Ah, distinctly I remember, it was grade ten, high school, a new school, and I was in a music class. The two years previous to that were in a small outport community called Western Bay, in a school called Jackson-Walsh Memorial High. The school was small, the teachers poorly-paid (and oftentimes not worth what they were paid; I knew more french than my teacher did), the school old and underfunded. They'd cut the music program a few years previous, and even if there was a music class there, it wouldn't have been a good one. The instruments were few and in poor condition.
So, naturally, when I moved to the big city, to real high school, it was like a whole new life for me. There was a decent music program, if a little poor on the instrument side of things, being for the most part bring-your-own-instrument, if you wanted to get anything done. There was, however, no lack of instruments typically used in traditional Irish music. That's the way it goes in Newfoundland. Bodhrans, mandolins, fiddles, guitars: these things were in the music room, in great abundance.
Newfoundland is the only place I've lived that teaches local culture in high school. In Ontario, there is no culture or sense of social history, or pride, only a vague memory that there was once a place called Upper Canada. There was a BNA Act once. There were also Metis, but who cares about them? Social studies in Canadian high school, in my estimation, has never been important to the students. They learn because they have to, not because they want to. In Newfoundland, the culture is so unique, so fabulous, that I wanted to learn more about it, that I wanted to feel the music, have a kitchen party, take off me duds by the fire, and dance up a jig. And why not? It's healthy, lively, and fun.
As well as having Newfoundland Culture as a credit towards the social studies requirement of my high school diploma (read: instead of learning about Canadian history, I could learn about Newfoundland), the music courses also had a decidedly Newfoundland approach. This may have had something to do with the Newfoundland culture teacher and one of the music teachers being the same person, a woman with the last name Graham. Towards the end of the school year, we began to examine the differences between traditional Irish music, and up-and-coming Newfoundland musicians, and right away we noted that the Newfoundland musicians tend towards more "contemporary" instrumentation, like electric guitars and full drumkits, but they more than likely started their careers doing old Irish favourites. Since many of these traditional Irish songs can easily be a hundred, or hundreds of, years old, most songs are out of copyright and will appear on a local band's CD. Ashley MacIsaac has done it a million times. Great Big Sea did an old tune called Mary Mack. There is a lesser-known but well-known-in-Newfoundland band called the Irish Descendants, who do phenomenal Irish music.
Their music about Newfoundland is well-done too, but none of the songs they've done (barring Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary's) have interested me as much as Peter Street, found on their album Look To The Sea.
It's a cappella
, with the four singers singing, and it is, to be honestly, extremely beautiful. It has its own sense of irony and humour, but is sung in such a way that it's always caused an upsurge of emotion in me, and I can rarely finish singing this one without a little bit
All you landsmen and you seamen
, come listen to my song
'Twas of a trick
was played on me, it won't delay
I came from sea the other day, a fair girl
I did meet,
She kindly asked me to a dance
, was up on Peter Street
"Oh no," says I, "Me fair maid," though I could dance quite well.
"Tonight I'm bound for Wiggelow's Town, it's where my people dwell."
"You'd better come with me, she said, for the distance is not far."
And finding her so friendly, I jumped into her car.
Well, as the dance was over, straight to the bed did go,
And little did I ever think she'd pull my overthrow.
Robbed my gold watch, and thirty pounds, a pack of fags and fled,
And left me there stark naked, alone upon the bed.
Well, as I awoke in the morning there was nothing did I spy,
But a woman's shirt and apron, upon the bed did lie.
I rubbed my hands, I tore my hair, I cried, "What shall I do!
Tonight I'm bound for Wiggelow's Town, no more will I see you."
Well, as the streets were lonesome at the hour of two o'clock,
I put on that shirt and apron and marched down to the dock.
The crew, they saw me coming and these words to me did say:
"My dear old chap, you've struck a snap since you've been gone away.
Are those the new spring fashions that the ladies wear on shore?
Where is the shop you bought 'em at, and is there any more?"
The captain on the quarterdeck looked at me with a frown,
Saying, "Jack, my boy, a better suit than that for thirty pounds."
"I would sir, if I could, sir, if I only got the chance.
But I met a girl on Peter Street and she asked me to a dance.
She danced my heart's deception, I got robbed from head to feet,
And I'll take my oath, no more will I go to a dance on Peter Street."
All you landsmen and you seamen, a warning take by me:
Be sure to choose good company when you go out on spree.
Be sure to choose good company or you'll find yourself like me,
With a woman's shirt and apron for to fit you out for sea.