by Emily Urquhart from St. John's, NL
It’s early October and I’m waiting outside the Tax on Wheels office at the corner of Patrick Street and Hamilton Avenue in St. John’s. I’m waiting for a musician from Quebec that I met a few days ago up at the top of Lime Street. We were standing side by side, staring down at a rainbow that was growing right out of the harbour.
I am new to St. John’s. I moved here a few weeks to study. I recognized the woman on the street from one of my folklore classes, and so I’d started up a conversation. She’s also new to the city, and when she suggested going to the Ship Pub for folk music night I agreed without hesitation. So far my social exchanges have been limited to small talk at the corner store and front porch exchanges with my neighbour.
It wasn’t quite the social life I’d envisioned before leaving Toronto for Newfoundland just four weeks ago. I’d imagined myself laughing over bottles of Blackhorse with my new friends at a dingy but quaint local bar—with Great Big Sea playing faintly in the background.
Instead, I’d spent the past few weekends alone, driving up and down the coast—my station wagon keeping me company. The scenery is beautiful, but life is getting pretty lonely. The Quebecois musician could have asked me to join her on a tour of the local slaughterhouse and I would have accepted immediately. I’m lucky then, that she suggested folk night at the Ship.
Folk night is a series that runs every Wednesday and it’s hosted by the St. John’s Folk Arts Council. Each week a local musician will headline and audience members are encouraged to participate during the open mic interludes. This Wednesday two brothers from Bell Island are singing traditional ballads.
The entrance is tucked into a staircase off Duckworth Street. Inside, there’s an elbow shaped bar, a small stage and about ten tables filled with people, quietly listening to the Bell Island brothers sing their ballads. The walls are painted dark red and they’re covered with gold records—each one carries the name of a band that’s played there. Bands like the Saddle Horses, Slow Coaster and Lady Luck.
We choose a table at the very back of the bar and join another folklore student—an Irish cheese scholar from Beaver, Pennsylvania. Halfway through the second ballad a fourth student from the department joins our table.
She’s a Scottish step-dancer from Edinburgh, and she’s doing her PhD research on Haggis. She has her dancing shoes in a beat-up plastic bag that she hangs from the arm of her chair.
The balladeering brothers wrap up early so they can catch the last ferry back to Bell Island. When the clapping dies down and the stage is cleared, a woman from the audience takes the microphone. She’s from Ferryland, and she runs a small café there. She sings a sad and beautiful Irish ballad that she’d learned from her father. The crowd roars with appreciation, but she only sings once.
I buy another round of Blackhorse beer for our table and meet a small, white-haired Irishman at the bar. We talk about Dublin, where I lived one summer, and then he insists on paying for my drinks. I protest, but he wins and he even helps me carry the bottles to my table. The singer from Ferryland laughs and winks at me. I introduce the man to the other girls and soon our two tables have joined.
The stage is empty and the front door swings shut. With some encouragement the woman from Ferryland agrees to sing another ballad. She doesn’t use the microphone, and she doesn’t stand on stage, she just sits on a bar stool, closes her eyes, and starts to sing.
The Haggis scholar changes her shoes and begins to step-dance. The white-haired Irishman sings a song, and the Irish cheese scholar from Beaver, Pennsylvania accompanies him.
Then the musician from Quebec sings Down to the River and everyone joins in—well, almost everyone.
“What about Toronto?” the man next to me asks. “What does Toronto have to sing?”
Toronto, as it turns out, doesn’t have anything to sing. I hadn’t learned any ballads at the Parkdale bars and Queen Street watering holes of my recent past, and the last song I remember singing was either Happy Birthday or the National Anthem.
Now the circle of strangers, from Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the US turn to me expectantly. I shrug my shoulders.
“I don’t sing,” I tell them.
They assume that I’m being modest and so they encourage me to begin my song.
So I tell them again, “I don’t sing.”
The man next to me asks, “What do you do then?” The group listens and waits and I want to tell them that I know several magic tricks or that I play the oboe, or that I’m more sports inclined—which is the farthest from the truth. Instead, I say quietly, “well, I write?”
It comes out more like a question than a statement, but it’s all they need. The group relaxes, the step-dancer starts step-dancing again, the Irishman leans back on his stool and sings another ballad and the man next to me says, “There wouldn’t be any songs you know, if there wasn’t anyone to write them.” After that, he welcomes me to Newfoundland.
The four of us stay out late that night and then we do it all over again the next Wednesday and the Wednesday after that and eventually I start volunteering once a month on folk nights. I’m the one who takes your cover charge and hands out the raffle tickets. You won’t see me playing the oboe or performing magic tricks onstage, but I’ll be the first to greet you when you walk through the door.