Local legends Chris Andrews, Bud Davidge and Fergus O’Byrne reflect on Newfoundland music past and present, Paddy’s festivities and the nature of the music business.
On March 17th each year, hoards of enthusiastic folks descend upon pubs in St. John’s for beer breakfast, liquid lunch and drunken dinner. Some don’t make it far over the halfway mark, wallowing home in a surly stupor near past midday.
Yes, it’s a sea of green, of plastic paddy’s and dollar store regalia that would make your Macy’s Day Parade look tasteful. But it was not always this way, friends.
No, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is a celebration that rivals the fourth of July or Independence Day, and it’s more to do with national pride and kinship than who can drink the most green beer.
And the music… Paddy’s in Newfoundland and Labrador has and always will be about the music. Tunes, the good stuff, that our cultural backbone was founded on.
Gathering at the Newfoundland Embassy bar and eatery in downtown St. John’s, Shanneyganock frontman Chris Andrews sits side-by-side with two of his musical idols – Fergus O’Byrne of Ryan’s Fancy and Bud Davidge of Simani. It’s trad royalty in a booth sipping tea and spoonfuls of turkey soup. The good life, as it were.
The conversation centers on the music that made us, perfect for this particularly festive time of year when streets are adorned with bright green everything, but it’s a sitdown on the past, present and future of our island sound, more than anything. “Music can be a big part of your life. It can be an extremely important part of your life in that, if you have music, you’ll never be without a friend,” says O’Byrne, one of the more respected musical educators in the province.
“You can sit in your bedroom or play for 10,000 people, but you’ll always have that music to share with yourself.”
‘Romantic to me’
The island sound that began with the likes of Ryan’s Fancy, Sons of Erin, Simani, Dick Nolan, Harry Hibbs and others shaped the course of the life of Chris Andrews, who alongside Mark Hiscock celebrated 25 years of Shanneyanock in 2019.
“The road was paved by these two,” he says, gesturing towards Davidge and O’Byrne. “There’s others, you have your Harry Hibbs and Dick Nolan and Joan Morrissey and all kinds of different ones… Watching their tv shows, Land and Sea episodes and listening to the music, it was really romantic to me and Mark. I just wanted to be like these guys, I wanted to affect people with music like they did for decades now.
“My first taste of a big crowd was 17 years old playing on the George Street stage with Paddy Moran, Arthur O’Brien, Jason Whalen,” he recalls with a grin. “That little band that we made in high school that loved Ryan’s Fancy and who couldn’t see past Ryan’s Fancy and Sons of Erin. At that time Arthur was in the band and Con was doing well with Irish Descendants. It was an exciting time. You put us on that stage on multi-cultural day with a couple thousand people, I was hooked. That was it, we’ve got to make this happen. Everyone was clapping and the lights were flicking and they were happy. Sure why wouldn’t you want to be at it?”
For Bud Davidge, one half of the iconic Simani, a band who defied popular convention and ‘never quit their day job,’ opportunities to sit and reflect on the past offer an amazing perspective on how far we’ve come, and more importantly, where we’re going.
“It’s so interesting to look back,” he says. “You look back with the perspective of 40-some years in my own case. You’d be involved in it to the point where you remember all of this stuff. You see the patterns and see where it came from … This is what happens in this province over the years. It’s not a static thing. It develops and it evolves. Somebody picks up on something and moves along and does something of their own. We’ve seen it with the Celtic music and that Great Big Sea phenomena that took place, where they took all of these ingredients that was there from the old traditional music to the jigs and reels and the pickups and accordions, and they made something new out of it. The same thing is happening now. These young kids will do exactly the same thing. Of course they’re playing Mussels in the Corner now, but hold on. Next year they’ll have something new and they’ll be writing their own songs. This thing happens in this province and I have the strangest feeling that doesn’t happen in very many places the way that it happens here.”
Inspired a Generation
O’Byrne is something of an authority on the next wave of traditional Newfoundland musicians. His work with Young Folk at the Hall has inspired a generation to come. He’s as inclined as any to pass on some knowledge.
“Be prepared to work hard. We always say that what you see on stage is only five per cent of the work. When you’re on stage the work is done. All of the work that is done leading up to that is a big part of the music. When you get a gig, don’t wait for the next phone-call. If you’re interested on working as a musician, just because you got one gig doesn’t mean you’re going to get a gig next week. You’ve got to be pro-active about it. You always have to be pushing and poking and exploring. Really, you have to be out and enjoying it. You can’t be into music and not enjoying it, because if you’re looking at it as a business, career type move it’s not going to work for ya.
“Back in 1968 when I decided to quit my job, I didn’t have a master plan to become a musician for the rest of my life,” he adds. “50 years in here I am, and I’m still making a living at music. At the time it was a lark, it was fun. We were having a great time and I was with a bunch of other people who liked to sing and play. It so happened that we were fortunate enough to role it into a career.”
“When Bud and Sid started, I’m sure they never thought it would be what it is today? Part of our culture,” shares Andrews with admiration. “These things started small and worked along. When me and Mark started playing years ago no one ever thought that this would come. It was never a part of the plan. I wanted to sell out the Blarney Stone. That was my goal.”
“We broke every rule there was in the book,” adds Davidge, recalling the unconventional path of Simani. “The crowd was going that way and we were going the other way. We were married, had kids and all that sort of stuff. There’s a lot of moving parts there. And there’s an awful lot of luck involved and an awful lot of chances you take.”
Those musical ties that bind, with their uncertainties and peaks and valleys, lead us to this place, this province, and this particular time of year where locals and tourists alike gobble up ‘the Newfoundland sound’. St. Patrick’s Day in St. John’s has become St. Paddy’s week, an explosion of sound and colour and a celebration of excess. It’s no longer about those things we were founded on, with a sound that came across the water with the likes of O’Byrne and company, but there is a solid foundation beneath the gaga.
“I grew up in Dublin, and it’s only in the last 10 years that it became a huge holiday and parade and stuff,” shares O’Byrne. “When I was growing up in Dublin, it was a religious holiday. My father would get off work that day, we’d go to mass and spend the day with the family. It was a chance to have a day off during lent to have time with the family. It was a religious holiday, no big carry on at all.”
A Hell of a Time
A far cry from a religious holiday for those that haunt the pubs and concert halls on March 17th, St. John’s provides as close to an authentic taste of the Emerald Isle that you can find in North America. And it’s a hell of a time for the traditional artist.
“For the establishments that hire the musicians all year round, they go through hard times and low times, January and February. March, St. Patrick’s Day is a big day to make money and be able to hire musicians for all the year. People fly in from all around North America to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day here. The beauty of it all, whether they hear Bud’s music, Chris’s music or my music, it will certainly bring them to explore more of who we are here.”
And who we are is rooted in that sound. In the ballads, the diddies, the waltzes and stompers. It’s the Newfoundland sound and the musical ties that bind. Hoist a glass to that on Paddy’s!