this event, several repetitions of the song were necessary to get the complete text. Actually, most of the collecting was done this way, only about one quarter of the collection being recorded.” (8)
What Peacock described does not fit with the interests of a traditional ethnomusicologist in this period and certainly not today. From an anthropological or ethnographic perspective, the interest in collecting information about another culture is grounded in an attempt to not interfere with now the culture is practiced. In this context, Peacock should have been interested in preserving folk music as it was played in the context in which it would have been enjoyed. Instead, not only did he remove the songs from that context, the kitchen party setting that he noted in his radio talks, but he also looked for specific material. Indeed, in his field guide Peacock suggests that locals be encouraged to sing particular types of songs, and that the collector could even suggest songs of similar themes in order to jog their memory (9).
In the next installment, I’ll discuss the major project that came out of Peacock’s collection work in Newfoundland: a three-volume songbook series called Songs of the Newfoundland Outports.
- CMH/MCH, Kenneth Peacock Fonds, Box 306, f.7, Talk 1 “Newfoundland folkmusic, 1957,” p.2.
- Kenneth Peacock, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, Volume I, (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, 1965): XXI.
- CMH/MCH, Kenneth Peacock Finds, Box 306, f. 10, Talk 1, “Folk songs from Newfoundland, 1953,” p. 1.
- Ibid., Talk 5, 1953, p. 6.
- Ibid., Talk 1, 1957, p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Ibid., Talk 2, 1953, p. 4-5.
- Kenneth Peacock, A Practical Guide for Folkmusic Collectors, (Canadian Folk Music Society, 1966): 27.