Vernacular Song, Cultural Identity, and Nationalism in Newfoundland, 1920-1955


  • E. David Gregory Athabasca University


Although a force in Newfoundland politics and culture, nationalist sentiment was not strong enough in 1948 to prevent confederation with Canada. The absence among many Newfoundlanders of a strong sense of belonging to an independent country was the underlying reason for Smallwood's referendum victory. Most islanders were descendants of immigrants from either Ireland or the English West Country. Nowadays, they view themselves as Newfoundlanders first and foremost but it took centuries for that common identity to be forged. How can we gauge when that change from old (European) to new (Newfoundland) identity took place in the outport communities? Vernacular song texts provide one valuable source of evidence. Three collections of Newfoundland songs - Gerald Doyle's The Old Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland, Elisabeth Greenleaf's Ballads and Sea Songs from Newfoundland, and Maud Karpeles' Folk Songs from Newfoundland - illuminate the degree to which by the late 1920s a Newfoundland song-culture had replaced earlier cultural traditions. These songs suggest that the island was still a cultural mosaic: some outports were completely Irish, others were English, and in a few ethnically-mixed communities, including St. John's, there was an emergent, home-grown, patriotic song-culture. Cultural nationalism was still a minority tradition in the Newfoundland of 1930.

Author Biography

E. David Gregory, Athabasca University

E. David Gregory is Associate Professor of History and Humanities in the Centre for Global & Social Analysis, Athabasca University. He is currently Past President of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada, a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Society for Traditional Music, and editor of Canadian
Folk Music/Bulletin de la musique folklorique canadienne
. His publications include The Athabasca Ryga, Athabasca Landing: An Illustrated History, and articles on the history of English and Canadian folksong. His third book, Victorian Songhunters, is forthcoming with Scarecrow Press.