Give Us a Song, Newfoundland!
“Give us song,” the dark-haired beauty called out from the doorway of one of the many Celtic pubs and taverns in St. John’s, Newfoundland’s upbeat capital.
The young men sitting around the table smiled, and the patrons hoisted drinks and called for a song.
“Give us a tune,” she laughed boldly, tossing her hair carelessly.
The hand-held drum vibrated slowly.
The flute played its thin, haunting melody.
The fiddler stirred the crowd.
And a song was sung, a melody of lovers who this time triumphed over the unforgiving sea and the starkly beautiful land.
There’s something about Newfoundland that gets under your skin.
It comes from the disarmingly warm and open people.
And it comes from the aching loneliness of the surrounding sea where Lilliputian villages snuggle against the craggy faces of cliffs.
This Atlantic province is not for the tourist rushing from one photo op to another or shopping for couture in designer shops.
It’s a destination to in-gather your thoughts; to marvel at the taciturn men with laughing ways and easy quips readying boats for weeklong fishing trips.
It’s a place to respect the survival skills of villagers living in six or seven homes perched precariously on the edge of the sea.
These are a self-reliant people, fiercely independent but unfailingly eager to help. They’ll always offer a tale or two over a pint or just a chat by the side of the road.
And Newfoundland’s arts and culture deeply reflect the values and experiences of these ordinary lives, the deep community ties of this isolated place.
In the nearby cellar of the Anglican cathedral lots of Jane Marple look-alikes serve tea and crumpets in the crypt.
These blue and white haired ladies took a decrepit church basement and gaily painted its vaulted arches and catacombs.
They added tables in the coves and covered them with colorful china and cloths. With lots of “Here you are, mi Luv,” and “OK, Dearie,” they serve homemade pastries, scones, jams and non-stop conversation.
They have stories to tell.
Many of them live in the brightly colored homes of St. John’s, the deep blues and reds and greens echoing the color of the boats bobbing in ports, defiant splashes of life against a brooding sky and dark sea.
Gillian Marx, the province’s media representative, talked to us over a terrific dinner of grilled, glazed salmon, a good Pinot Grigio and crispy fried cod tongues. “Our winters are long and deep,” she said, “and so Newfoundlanders gathered in kitchens and played fiddles, hooked rugs, sang songs and told dramatic tales about the men who went down in the sea. They sang of the land and our struggle, and so our story telling tradition was born.”
The tradition is alive and well in the exuberant, kinetic three day Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival.
It lives in the comic skills of the buskers wandering the streets, performing on corners and the plazas of St. John’s.
For a population of only 530,000, Newfoundland has more art galleries, pubs, festivals and celebrations that would seem reasonable. While most of them are in St. John’s, every community in this vast island has some celebration.
Mostly they celebrate the summer and the blessed end of winter.
They celebrate with jigs, dinners and jazz.
They have dory races, potato festivals, craft fairs and 3-foot blueberry pie eat-ins.
There are mooseburgers, family pig roasts and historic walks.
And there’s the sweeping, dramatic provincial gallery: The Rooms.
Perched on a hill in St. John’s and barely a year old, The Rooms is an elegant construction of glass, chrome and surfaces that reflect the sea, seen from every angle and position.
Newfoundland artist, Christopher Pratt, brilliantly mirrors the distinct geography and culture of the island.
His work is the grand narrative of the snow, the sea and the land of Newfoundland and Labrador. But his personal style and technique carry the images of snow swept roads or isolated communities well into the realm of the universal, stirring those archetypical emotions of loneliness and awe.
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