The Miramichi Folksong Festival (1986) by Susan Butler

The Miramichi River is the second longest river in the Nortwestern part of New Brunswick. Its branches, the Nor-west and the Sou-west, with their tributaries, the small rivers which empty into the main Miramichi, form a water network which covers the county of Northumberland.

Pronouncing the name “Miramichi” is a problem for those who make its acquaintance in print for the first time. It is accented on the first and last syllables. The last syllable is pronounced “shie”. It is said to be the oldest Indian place-name still used in North America. There have been many meanings given to this name, but none are accurate. The name may refer to the river and its branches; however, no one knows the real derivation of the word.

The Miramichi for many years was a haven for sportsmen, especially for salmon fishing. Lumbering was one of its main industries.

This area has long been referred to as “A ballad hunter’s paradise”. The late Lord Beaverbrook, one of New Brunswick’s greatest benefactors and statesmen, grew up on the Miramichi. It was he who laid the groundwork for what was to become one of the longest running Festivals in North America., the Miramichi Folksong Festival. His slogan as a young boy was “We lead – let others follow who can.” In regards to the following local folklore, Miramichiers have done that for the past forty years.

In 1947 Lord Beaverbrook approached the late Dr. Louise Manny, a local historian and personal friend. “Why don’t you go out and collect New Brunswick folksongs?” he asked her. “I’ll send you a fine recording machine.” Louise was very sceptical. “I don’t believe there are any songs out there,” she said. Beaverbrook reassured her one would be surprised what was out there. He would sing her a few lines of “The Jones Boys” –

“Oh! The Jones boys, they built a mill
On the side of a hill,
And they worked all night, and they worked all day
But they couldn’t make the gosh-darned sawmill pay.”

This was one of his favourite folksongs which he took with him through life, as a publisher and a builder of a newspaper empire. He taught the song to his oldest and closest friend, Sir Winston Churchill, who in turn taught it to many noted statesmen.

Louise Manny and a friend, Bessie Crocker, set out on their mission to collect folksongs. They were amazed at what they found. Gaelic and French songs, medieval ballads, eighteenth century broadside ballads, songs of Maine and other parts of the United States. There were local songs as well. This first collection of folksongs was classified as the Beaverbrook collection. Later Manny collected her own folksongs. Louise Manny became a firm believer in the preservation of folklore. She began having a weekly radio program on the local radio station in the late forties. It consisted of people whom she had contacted previously and who were willing to sing their music on the air.

In 1958 Louise Manny, with the assistance of the New Brunswick Travel Bureau, the Province of New Brunswick, the Newcastle Rotary Club, and other private donations, opened the first Miramichi Folksong Festival. It was held at the Lord Beaverbrook Town Hall in Newcastle, NB. The Festival ran with three evening performances. Later a children’s show was held in the afternoon. Many of the performers appearing were those who had been recorded in the late forties for the Manny and Beaverbrook collections.

Miramichi folksongs are sung with absolutely no accompaniment. The singer relies upon the unaided voice, the melodic line, and the sheer human impact of the song for their effect. Those who have been brought up with the eight-tone scale, harmony, and musical accompaniment may find the songs monotonous. When you learn to understand them, you are struck by their sincerity and charm. One should not put emphasis on the singer, but rather on the song. Each song has a story to tell.

The Festival is held in early August and has been serving as a tourist attraction for twenty-eight years. There is nothing fancy about it, just people from near and far who like to gather each year and sing the songs that helped to mould the culture of the Province.

Generally singers range in age from the teens to the late eighties. We have with us still two performers who appeared at the first Festival in 1958. Allen Kelly and Marie Hare could be considered the King and Queen of the Miramichi Folksong Festival. They know a wide variety of folk music and each has recorded an album. Marie has been featured at many Festivals over the years in both Canada and the United States. Allan was also a great hit at the Newfoundland Folk Festivals.

With any Festival, there are always pitfalls along the way. It was felt at one time that the Miramichi Folk Festival would fold. Our biggest obstacle was the performers. After twenty-five years, many of our veteran entertainers had died. There did not seem to be any interest shown from the younger generation. For a few years the Festival existed with only a few people. The promotional end had also ceased. In the early eighties the Festival saw rejuvenation. Young blood got involved. They saw the need and value of keeping this living museum going. The Miramichi Folksong Festival got a face lift after twenty-five years. The young people started learning the songs. Some of them could imitate the deceased singers in such a way that you would think they had come back from the grave.

The Festival now runs for five days. The first three days are strictly Miramichi, with a featured guest each evening. The remaining two days consist of a special Folk Concert held in the neighbouring town of Chatham. The concert is performed by one noted person or group. The last performance puts emphasis on theatre. This is generally held in open air and deals with the history of New Brunswick.

The Festival has changed to a certain degree, but that old flavour is still there. Much of the music is still performed unaccompanied. Some performers use guitars. There is always a step dancer, and a number of fiddlers on hand. At the closing of each show, all performers and audience gather for coffee. There is a guest book in the lobby of the hall, which everyone signs. This allows the organizers to have some idea where our audience is from. The emcee generally asks if there is anyone from out of the Province or from the United States. On doing so, the audience gives their guests a rousing applause as a Miramichi welcome.

The 28th Festival entertained people from Ontario, Florida, Boston, Vancouver, England, to name just a few. The Miramichi Folksong Festival has never been a money-making venture. It survives solely on the generosity of the local organizations and the news media. Each performer, excluding the featured performer, is given a small honorarium for his or her contribution to the Festival.

The Festival Committee consists of a board of twelve members, who volunteer their time to produce a yearly show. The objectives of the group are:
1. Keep alive the work of the late Lord Beaverbrook and Dr. Louise Manny.
2. Educate youth with workshops in the schools.
3. Keep the simplicity and style to which the Festival is accustomed.
4. Open the door for neighbouring folk artists to visit and exchange their music.

I have been asked many times “Why would you be interested in folk music? That’s old fashioned.” I believe there is something concrete in this kind of music. We should not forget that folk music has served and will continue to serve as a foundation for much of our modern day music. Folk music has been around for centuries.

In our area tourists seek out Festivals in order to hang on to roots or heritage. They continually like to hear the songs their fathers or grandfathers sang years ago.

In organizing a Festival one should start on a small scale. Seek out the need for it – have objectives, find people who keep the old songs. In our area, Louise Manny, after studying her findings, compiled a book of songs, “Songs of the Miramichi”. She was assisted by James R. Wilson, a noted Ethnomusicologist, who looked after the music presentation. It was Miss Manny’s dream to have all that she acquired published in a book. She lived to see the fruits of her labour, only to die a short time later.

From August 4th to 8th, 1986, the Miramichi Folksong Festival will open its doors for the twenty-ninth season. That record speaks for itself. Miramichiers believe in keeping alive their heritage. Come visit with us this summer and share the past. 

Canadian Journal of Traditional Music Volume 20.2 (1986)

Susan Butler
c. 1986
CANADA Northern New Brunswick, New Brunswick, Northern New Brunswick, CANADA
© 1986, Canadian Journal of Traditional Music. All Rights Reserved.

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