I’ve been spending some time digging through the online archive for The Ottawa Journal recently, and I have to say that I’ve stumbled upon some pretty fun columns. One of the first ones to catch my attention was published on May 27, 1886. It provides an account of an address given the previous night by Sir William Dawson to the Royal Society of Canada. Dawson suggested that it would be an advantageous idea for Ottawa to have a National Museum. Considering that there are now four directly in Ottawa and another just across the river in Gatineau, I’d say he was probably on to something….
It should be no secret at this point that I basically live and breathe museums and want to know everything about how they work while working in and for and about them. This is how this story began. I decided to start using my free time to go to Library and Archives Canada to collect everything I possibly could that pertained in someway to Canada’s national museums. Collecting broadly and without a particular focus, I was open to whatever stories presented themselves to me and caught my attention. One of the first files that I collected was titled simply, “Specimens of wood bison for Victoria Memorial Museum.”
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.
One major product of Peacock’s ten years of collection work in Newfoundland was a three-volume songbook series entitled, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports, which was published in 1965. The collection was comprised of what he felt was a reflective selection of the best songs that he collected, “I make no claim for the book’s completeness – even a collection ten times as big would not be ‘complete’ – but I do feel it is representative of Newfoundland’s repertoire of traditional and native song as it exists in the mid-twentieth century.” Peacock also wrote commentaries on the history and origins of the songs, as well as their development into various forms and diffusion across different regions.
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.
Kenneth Peacock made his first trip to Newfoundland in 1951. In total from the period of 1951 to 1960, he made six trips to the island during the summer months to travel and collect his recordings. In these trips, Peacock collected music exclusively in the outports of Newfoundland. These were the rural, more isolated communities, which were sustained primarily on the fishing industry. Like Barbeau, Peacock believed that authentically traditional music could only be found in the most rural areas; growing urban centres such as St. John’s had been influenced too much by modernity, especially communication technologies and thus modern culture itself.
To understand the contributions made by Kenneth Peacock, we have to first appreciate the institutional context in which he did so much of his work. His fieldwork in Newfoundland would not have been possible were it not for the earlier interests and initiatives of Marius Barbeau. When he met Peacock, Barbeau was the head of the Folklore and Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Canada. Barbeau formally retired from the Museum in 1949, before Peacock began his fieldwork, however Barbeau continued his work and relationship with both Peacock and the Museum throughout his official retirement until his death in 1969 (1).