Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Crooked as the Road to Branch: Asymmetry in Newfoundland Dance Music (1)

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Crooked as the Road to Branch: Asymmetry in Newfoundland Dance Music (1)

Article excerpt

WHEN I GLANCE OUT my window in the Outer Battery at dusk, I see, across the harbour, the lights of St. John's. Acting as a mirror, the window simultaneously reflects the inside of my house. I am a trained musician, brought up with a typical North American classical music education. I have, in addition, learned and studied Newfoundland music though the oral tradition--"by ear," directly from older musicians--over the past 25 years. I believe this has given me an interesting perspective: my window reveals both inside and outside at once.

Since the cultural resurgence that began in St. John's in the 1970s, Newfoundland dance music has been slowly emerging from the obscurity and neglect it endured for several decades. While this is to be applauded, it is regrettable that so much of this dance music has been lost from the oral tradition. The tunes that have survived in the public consciousness, such as "Mussels in the Corner" or "I's the B'y" are truly the tip of the iceberg. Many lively, unusual, and worthy tunes exist, which most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians under the age of 70 have never heard.

The 1950s in Newfoundland and Labrador was a decade of political and cultural change. It brought fish plants, and thus the eventual abandonment of the production methods for saltfish on which many of our traditional social structures and roles had been based. (2) Union with Canada in 1949 brought us the baby bonus and, finally, the end of the truck system. It also brought ridicule and condescension from some Canadians, and this continues to this day (Conrad "Mistaken Identities?"). Many pro-confederation Newfoundlanders in the 1950s were only too happy to lose any possession, activity, or attitude that made them appear different from other Canadians, and thereby subject to derision (Taft 16). A government which valued modernization and failed to recognize merit in what already existed, aided and abetted the process of throwing babies out with bathwater. The abrupt change in domestic architecture, from traditional two-storey houses to bungalows is now our most visible reminder of that time. We threw out or gave away our material culture: we destroyed our handmade furniture to buy chrome sets from Eatons or Simpson Sears. Less obvious to us now, from our 21st-century vantage point, are the changes in our intangible culture. We embraced a newly imported style of music (country and western) and began composing songs in that genre. We began dancing after the fashion of contemporary North Americans. Centuries-long traditions of dance, and the music which accompanied those traditions, all but vanished in little over a decade. The government policy of resettlement in the 1960s, the largest enforced resettlement in Canadian history, uprooted 30,000 people from their homes. This dislocation and dispersion of communities ensured that many local dance traditions, which might have rebounded from the effects of the 1950s, never recovered. The old square dance traditions still exist in some scattered locations, but only as performance art--a curiosity to be done for tourists or at a "come home year" event, not as a living cultural manifestation engaged in by the whole community.

In his seminal work defining his theory of "tune families," "Prolegomena to a Study of the Principal Melodic Families of British-American Folk Song," Dr. Samuel Bayard identified a repertoire of melodies which are common to the British Isles and the British diaspora. A tune family according to Bayard, is "a group of melodies showing basic interrelation by means of constant melodic correspondence, and presumably owing their mutual likeness to descent from a single air that has assumed multiple forms through processes of variation, imitation, and assimilation" (33). He identifies several manners in which melodies are apt to be altered through the influence of the oral tradition. Although he confines his study to song melodies, he refers throughout the article to dance tunes and tune collectors, and indicates that one of the processes of variation is a recasting of melodies to different uses, such as marching or dancing. …

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