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Newfoundland Country Music: Celtic Accordion + Hank Williams

June 6, 2015

Forgive my ignorance but the last few days I’ve got new thoughts going on about Newfoundland accordion. As a newcomer I’m just realizing they have more than one accordion tradition running in parallel (and mixing). There’s traditional Irish tunes and that, filtered through songbooks and radio and records and hundreds of years (actually more like 130 years) of accordions which probably kicked out some of the trickier fiddle tunes. I’m just getting though that they have this Newfoundland country music that seems pretty distinctive. (I assume everybody who knows anything about Newfoundland doesn’t need to be told this, sorry.)

Simani’s Old Man’s Accordion. Isn’t that the sweetest thing?

I’m trying to write about this now, and finding bits and pieces others have done, but it’s hard to get beyond the simple “Irish Music Outpost” view of Newfoundland, Once again I’m struck by the irony when folklorists pick and choose what they like from the music that “folk” actually listen too. I think it’s really interesting though, simple accordions layered onto basic country ballads in sort of a combo of music-hall Irish ballads with Hank Williams. Sort of brilliant in a way.

Years ago, the late Peter Narváez from Memorial University in St. John’s wrote some about it. I really wish I could have met him, an inspiration. His work on the Latin influence on the Blues was really cool. You can find his original 1977 “Country and Western in Diffusion: Juxtaposition and Syncretism in the Popular Music of Newfoundland” at the awesome Memorial University archives in Newfoundland. It’s pretty darn cool, but then I’m a sucker most things that use the world “syncretism.”

Anyways, interesting. It seems quite basic musically, kind of  honky-tonk accordion. If that had hung on in Southern Country music it would have been fun.

There’s some related work on Minnessotta’s Upper Midwest “Old Time Music,” which combined ethnic polkas and country. Seems sort of parallel. James P. Leary has written about how hard it is for other academics and folklorists to wrap their heads around the idea of these “mixture” traditions, even though other trads are equally mixed – we’re just used to them. Especially when you mix something like country, a low-status popular style, with some old folk tradition, the high-brows just want to edit that out.

It is troubling how popular “folk music” left out whole regions of the United States (Leary’s Upper Midwest). Why did Bob Dylan not pick up the accordion that people were playing all around him (local Minnesota folk music) and instead ran off to be an American? Good questions. Maybe Leary’s work with the long ignored Alan Lomax recordings from the 1930s will help change that. I can’t wait to read his Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946, which is finally available! (I can’t help but cheer if people find accordion through Lomax’s work since he later developed an irrational hatred for what he called the “pestiferous instrument.”)

So I’m jumpin’ on this Newfoundland country thing. Opening my ears to some real folk I suppose.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2015 3:39 pm

    Bruce, you are a pretty amazing person.

    • June 15, 2015 10:29 pm

      Gosh, thanks! Now I’m on to Inuit accordion up in (now) Nunavut. For a modern version? http://thejerrycans.com/ (Playing the Vancouver International Folk Festival this summer!)

  2. June 16, 2015 5:20 pm

    About Bob Dylan. I know someone who knows someone who knew his mother. If I were to ask I bet the answer would be that Bobby fiddled with an accordion every now and then. I think, coming from Minnesota up by the big lake, there were a few accordions laying around for him to explore. Great post! Christa

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