Foreword to the 2020 Edition

Tom Power

I remember a (rare) sunny afternoon at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival - I was walking around Bannerman Park taking in all the music I could. As I walked from stage to stage, I heard just about everywhere I went - tunes. Not Irish tunes, or Quebecois tunes, or American fiddle tunes (that I would hear at virtually every other folk festival in North America), but instead, Newfoundland and Labrador traditional tunes. The music passed on or composed by Emile Benoit, Rufus Guinchard, Little Joe Palliser and more, ringing out of the PAs from all different levels of players; long time vets of the ‘trad’ scene in NL, amateur players who had picked up the fiddle late and (perhaps most inspiring) young kids just starting out playing ‘Pretty Little Mary’. These tunes that afternoon were largely played by people who could never have had the privilege of meeting these heroes of NL music due to geography, opportunity or, most likely, age. As our band The Dardanelles were getting ready for our show that night (playing so many of the same tunes) it dawned on me. While we owe such a debt of gratitude to the long line of tune composers, and those who played tunes from their communities, we also owe an incredible debt to those who went to collect this music so that generations like mine can learn, understand, and perform ‘our’ music; in particular Kelly Russell and his collection of tunes from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Kelly Russell’s collection is a sort of gospel for learning NL traditional instrumental music. When getting together and playing tunes, at some point someone might say ‘I got that one out of Kelly’s book’ or while The Dardanelles were arranging tunes and creating sets, if we were stuck for a piece of music, someone would dig out one of ’Kelly’s books’ and see what might be there. Other collections have been made of Newfoundland traditional instrumental music but it’s hard to think of one with the same impact, and rather it’s easy to think of how many were made inspired by Kelly’s work. We’d regularly have friends on the ‘mainland’ ask us to bring up a copy of Kelly’s book so they could learn this treasure trove of traditional music. It gives me the greatest joy that this music is now more accessible, and the joy and beauty of Newfoundland and Labrador’s traditional music can now be shared far and wide and in particular with a new generation of NL musicians.

The great Clare fiddler Martin Hayes often says (and I’ll paraphrase and take some liberties here) that Irish music contains everything one would need in music: the darkness, the light, the bright rhythms, the laments, the virtuosic and the beautifully simple. In this collection I feel a strong case is made that Newfoundland music, while perhaps not as well known as Irish music worldwide, contains the same multitude of what great music can be: from deceptively simple tunes that are perfect for a late night dance, to tunes to learn when you first pick up your instrument, to more complex ‘crooked’ tunes perfect for a late night session, spritely major singles, pulse-pounding minor doubles, anarchic breakdowns and stunning waltzes. Learning the tunes in this collection can indeed be a way to build repertoire, but more; learning these tunes can be a way to understand the ‘where’, ‘what’ and most importantly ‘why’ of this music. Kelly’s affection and admiration for the people behind the music shines through his transcriptions and the stories of those who played them, those who have now passed on.

As I said on stage that night at Bannerman Park, folks like Kelly Russell (and Pamela Morgan and Anita Best and Gerald Thomas and Christina Smith...and…and…and…) are to our generation what Emile Benoit, Rufus Guinchard, Anne Felix and Minnie White were to theirs. They are links to another time, another depth of experience around traditional music, another context to music rather than clicking a playlist. They played, collected and celebrated this music not just out of a sense of some patriotic duty, but out of sheer joy and affection for the music and the musicians who performed it. As we are fond of saying in The Dardanelles when pressed by outlets as to 'why' young Newfoundlanders still play this 'old music': this music is important, sure, but mainly it’s just simply really, really good. When Kelly plays the tunes in this book (and believe me, he can play all of them) you hear the reverence for the music, but you see the unmistakable and irrepressible joy that is inherent in this music. So ultimately I hope you have the same fun, the same joy, playing these tunes as generations have had before and let me offer my deepest gratitude to Kelly Russell and everyone involved in making this collection available to all.

Tom Power - Musician, CBC Host, June 2020