A Personal Reminiscence by Ken Peacock


It is now more than a generation since my last visit to Newfoundland in 1961. Many Newfoundland friends, I hope, will look back with the same fondness I feel for the decade between 1951 and 1961 when I travelled about the island collecting Newfoundland's rich store of traditional music and song. It also occurs to me that many younger Newfoundlanders who are listening to this record were not even born in 1961 let alone 1951. A whole book could(and should) be written on this fascinating decade, but at the moment we have neither the time, space, nor money. So I shall be brief.

Even in 1961 the burgeoning affluence of Newfoundland was evident. Memorial University was about to be opened, and a spanking new two-story motel in the latest mainland-modern style had opened in St. John's as an alternative to the fading grandeur of the Hotel Newfoundland. I recall the year vividly because a West German television company had hired me to help them make a documentary film on the folk music of Newfoundland. During a ten-day period in the summer I had taken the producer and his wife around the island to show them possible locations for filming and to meet singers. They were absolutely entranced. But when the sizeable and hungry film crew arrived in the late summer it became obvious that our grandiose plans to cover the whole island would have to be scrapped after a realistic look at the tight budget. As a result, filming was confined to the Avalon Peninsula and two singers, Patrick Rossiter and Howard Morry. (Howard Morry's son Tom sings on this record). For some reason the film producers thought I gave stunning performances of Newfoundland songs whereas in fact they were barely passable imitations. Furthermore, the producers had become enamoured of certain deserted off-shore islands with their abandoned houses and old cemeteries (Mr. Smallwood's famous relocation scheme had only recently begun). So the story-line of the film was altered and I was called upon to sing 'ghost songs such as "Lady Margaret"' (Sweet William's Ghost) and "Jimmy Whelan" to a vacuous imported nymphet at one of these spooky locales. In the film I played myself, a folksong collector, and the nymphet dutifully wrote home to daddy in Germany to tell of her strange and wonderful adventures in Newfoundland with the folksong collector I saw the film several months later, and aside from the scenics and singing of Paddy Rossiter and Howard Morry it was pretty awful. This is the first opportunity I have had to apologise to Newfoundland and to any Newfoundlanders who might have had the misfortune of seeing it, especially those other singers who also should have been in it. At least some of them can now be heard on this record.

Although he is not on the record I should like to begin by speaking about Howard Morry. The year was 1951, and an acquaintance in St. John's suggested I get in touch with Howard if I wanted to learn something of the history of Newfoundland that wasn't in the books, especially historic events concerned with the Southern Shore. So one day I found myself in Ferryland knocking on his door, greeted with open arms, and launched into a friendship which lasted until his death several years ago. When he showed me into the parlour I was amazed to see a splendid Bechstein grand piano; not in very good condition, mind you, but still a Bechstein. It had belonged to his late wife. During the first World War he had been stationed for a time in Scotland, had fallen in love with a Scots girl, married her after the war and brought her back to Ferryland. Apparently his ancestry also went back to Scotland. Although the spelling changed over the centuries, his kinship with the famous song's "Bonny Earl I' Moray" appears to be genealogically sound [Editor's note: In fact the Morry name did not come from Scotland but rather England]. I learned much about Newfoundland, Newfoundlanders, Beothuck Indians and a host of other things from Howard.

One day he took me out to the Ferryland lighthouse. The light-keeper showed us around, a man named Costello. Noting the name and thinking he was a recent import, the greenhorn mainlander asked, "Been working here long?" "All me life;" he replied, "and my father before me, and his father before him." The greenhorn was beginning to learn more and more about Newfoundland ancestry. With all this historical information, punctuated with trips to Isle aux Bois off the Ferryland coast to see the ruins of the l7th century fortifications, I almost forgot to ask Howard if he knew any songs. It turned out that he did. Quite a few. He did not have the greatest voice in the world but his memory was impeccable. When I returned in 1952 I naturally called on Howard again, asking about any more songs he might have recalled. His reply was typical: "Ken, I've been reading so much this past winter I've almost spoiled my mind." On the surface just a joke, but in the depths a truth is lurking. Still, he managed to recall several more.

In subsequent years while conducting research in other parts of Canada among various cultures I would occasionally come across a special sort of person who reminded me of Howard - a retired Okinawan-Japanese farmer from Lethbridge, Alberta who sang and played the shamisen, an elderly Doukhobor woman, three native Indians from various tribes are typical examples. I tried to analyse just what it was that made these people so special. No special status was involved, no driving ambition for success or power, no special talent, although this happened occasionally. Finally I gave up and just began thinking of them as a sort of natural royalty, my 'royal friends'. Howard was the first of them.

Howard Morry had three sons [Editor's Note: actually, four, including Reg]; Tom, Bill and Howard Jr. As Howard became older, Bill assumed more and more responsibility for the family fishing business, finally taking it over. Tom had long since left for the mainland to work in Ottawa. From time to time Howard would visit Tom and his family in Ottawa and Howard would always write to let me know of his impending visit. It was during one of his later visits, April of 1962 that I recorded Tom Morry’s song "The Sealer's Ball" (Be Ye Much of a Hand Aboard a Vessel). It is a fine song of its type and I had not recorded it from any other singer in Newfoundland. It was rather ironic to record it in Ottawa for I don't think Tom knew any songs. But as you will hear, he was a pleasant voice and does a rather good job. He had not learned it from his father.

Before going on to the other singers I should like to back-track a bit and tell you a little about my 1951-52 research seasons. At that time only St. John's, Corner Brook and a few of the larger centres had electrical service. For example, I was able to record in Cape Broyle, Ferryland, Bonavista and Grand Bank in addition to St. John's. The tape recorder I used was the first commercially available instrument on the market, the Brush SOUNDMIRROR. The first tapes that arrived with the recorder even had paper backing! but we soon switched to acetate. Despite the limitations of this early recorder the sound quality was surprisingly good. In smaller places such as King's Cove, Stock Cove and all the outports on Fogo Island the tape recorder was useless. I copied down the songs in manuscript; the words in my notebook and the melodies on music paper. Since I was a trained musician it was not really that difficult, just laborious. But for the singers it must have been sheer hell. I still marvel at their patience and good humour. They would have to "word" out each song while I laboriously copied it down in longhand. Some singers found it difficult to remember the words unless they also sang the melody. This was a plus for me because I could check and re-check the melody so it would be absolutely correct. In any case, the melody was always easier to get down on paper - with one exception which eventually developed into several exceptions. In King's Cove I had come across an excellent singer, Michael Aylward, who decorated many of his tunes with beautiful ornamentation. When I asked him where he had learned these songs he directed me to Fogo Island. Not everyone in Fogo, Joe Batt's Arm, Seldom Come By and Tilting sang in this way, but enough of them did to make my life as difficult as the singers'. Now I would have to ask these singers to keep repeating songs because each verse seemed to have different ornamentation depending on the words. How I wished I could have recorded their songs, not only for their intrinsic beauty but for the simple luxury of being able to replay them in order to annotate the ornamentation as faithfully as possible.

In all my subsequent research in Newfoundland I did not encounter this style of singing until 1961 when I met Patrick Rossiter of Fermeuse. And all this time Howard Morry had known him but somehow had never mentioned him until 1961. Paddy's voice does not have the lyric quality of the Fogo Island singers but the things he does with a melody are really quite spectacular. His repertoire includes some of the best and most unusual songs I recorded in Newfoundland such as "The Loss of the Eliza" and "The Fisher Who Died in His Bed:'

Excerpt from Cover Notes by Ken Peacock

Ottawa, April, 1984


Pigeon Inlet Productions wishes to thank the following for assistance and co-operation in this project.

The National Museum of Canada, the Canadian Folk Music Society, the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, Kenneth Peacock, Edith Fowke, Jim Payne, Noel Dinn and Wilf Wareham.