A Newfoundland Folk Christmas:
Ten seasonal treats from home you need to hear
By Ryan Belbin
Growing up, the month of December was chockablock with imagery. The Christmas season stands out as being the most visceral time of the year, and all of those images are accompanied by the music that was playing at the time.
Newfoundland folk music has been there, from the crowded kitchens to iTunes, capturing the character of a Newfoundland Christmas. Call this a handpicked bag of seasonal goodies for the reflections, celebrations, and hangovers to come this December, and to give a taste of where traditions and the contemporary scene meet on a rocky island in the ocean during the darkest time of the year to shine a bit of light.
“Carry Me Home” Hey Rosetta! (A Cup of Kindness Yet, 2012)
If there are a hundred songs about Newfoundlanders wanting to be home, at least a dozen of them are specifically about wanting to be home for Christmas. A. Frank Willis’s “Hello Mom and Dad,” the Irish Descendants’ “Heading Home for Christmas,” and Ron Hynes’s “I’ll Be There Christmas Eve” are all excellent, but what makes these indie champions’ track stand out from the rest is that it’s got a festive flair that doesn’t restrict it to a once-a-year playtime, because of the infectious melody and effortless lyrics.
“Mummer’s Song” Simani (Christmas Fancy, 1984)
For many, this is the Newfoundland Christmas tune. “Christmas Fancy” from the same album is just as good a song, but it didn’t have near the same impact because the story of a late night visit from the Mummers was so unique and specific to a traditional outport way of life that it became iconic, and most Newfoundlanders’ only exposure to the tradition of jannying. Much like the disguises, there’s more to the truth of the tradition than meets the eye (see the darker depiction of mummers in Michael Crummey’s Galore or Dale Jarvis’s Any Mummers ’Lowed In?), but Simani were never taking advantage of where they came from to make a buck—the song was always a sincere, albeit nostalgic, remembrance, a blurring of myth and memory.
“Oh My Rudolph” The Once (This is a Christmas Album by the Once, 2012)
Phil Churchill teamed up with Jody Richardson from the Pathological Lovers to pen a duet about two lovers separated on Christmas Eve. Those lovers happen to be Rudolph and his reindeer wife, but Churchill and Geraldine Hollett get behind the epic production without any semblance of a smirk or irony. Their whole Christmas album is a treat, but the 5-minute closing track is something you’ve never heard before.
“Days Gone Bye” The Navigators (Sea Miner, 2009)
No other time of the year elicits nostalgia in quite the same way as Christmas, and it’s for that reason that the happiest time of the year has the capacity to be the saddest at the same time—children grow up, friends and family move apart and pass away, and change happens whether we like it or not. “Days Gone Bye” makes you think about those things, but it does so without coming out and saying it—on its face, it’s just a typical Christmas party, but the pipes, fiddle, and Fred Jorgensen’s ragged, booming delivery all reiterate that this is a night that won’t come around again.
“Mary’s Lullaby” The Ennis Sisters (It’s Christmas, 2012)
If you only know Wince Coles for the unabashedly silly songs he and his brother Ellis churn out (see the next entry), you might overlook the fact that he’s recorded more than his share of gospel tunes and penned scads of beautiful lyrics (take “By the Glow of the Kerosene Lamp” as a shining example). The Ennis Sisters combined their three-part harmonies for their gorgeous interpretation of this song, a gentle story of rocking a baby to sleep on the night before something amazing happens.
“Why Santa Goes Ho Ho Ho” Ellis and Wince Coles (Downhomer Presents: Newfoundland Christmas, 1999)
If you’ve ever heard a more honest-to-God Newfoundland seasonal lyric than “Hurry up Eli, Christmas depends on we,” I want to hear it. Santa gets stuck naked in the chimney, there’s a Yule Log, shenanigans, and a matter-of-fact delivery as if this is just another day around the bay.
“The Piper in the Meadow/Ding Dong Merrily on High” Tickle Harbour (The Christmas Wish, 1999)
Here’s a medley of instrumental tunes whose names may lack familiarity but whose melodies are a marriage of traditional carols and down home frivolity. The song starts off slow, like a walk down a snowy street in the early evening, and gets going as the door to a neighbour’s home opens up and you kick the snow off your boots. If instrumental songs are your cup of tea, Dave Panting did another excellent folksy take on classics with “Good King Wenceslas/Deck the Halls/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on the 2002 follow-up to this compilation, The Christmas Wish 2.
“A Children’s Winter” Ryan’s Fancy (Dark Island, 1971)
Good luck finding the original recording, but the track was re-mastered in 2011 for What a Time! A Forty Year Celebration. In much the same vein as “Candlelight and Wine” and “West Country Lady,” the late Dermot O’Reilly wrote a song that instantly became part of the canon of traditional music, and a slew of local musicians have performed some variant of this nod to childhood and winter mornings (the Ennis Sisters’ version in 2012 is probably the best).
“I’ll Come First This Christmas” Sherry Ryan feat. Mick Davis (I’ll Come First This Christmas (Single), 2013)
If every Christmas song in your playlist is about family and friends and foolishness, you’re going to be awfully depressed if you can’t relate. Mick Davis of the Novaks joins Sherry Ryan, bringing keyboards, a brass section, and a whole lot of energy to have the most fun breakup song (“I’m going out to paint the town red . . . and green / For Christmas”). Plus, Water Street never looks as pretty as it does when it’s aglow in the awesome music video.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” Shanneyganock (Christmas, 2004)
Picking one track from this album was a challenge, since the accordion-infused celebration of St. Stephen’s Day (“The Wren”) and the hilarious ode to a resettled Santa Claus who prefers codheads to cookies (another Wince Coles tune, “Santa’s a Bayman Like Us”) are standouts in their own right. This number is Shanneyganock at their best: Chris Andrews leading his powerful baritone through the classic carol, steered by Mark Hiscock’s rapidfire squeezebox. Let the storm blow outside, ’cause the guys plan on keeping things toasty and warm where the party is.