To conclude my research, I reflected on another concert experience that I had over the course of researching and writing about Kenneth Peacock and his role in the Newfoundland Folk Music Revival. On 21 November 2015, I attended a concert featuring two of my favourite musical groups, which I had purchased the tickets for myself several months before. My excitement over seeing the Barenaked Ladies for what would be my third time was at the highest possible level because they were being introduced by Alan Doyle and the Beautiful Gypsies, the new solo project by the Great Big Sea frontman. Somehow the fact that this would also be my third time seeing Alan Doyle perform did not diminish my excitement. For all of my building energy, months of listening to the music of both bands in preparation (despite already knowing all of their albums by heart), and sheer joy of being able to watch two of my favourite bands in one concert, what I did not expect was for the night to turn into a cathartic research moment.
After several high-energy songs to open the night, working back and forth from classic and well-loved Great Big Sea material to new solo work, the stage darkened once again in preparation for the next song. A white spotlight came up, focused on Doyle, and he began his usual conversation with the crowd to introduce the song. This time, though, he told a story that felt as if it were directed to me, the graduate student of public history.
Doyle had recently taken a trip to Fogo Island, in which he was given a tour around the area, and came to a small museum. He described looking at the various artifacts in their glass cases, noting his fascination with the stories that they told. He told us about seeing a sealer’s gaff, and took a moment to explain just what a gaff was to the mainlanders in the audience. He described the gaff as having the words “laying down to perish” written on it. His guide at the museum told him that four men left Fogo Island to go out on the ice, only to realize once they were out there that they would not be able to make it back. Not wanting their loved ones to wonder what had happened to them, they carved the short phrase into the gaff along with their names and set it adrift.
The men died, and four months later, the gaff washed up on shore in Lewisporte, and was finally returned to Fogo Island. The museum, the display case, the object, and the (hi)story told about it stirred Doyle to write a “traditional” Newfoundland folk song about the phrase. It was not enough for us to just hear the song though. We had to know why we were hearing it and what it taught us about the precarious everyday life in the outports.
While he did not do you for me or for this essay, my and the other audience members’ shared experience with Doyle’s story-and-song seem and appropriate place to conclude. Doyle performed a story of traditional Newfoundland history, specific to the rural outport life, for a crowd who may or may not have known anything about this past but who were familiar with Doyle’s (and others) high-energy re-interpretations and performances of “traditional” Newfoundland folk music. Thus while the specifics may have been new, the genre was not and the audience responded just as they did to the Great big Sea standards and other elements of Doyle’s catalogue. Kenneth Peacock, I’m sure, would have been pleased.
As I reflect on my two encounters in Ottawa with “traditional” Newfoundland folk music in the context of the historical research presented in this essay, I have come to appreciate the power of malleable and mobile cultural traditions. Peacock’s fieldwork in Newfoundland sought, on one hand, to preserve the traditional music of the island in the face of changing industry and encroaching cultural practices. However it also sought to invent an idea of Newfoundland and its people which resulted not only in a construction of Newfoundland identity for Canadians, but also in a sense of traditional identity and cultural practices which was picked up by Newfoundlanders themselves as a means of reviving industry and re-establishing a sense of their own history, traditional practices, and cultural output.
My experiences with both Peacock’s archive, and encountering Newfoundland folk music throughout this research are examples of the ways in which movement and re-location engender new experiences and identities. From Barbeau’s creation of the folklore program at the Museum, to Peacock’s collecting efforts and his later work on the radio and in publishing the songbooks, to their recirculation and reinterpretation by Figgy Duff and other artists, and finally to the performances of the Newfoundland and Labrador Choir of Ottawa and Alan Doyle, this essay has told a story of collection, preservation, and circulation of historical culture which moved (and moves) through space and time.
From Newfoundland to Mainland, from the outports to the National Capital, and then back “home” again. In telling this story, this essay is also testimony to the potential for vitality in tradition and to the meaningful reality of the experiences and identities it engenders.