Toronto Star, July 7, 2016: BONNE BAY, NEWFOUNDLAND—The guy driving the water taxi is the same guy singing about whale bones on the CD playing over the speakers as we cross Bonne Bay on the west coast of Newfoundland.
Mike McDonald is taking us on the 10-minute boat ride from Norris Point to Woody Point on a sunny-enough afternoon inGros Morne National Park.
You can’t help but hum as we get closer.
A blue boat tied up at the wharf, a white church up the hill and the red geological marvel that is the Tablelands in the distance. McDonald and I are old friends by the time I get off in Woody Point. I met him the night before when a band he plays in, Anchors Aweigh, rocked the Ocean View Motel in Rocky Harbour.
RV’ers from across the U.S. and Canadians from Cape Breton to Calgary applauded as the five musicians gave a few Newfoundland history lessons and told more than a few corny jokes.
They played (expertly) everything from a mashup of “Pinball Wizard” and “Aunt Martha’s Sheep” to “Salt Water Joys,” a love song for the island. After “Grey Foggy Day,” a ballad lamenting the death of Newfoundland’s cod fishery in 1992, the Montana rancher sitting next to me leaned over to say: “It’s amazing what you can learn about a place listening to its music.”
When they did Ron Hynes’ anthem “Sonny’s Dream,” a few Canadians in the crowd sang along. Sure, even mainlanders know how that one goes: “Sonny, don’t go away/I am here all alone/And your daddy’s a sailor/Who never comes home. “
Newfoundlanders have been singing about loss and longing for hundreds of years. They’ve also sung a few bawdy tunes and more than their fair share of fun ones — “I’se the B’y,” anyone?
Stephanie Payne researches hundreds of traditional songs and sings a handful every year in Cow Head, near the top of Gros Morne. Some songs are sad — “Dear Katy I am bound to the sea” — others are silly, about “knickers” or husbands who drink too much.
As Payne and three other singers — a couple clad in “Free Nfld” T-shirts — perform the Neddy Norris Night show at the Warehouse Theatre next to the Shallow Bay Motel, you get a new appreciation for the strong sense of place and story you find here. As she closes the show, part of the Gros Morne Theatre Festival, Payne urges everyone to find their own folklore back home.
“Listen to the stories and songs, even conversations from your own place,” Payne tells the crowd. “You’ll learn much.”
Granted, we don’t all have a UNESCO World Heritage Site in our backyard to motivate our soundtracks.
Gros Morne, all 1,805 sq. km., received the designation for the cliffs that fall into the waves, Long Range Mountains, and a landlocked fjord with towering 600-metre walls of rock.
Taking an afternoon cruise and craning your neck in Western Brook Pond makes you want write a song or a poem or get a tattoo or something.
It’s that kind of inspiration that attracted writers and musicians to Gros Morne for years. TheWriters at Woody Point has become an important Canadian literary event and other gatherings are beginning to take shape.
My visit to Woody Point coincides with the last night of Liminus, a sort of international festival of big thinkers.
Singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer has come too, and between songs at the Woody Point Heritage Theatre, she talks about “the heartiness of this place,” and how it’s “the setting for ideas to take off.” Meanwhile, the woman next to me doesn’t think twice about leaving her wallet on her chair when she runs to the loo.
You can take off your sneakers and give up the race, Ron Hynes wrote about the island where Sonny dreams.
As I drive south along the coast of Gros Morne, marvelling at the rock that meets the sea and listening to the CD I bought on the water taxi, I start singing along to McDonald’s gorgeous voice doing a reggae version of Hyne’s classic: “The waves keep on rolling/They’ve done that for years and for years.”