Jim Payne of
A Crowd of Bold Sharemen:
A Newfoundland identity

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2003

Newfoundland's music is building its own identity apart from its rich colonial roots.

"We're more interested in establishing Newfoundland music, whether it be through the Celtic connection or not," says Jim Payne, a leading musician (solo as well as with A Crowd of Bold Sharemen, one of the island's most prominent bands) and founder of the roots label, SingSong Music.

"The Irish who came to Newfoundland were pre-Famine," Payne says, noting that the post-Famine Irish immigrants who came later to the United States had a much higher profile.

To many people, he concedes, music from Newfoundland is right off their radar. "It's just a big island up there, and no one really knows what's going on there," Payne says. "But the traditional music of Newfoundland -- with its Irish, English, Scottish and French roots -- can stand up there with the traditional music from the rest of the world. We've been kicking this music around for 400 years. We've earned the right to call it Newfoundland music."

The various musical styles blended well in that environment, Payne says. "It's one of the few places in the world where the Irish and the English settled side by side and got along with each other." The music, accordingly, retained some traits of each.

"It's rougher," Payne says. "It's not as smooth as Irish music, not as laidback as English. But this was music designed for dancing, particularly English country dances and Irish polkas. And it was mostly in people's kitchens, where they didn't have much room to move. So the music just clipped along, and the footwork was kept close to the floor."

Group dancing is pretty much all done to jigs, he says. Reels are used for individual stepdancing.

So far as songs are concerned, he says, "we have the same penchant for sentimental songs."

Instruments weren't used to accompany songs until after World War II, he notes. English chorus songs became particularly popular. Another influence in that period was American country and bluegrass music, he says, which at the time was mostly "simple story-songs told eloquently."

"People just love to sing in Newfoundland," Payne says. Topics range from fishing to love, he says, as well as songs that chronicle local history. "A lot of people couldn't read or write," he explains. "Even today, we learn very little about Newfoundland history through the public school system." There are also many songs about shipwrecks. "Every Newfoundland family has lost people at sea," he says.

Work songs are also common, and songs about the sea are sometimes very similar to more land-based industries, such as logging. "The rhythms of the logging industry are very similar to the rhythms of the sea," Payne says. "Today, you don't get much industrial music because people are all using devices that make a lot of noise. But back then, people used music to get a rhythm going."

The accordion is so popular in Newfoundland -- "the king of instruments," Payne insists -- because the bellows mirrors the rhythm of breathing and could easily follow the pattern of people at work.

And, of course, Newfoundland has generated a lot of funny songs in its day. "You develop a certain fatalistic attitude towards things," Payne says. "Fate doesn't always go your way, especially with the weather in Newfoundland, so you have to be able to laugh about it. If there's a bit of fun to be had at someone else's expense, we're always ready to do it."

Payne's own passionate sideline, besides his own various music projects, has been a collection of Newfoundland music for publication as a set of CD-ROMs. The collaboration between SingSong Music and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, compiles music collected in the 1950s by folkologist Kenneth Peacock. Peacock collected hundreds upon hundreds of songs and other pieces of music, all of which were published in 1965.

Those volumes are long out of print, however, and Payne is collaborating with fellow Newfoundlander Don Walsh to prepare a new, more modern collection. The CD-ROMs, six years in the making and currently being reviewed by the museum, will include all of the musical notations as well as a few hundred of the original recordings, plus WAV files of every melody. "Everything that's in the books, we've put in the CD-ROMs," Payne says. "It's the most complete and significant compilation of Newfoundland music ever collected." The pieces are indexed by theme, region, artist and keyword, he adds.

"We want it to be a valuable research tool," Payne says. "There are a lot of fantastic songs that have passed from the oral tradition of Newfoundland. You just don't hear them sung any more."

Payne expects the collection to be published in 2004. "It's really been a labor of love," he says.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 13 December 2003

[ visit Jim's website ]