Nights acapella: giving voice to our songs

March 2020

On the last Thursday of every month, a wonderful time is had at The Crow’s Nest Officer’s Club in downtown St John’s. It is home to the St John’s Song Circle, an amazing event run by singers Linda Byrne and Eleanor Dawson. They, with some friends, founded it 16 years ago, the last Thursday of every month, at the Crow’s Nest.

The Crow’s Nest is a private officers Club. It is located directly next to the War Memorial on Duckworth Street, so the entrance is tucked away from the stairs between Water and Duckworth. Established during World War II to provide a location for officers from all nations to come together to relax, share stories, and generally unwind, the club features a major collection of military artifacts, many of which date from WWII, preserving the memory of the officers and sailors who bravely escorted ships across the North Atlantic. The Song Circle rents the club for its events and charges a $5 admission fee. The bar itself is a small intimate setting and has food services.

Eleanor is my mother, so I was raised hearing her sing. She and Linda have been friends for over 40 years. They were both involved in the beginnings of the first Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, and my mom was on the first Board of the Folk Arts Council. Both she and Linda were an integral part of the revival of traditional and folk music in the province, particularly unaccompanied singing – acapella – and indeed, no instruments are allowed in these evenings. It is only voices you will hear, as people sing songs from various genres and/or tell stories and perform recitations. The Song Circle is where I first got the courage to sing folk songs I had heard growing up, and where many other people have sung for the first time as well.

There is something special about an acapella song. You have to know the words and have an affinity for the song. I always felt that in the traditional music world, things like perfect pitch and enunciation weren’t as important as knowing all the words and singing the song with true feeling. If you learned a song and sang it enough at parties, you “had” the song.  I grew up listening to and falling asleep to the sound of parties, and people singing – I learned to associate certain songs with certain people. It was more about the joy of singing than it was about musical ability – singing a song could be done by anyone, as long as they knew the words and felt the song. I am glad that I was exposed to that as a child.

Acapella singing was very popular in Newfoundland and Labrador, probably out of necessity as instruments weren’t always available. The voice became the instrument. Songs were transmitted and preserved through people learning them from their elders. This usually occurred within social gatherings – songs were adapted and new lyrics were often added to make the songs more current to contemporary lives. When an audience member hears an acapella song they focus on the singer, the words and emotion of the song, the intonation of the voice, etc. Linda and Mom both host, taking turns singing and encouraging others to sing. They both specialize in traditional Newfoundland ballads but are also lovers of classic country and folk. The nights vary depending on who is in attendance but it’s always an interesting and fun time. You might hear a traditional ballad followed by Wichita Lineman or San Francisco. Anything and everything is welcome. Usually, once a singer starts others join in.  It is so great to hear everyone singing along. It’s hard to describe the feeling when everyone joins in; it gives me goosebumps, and I leave the session feeling a little bit lighter than when I arrived.

These nights are incredibly important for keeping our tradition of sharing songs alive. We can all benefit from seeing “how it’s done”. Mom and Linda have taught so many people their songs, passing them on in this beautiful old tradition. I do enjoy learning songs from albums of course, but learning directly from a singer is much more memorable. I have a recording in my iPhone of my godmother singing The cliffs of Baccalieu while her husband is heard in the background offering me a cup of tea and the dog is barking. This is so special to me.

A number of regulars at the Song Circle perform recitations, mainly ones they write themselves, usually about some current event. Recitations have been a very important part of NL cultural history, used both as a form of entertainment as well as a great way to spread the news. Recitations are basically stories told in a poetic manner – they often rhyme and are usually funny. The Broadsides that Johnny Burke wrote in the early part of the 20th century fall into this same category. It’s wonderful to see recitations still being performed, shared, and learned.

Participants at the song circle range from folklore students, tourists, and regulars – basically anyone who loves songs and singing. A number of people who never sang in public before have found their voice and now sing regularly and share their favourite songs. One man hasn’t missed a session since its beginning while another regularly came in from out of town and made it a two-day visit to St John’s. The bartender also gets in on the action by singing the final song of the night, usually a Vera Lynn favourite.

Nights like these are what makes a place special. It’s unique and something you’re not likely to find every day. It’s a mix of contemporary culture with traditional elements – we’re lucky to have this event in our city. I am now learning The Wayward Wind to sing at the next one, which is the last Thursday of this month!

Monica Walsh is an actor, writer and singer from St. John’s. She is the founder and artistic director of Kanutu Theatre and creator of Scene, and Blurred, a touring open mic series for writers and performance artists.