4 April 2019
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe continues his busk from Newcastle to Newfoundland and finds himself in a strangely familiar place.
I recently purchased a CD of rowing songs from Canada to add to my one from the North East of England; two CDs make a Crewcial Collection, right? Part I concluded with the death of James Renforth in Saint John, New Brunswick. This second part is about a similarly named place, St. John’s, Newfoundland, which on a global map looks a hop-step-and-a-jump from Saint John but is actually about 1,000 kilometres away as the crow flies.
St. John’s lays claim to the oldest organized sporting event in North America: Royal St. John’s Regatta – established in 1818. The regatta’s website reports:
It has been a part of Newfoundland history for almost 200 years. The first record of an organized event was in 1816, but rowing matches were common among ships crews in St. John’s Harbour since at least the 1700s. These days, the Regatta draws crowds of up to 50,000 people annually to the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake. It is widely known as “The Largest Garden Party in the World” because it has been about socializing as much as amateur sport. Concession stands, wheels of fortune, games of chance, and food & drink are just as much part of the Regatta’s history as the races.
The collection of songs on this CD, Regatta Songs and Stories, covers all aspects what makes Royal St. John’s Regatta a very unique event: the anticipation of the coming races, the records set, the legends both on and off the water and the family atmosphere surrounding the whole day. What surprised me most about this collection was the familiarity of the music; of the tunes and the lyrics, not to mention the instruments and the accents but above all – the names mentioned in many of the songs – it was like a roll call in an Irish classroom.
Let me take you through the tracks with a verse from each (as heard by me, as no lyrics supplied).
Track 1 – Up the Pond (Francis Forbes).
There is a little flavour of the tune in this video.
No lyrics to this tune but it has quite a history. It was written in 1820 by Sir Francis Forbes, Chief Justice of Newfoundland, during a time when his ship was lost in fog on the Grand Banks. Also known as The Banks of Newfoundland, as a Regatta tune, it is more popularly known as Up The Pond and is traditionally played as the crews pass the bandstand on their return to the stakes on the second leg of a race.
Track 2 – On Regatta Day (Ray O’Leary).
A modern song written and performed by Ray O’Leary who also plays guitar, bass and bodhran.
So, take me down to St. John’s town on regatta day.
For the day of the races you know I love to stay,
and watch the crews row on the pond as the crowds all gather there.
When I set foot down by the lake you know my heart is there.
Track 3 – 9:12.04 (Pat Casey with additional; lyrics by Ray O’Leary).
Regatta 1981 – Smith Stockley 09:12:04 Record
The race that gave us track 3.
The first three verses:
If you listen, a story I’ll tell you.
It started in 1901,
When a record was set to be broken,
By a great crew of Outer Cove sons.
That year at the grand old regatta,
Some thought they had witnessed a dream,
When a great crew of Outer Cove fishermen,
They rowed it in 9:13.
Well, the record stood 80 years later,
When along came a coach Jimmy Ring,
And with some help from Smith Stockley,
He assembled a crew that could win.
Track 4 – One Last Spin (J. Morrissey).
This is a story of what happens when you let your heart rule your head. Here are the opening lines followed by a snippet from the chorus.
I rowed on the pond for 37 years.
Then I retired and sat around,
And drank too many beers.
One day I met an old friend whilst sitting in the sun.
He said let’s put a crew together – for a bit of fun.
We’re the only crew that has more than one stroke.
They can’t use a starting gun cos we may croak.
Track 5 – Star of the Sea (Traditional).
A short song about a boat on its Christening Day. Once blessed, the Outer Cove boys take her for a spin on the lake.
From the curling rig they brought her, a pretty sight was seen,
Headed by the Star Flag, the old Pink, White and Green.
They said she was a beauty, she looked so neat and trim,
Sir Michael Cashin gave her, and they gave three cheers for him.
The Star Association thanked him for what he’d done,
They are all so proud of the president, his son.
She was then blessed by a surrogate from Erin’s lovely isle,
Father Daniel Callaghan who loved his sons of toil.
Track 6 – It’s Regatta Day Today/Turning the Buoys (Ray O’Leary/Ray O’Leary and Pat Moran).
A short song followed by a rousing tune; all together it lasts three minutes. The weather is key to Royal St. John’s Regatta, traditionally held on the first Wednesday of August; if weather and wind conditions are not suitable, the event is postponed until the next suitable day. Since Regatta Day is a civic holiday in St. John’s, this means that the weather actually determines whether or not workers have the day off.
Sun comes up the time begins,
We hope today there is no wind,
Turn on the news and listen in,
It’s regatta-day today.
Track 7 – Ladies of the Lake (J. Morrissey).
Ladies of the Lake celebrates the first time that women raced at St. John’s Regatta. In 1856, two women’s crews from different neighbourhoods of St. John’s, one from Quidi Vidi and one from The Battery, raced in traditional six-oar boats with the Quidi Vidi women taking the win. It was almost another century before women again competed at the regatta. A 1945 newspaper column ‘Notes on the Regatta’ reported the decision of the Regatta Committee not to include a Ladies’ Race in the WW2 Victory Regatta but this was overturned in 1949 – and four-women’s crews competed in that year’s event.
Here’s to all you women who take up the oar.
Like the daring young ladies in days of yore.
To you all, we’ll raise a glass of cheer.
You do us proud year after year.
In 1856, the ladies started a trend,
When Quidi Vidi and The Battery raced end to end.
Then in 1949, again they took up the oar,
And claimed their rightful place for evermore.
Track 8 – Me and My Dad (J. Morrissey).
Two verses from either end of this song reveal the traditional family day out that has sustained St. John’s Regatta for two centuries. I’m not crying, you’re crying!
When I was old enough to hold my father’s hand,
He took me to the races; we sat up by the band.
He bought me popcorn and drink,
There were crowds where’er I looked.
By the time the band played Up the Pond,
I was forever hooked.
Now many years have come and gone,
My father’s passed away.
But he left the place in my heart,
Reserved for regatta day.
Now every year we go to the lake to join in all the fun,
To watch the races and play the games, me and my son.
Track 9 – Coppertop (Jack Dodd).
Bob ‘Copper Top’ Codner was the stroke of the Torbay crew that won both the Fisherman’s Race (time 9:31.6) and the All Comers Race (time 9:29.0) in 1934. I’m not sure how his nick-name should be written – as in the title of the song or as in an article called “Police got a break from Torbay, “Copper Top”” from The Telegram (St. John’s) printed on 31 July 2012.
His friends they called him Copper Top but Codnor was his name.
And down on Quidi Vidi Lake, he rowed his name in fame.
For out of races is twenty-nine, twenty-eight he won.
For years the second fastest time on Quidi Vidi pond.
Track 10 – The legend of William Summers (Gus Burton).
This song celebrates the achievements of the William Summers sponsored crew that won six championships in-a-row between 1959 and 1964. They became known as The Untouchable Crew and were usually chased down the course by a crew of policemen, so perhaps a misquote from Bob Dylan’s She Belongs to Me – “the Law can’t touch ‘them’ at all” – is appropriate.
I’ll sing of a legend, a story that’s true,
Concerning the boys of the William Summers Crew.
They rowed on the pond in the Championship race.
They hold the record of six victories straight.
Track 11 – 9:13 (Mary Stack).
Track 3 celebrates the crew that broke the record of 9.13, a record that stood for 81 years. This quick tempo number does the same for the 1901 crew that set that record. I could refer to it as a ‘Come-all-ye’ as it begins with those words that often begin an Irish ballad. It is not an easy tune from which to pick up the exact lyrics, but I was fortunate enough to finally come up trumps with an internet search. The song is based on a poem by L. E. F. English, published in 1954. The Banks of Newfoundland is the original name for Up the Pond (see Track 1). I particularly like the last two lines and the use of Fiddler’s Green in poem. The song version changes the last line to ‘It’ll be the same for any crew who’ll beat the 9:13.’
Track 12 – An Oarsman’s Dream (J. Morrissey).
This is the longest track at 6:50 and it is a spoken poem or prose poem set to the gentle sound a guitar.
Last evening, I went for a walk down around the lake.
Halfway round I sat down on a grassy hill for a break.
I put my head back and looked up at the clear blue summer Skies.
After a long moment or two, I gradually shut my eyes.
The story continues and sees the narrator approached by a stranger and taken for a spin in a boat. They clock eight-minutes over the championship course (not one of their fastest times!). Well it is a dream … or is it?
If he had continued his walk around the lake, he would have come across a beautiful sculpture installed in 2005 to celebrate the regatta. Read more about ‘The Rower’ on sculptor Morgan MacDonald’s website.
This CD is well worth a listen. My only reservations are the order of the tracks and I would like it to have had a stronger finish, perhaps with a reprise of Up the Pond. Something like this by Newfoundland trad-music outfit Shanneyganock. Are you ready?