A Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival retrospective
“A lot of the performers, initially, were older performers, who were not professional musicians—they were what we call ‘source traditional musicians.’ These were the people that the folklorists had gone out and collected, to whom traditional music was a normal part of their life. They sang at events in their own communities, they sang at gatherings, they had these large repertoires of fiddle tunes they would play at community dances—they were community musicians, and it was an integral part of their lives.”
Jean Hewson sat across from me, sipping tea in a cozy downtown apartment on Bannerman Street, only a couple hundred feet from the long time home of the festival that dominated our conversation that afternoon. The musician, a vocalist and guitarist imbued with a fine-tuned sense of the local musical tradition, first played at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival when she was 20 years old, in 1982 with the group Barkin’ Kettle. Since then Hewson has gone on to perform more times than she can count, served as a volunteer board member for more than a decade, and worked for five years as the festival’s artistic director. She’s seen big changes to the annual event; when the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival started in 1976 the organizers were asking whoever they knew to perform.
Since then, over the years, the festival has earned a reputation as one of the province’s premiere summertime events. That mid-August stage is one that many traditional and folk musicians in this province, and across the country, aspire to perform on.
By Hewson’s own admission, once she got started talking about the Folk Festival, it was hard for her to stop. And as the tea grew cold, a greater sense of the cultural significance and depth of the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival set in — an imaginary pulsating line of song, story, and dance connecting the past, present, and future of traditional Newfoundland and Labrador music.
“Initially, the Folk Arts Society was founded in the ’60s,” Hewson explained. “A group of these people who were involved with it had been asked by the Newfoundland government to put together a group of musicians and dancers to go to Expo ’67. And then these same people were asked to put together groups to tour to represent Newfoundland at various things, so these guys got to know a lot of the local performers, both within St. John’s and out around the bay — people who sang and danced, did recitations, played fiddle, and all of that. And these people would go off at special events and represent the province, and then in the ’70s it was thought, ‘Well God, we really should be doing something more substantial and more permanent.’ And that’s when the Folk Festival started.”
Since that time, two major events staggered the evolution of the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival. The first was the Sir Humphrey Gilbert celebrations in 1983, when the Folk Festival got a major boost from the tourism industry to bring in performers of “founding cultures” — Irish, English, French, and Portuguese acts widened the scope of the stage, and though the festival returned to its grassroots format the next year, the seed had been planted for accommodating acts from abroad.
Secondly, 1992 marked the foundation of MusicNL and the cod moratorium. “There was a lot of funding being directed to tourism initiatives, to try and attract people to come to Newfoundland. There were more bands springing up that were trying to tour, and that really started in the early ’90s,” Hewson said, noting there was a conscious attempt around that time to bring in bands that were more commercially successful, such as the Masterless Men and Great Big Sea.
The once low-key family event started to segue into one that attracted a younger audience that filled up the beer tents in the evening, and there was some marked opposition to this in the early ’90s. However, by 2002 Hewson—then Artistic Director—notes that the festival had started to strike a balance by integrating more outreach into its programming and regularly bringing in performers from across Canada, instead of just local talent. Although the smaller tents and workshops (which include oral stories, dance, and Francophone acts) are in some ways overshadowed by big name draws like Gord Downie or Spirit of the West, the various aspects of the festival work together to create a unique whole.
In Hewson’s opinion, the non-Newfoundland and Labrador contingent, representing at least a third of the lineup, is a good thing.
“One of the things we noticed when we started bringing musicians here, is they formed relationships with the local people, and then because of that local musicians started to get gigs upalong. You can’t live in a bubble — we do live in a country, and for musicians to come back and forth out of each other’s provinces is just creating a bigger house for all of us, and more opportunities.
“The more you interact with others, the more you see who you are, reflected back.”
The diverse assemblage of tents and workshops may be a more modern flourish to the Folk Festival’s organization, but one of the more well-known parts, aside from the main stage, has been in place since the ’90s. The Neil Murray Stage provides a chance for performers under the age of 19 to play traditional music for an audience.
Though amateur in years, the performers are anything but. Members of The Dardanelles, a major headlining act this year, honed their skills on this stage, as did up-and-coming trad act The Freels, who are also returning to the Folk Festival this year.
“On that stage, not only are they getting the opportunity to play, but a lot of the audience is also that same group. So they get to play and hear each other play,” Freels member Fergus Brown-O’Byrne explained following a recent Sunday session at O’Reilly’s.
Fellow Freels member Danny Mills agreed. “It’s a unique outlet,” he said. “As a kid, it was really something my summer built towards. I remember, I really liked [traditional music], but I was kind of embarrassed about it at the same time. I think those sorts of things, like the Neil Murray Stage, are a great way for younger players to be like, ‘Oh, there’s actually loads of people here playing this music, and who think it’s deadly, and it’s not old people music.’ It’s old music, but it’s still relevant.”
The man himself, Neil Murray, was deserving of the namesake stage. A writer, promoter, academic, and Rhodes scholar, Murray was also a radio DJ who pioneered the Sunday morning tradition of folk music on the province’s airwaves in the early ’80s — what would eventually become OZFM’s “Jig’s and Reels”, then called “Jigg’s Dinner”. At a time when Newfoundland folk music was just on the cusp of a revival, the material was mainly Irish and English tunes, interspersed with the few local recordings that had been given life (mostly Figgy Duff).
Hewson has her own special memory of Murray, back when they were both young Islanders living away from home, reflecting on Newfoundland and the music of its rugged shores.
“I first met Neil Murray when I was eight years old, in London, England,” she recalled. “He had come over to go to university, and there was this program on the BBC called ‘London Calling Newfoundland’ that was done by Margo Davis, a woman who had started up a radio show in which Newfoundlanders who were over there during the War would send messages back home to Newfoundland via the radio. And this persisted until the late ’60s, this show, and I was actually on this show as a little kid. I remember meeting Neil Murray there — we were there for the Christmas show.
“He was a huge supporter of the music,” Hewson continued. Following his death from an asthma attack in 1988, the stage for blossoming musical talent was started a few years later.
Local music icon Fergus O’Byrne, Ryan’s Fancy founding member and a long time promoter of youth involvement in the traditional music community (his Young Folk at the Hall event has been a St. John’s tradition since 2002), reiterated the importance of this part of the Folk Festival. “It’s a sure sign that the interest in the music will continue and it’s a good feeling to have played a small part in transferring my enthusiasm for the music on to the next generation,” he said.
“Most of these ‘young folk’ approach their performances with all the professionalism that one sees with the older players on the main stage. It’s particularly satisfying to see even the younger ones on the Neil Murray Stage — the gem of the Festival.”
It wasn’t so long ago, in the early 2000s, that a serious suggestion came that “Labrador” should be removed from the title of the Folk Festival, as the Big Land was very disproportionately represented in the regular line-up. The Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council has since established a separate travel grant to make it easier and more affordable for Labrador performers to attend the Folk Festival, but the question lingers: what is the role of the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival outside its home in St. John’s?
“Newfoundland is a very big place, and it’s been hard to bring in musicians from every part,” Hewson acknowledged. “One of the things that happened a while back is we’d focus on a region, and do it as a kind of mini-theme in the programming. One year we did Placentia Bay, another year we did the Great Northern Peninsula, and we would try to pick three or four musicians from those areas to come in. The other thing that’s happened is some of these areas have worked with the Folk Arts Society here in St. John’s, to find out how you go about doing that.”
And even though the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival only lasts for a weekend in the summer, the effect across the province is steady throughout the year.
“I describe the Folk Festival as an iceberg. The Folk Festival itself is that 10 per cent visible part of the iceberg that you see above the water. But then, what the Folk Festival does for people during the rest of the year is that other 90 per cent, and it just has this huge impact on the lives of performers and people,” Hewson explained.
“I’ve met musicians at folk festivals that I’ve become friends with, and have gone on to collaborate with, and I’ve seen that happen to other people,” she added, laughing as she recalled how the Bluegrass and Old-Time Country Music Association sporadically sprang up from a workshop one year, and now hold their own festival. “Something happened, and then a hundred other things happened because of it.”
A lot has changed since 1976. The programming has broadened its scope, the musical acts have gotten bigger, and even the location has shifted throughout the city. The stage spent a little bit of time on the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake, and the 38th Annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival will be held in Bowring Park for its second year in a row, though it will return to its full-time home in Bannerman Park once renovations of that facility are officially completed.
Ryan’s Fancy rarely played the Folk Festival due to the band’s hectic schedule, but O’Byrne has led workshops, played solo, and continues to perform frequently with A Crowd of Bold Sharemen. For him, the Festival was, and remains, something like a gathering at a village square or garden, where traditions and good times are shared.
“When I was there, I always enjoyed meeting up with some of the older folk, such as Pius Power Sr. from South East Bight, Emile Benoit, Minnie White and, of course, Rufus Guinchard,” he said. “They were always so easy going and seemed to enjoy the whole ambiance of the event.”
A romanticized notion of the festival might overlooks the fact that the event relies on grants and ticket sales as its lifeblood. Despite being a prominent annual event, like most events of this magnitude it’s experienced its financial woes. The festival incurred a huge expense in 2011 when it had to be relocated to Mile One Centre due to rain, and the re-organizing of the field and generator power to fuel the event at Bowring Park has not been cheap.
In spite of everything that has changed since the first Folk Festival, however, the event has become more than just a weekend of songs or a party on a perfect summer evening. It’s Newfoundland and Labrador culture, encapsulated in melodies and lyrics and interaction. The kind of thing that, 38 years in, you can still get excited about.
“Nice meeting you,” I told Hewson as I cleared our cups away. “See you at the Festival.”
“You certainly will,” she smiled. And I believed it.
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