Peter Toner reviews Anna Kearney Guigné’s The Forgotten Songs of the Newfoundland Outports: As Taken from Kenneth Peacock’s Newfoundland Field Collection, 1951-1961.

Anna Kearney Guigné. The Forgotten Songs of the Newfoundland Outports: As Taken from Kenneth Peacock’s Newfoundland Field Collection, 1951-1961. Music re-edited and transcribed by Evelyn Osborne. Mercury Series, Cultural Studies Paper 87. (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of History and University of Ottawa Press, 2016)

By Peter G. Toner

Kenneth Peacock’s three-volume Songs of the Newfoundland Outports (1965) is well-known among Atlantic Canadian folklorists and ethnomusicologists as an important contribution to the collection of Newfoundland folksongs, following on the heels of academic collectors like Elizabeth Greenleaf and Grace Mansfield, Maud Karpeles, MacEdward Leach, and Margaret Sargent McTaggart, as well as local folksong promoters and popularizers like James Murphy, John Burke, and Gerald Doyle. Peacock, working on behalf of the National Museum of Canada, made six field trips to Newfoundland between 1951 and 1961 and collected a total of 766 songs and melodies from 118 singers in 38 communities, of which 546 were published in Songs of the Newfoundland Outports.

Front-Cover-365x509-forgotten-songs-1-365x500

Anna Kearney Guigné. The Forgotten Songs of the Newfoundland Outports: As Taken from Kenneth Peacock’s Newfoundland Field Collection, 1951-1961.

Much recent scholarship on folk music and other aspects of folk culture (for example, Neil Rosenberg, Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, 1993 and Ian McKay, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, 1994) quite correctly scrutinizes the curatorial and editorial choices that underlie field collecting, sound recording, musical transcription, festival organization, radio broadcast, album production, and the publication of folksong collections, each of which is an activity that engages a process of cultural selection on the part of the collector/recordist/impresario, both in “the field” and afterward. There always appears to be a gap between the total repertories of folk singers, the subset of those repertories chosen for collection in the field, and the even smaller subset of the latter chosen for publication, and at each stage certain songs are canonized as “authentic” and “traditional” while others may be quietly forgotten. Gaining a clear perspective on the nature of those curatorial and editorial choices is still a pressing challenge for contemporary folksong scholarship.

The great value of Anna Kearney Guigné’s The Forgotten Songs of the Newfoundland Outports is that it reveals something of those processes in the case of Newfoundland’s most iconic collection of folksongs. Guigné focuses her attention on a substantial portion of the songs that Peacock collected during his field trips but, for one reason or another, chose not to publish in his magnum opus, giving the reader a fascinating insight into one scholar’s process of cultural selection, as well as into the diverse and increasingly cosmopolitan musical world of Newfoundland’s outports in the mid-20th century.

In her cogent introduction, Guigné makes it clear that mass mediation was an important influence in Newfoundland for at least a century before Peacock arrived on the island, from imported sheet music and songsters, to newspaper columns like the “Old Favourites” section of the Family Herald and Weekly Star, to radio broadcasts and commercial recordings. These various sources provided singers in Newfoundland’s outports with a wide variety of music from vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, as well as early country-and-western music from the mainland of Canada and the United States, much of which entered those singers’ active repertories. And why wouldn’t it? As a fundamentally important cultural process, music is made meaningful through performance and consumption at the local level, even if that music arrives from “elsewhere” through mass mediation.

Not all of this material, however, was considered equally consequential by Peacock himself. Peacock’s own introduction to Songs of the Newfoundland Outports reveals a somewhat romanticized view of the “tribalism” of the “old way of life” in the outports, as well as of his own role in travelling to the outports to bring back that “authentic culture”.[1] Peacock also spoke to the need for collectors to be “more ruthless in sifting out poor material at the source before it can clutter up our already overburdened and understaffed archives” through the selection of “the best and most representative material of its type even if this means including the occasional second-rate song to illustrate the decline of a tradition or the first faltering attempts to create a new genre”.[2] To his credit, Peacock did not focus exclusively on anonymous and orally-transmitted songs or Child ballads, including some recently- and locally-composed songs and songs obtained through mass mediation. But many did not make the cut from the field recordings to the pages of Songs of the Newfoundland Outports.

It is precisely here where Guigné’s book makes such an important contribution, focusing on all of those songs that did not make the cut. These are the songs of the music halls and minstrel shows; the songs recorded by the likes of Hank Snow and the Carter Family and picked up on radio broadcasts originating in St. John’s, or New Brunswick, or even Wheeling, West Virginia; songs both requested and provided by readers of “Old Favourites” in the Family Herald; songs about unionization and labour unrest; songs accompanied on guitar; songs that Peacock may have felt were too contemporary for publication. That Peacock collected such materials speaks to his willingness to take the singers he worked with seriously and to treat them with respect. That many of these songs were not subsequently published underscores Peacock’s particular scholarly interests, sense of musical aesthetics, and working assumptions about “authenticity”. Guigné provides an illuminating yet non-judgmental reflection on Peacock as a collector and publisher of folksongs by her careful attention to these “forgotten songs”.

The Forgotten Songs of the Newfoundland Outports is a handsomely-produced book, with crisp musical transcriptions prepared by Evelyn Osborne and annotated song texts provided by Guigné, and includes a comprehensive bibliography. Each song is presented in a manner reminiscent of Peacock’s own presentation (title, recording number, singer’s name, date, community, musical transcription, song texts, and notes on the song) although the songs are presented alphabetically (and, therefore, neutrally) rather than using Peacock’s somewhat loaded thematic categories (“comic ditties”, “laments”, “murder ballads”). A particularly important component of Guigné’s book is a companion set of recordings of a selection of the songs in streaming mp3 format, taken from Peacock’s field collections and hosted on the Canadian Museum of History’s YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/CanMusCiv. This is a welcomed contribution to Canadian folksong scholarship, especially for those scholars who are particularly interested in critically reflecting upon the role of folksong collectors in the invention of regional folksong canons.


Peter G. Toner is a social anthropologist and ethnomusicologist at St. Thomas University. He has conducted research on folk music in New Brunswick since 2005, in addition to research since 1995 on Australian Aboriginal music.


Works Cited

[1] Kenneth Peacock, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports (Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1965): xix-xx.

[2] Peacock, xxii.

Advertisements

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Peter Toner reviews Anna Kearney Guigné’s The Forgotten Songs of the Newfoundland Outports: As Taken from Kenneth Peacock’s Newfoundland Field Collection, 1951-1961.

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 14, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s