Has Newfoundland Folk Music influenced Bob Dylan?

Archival Moment

July 25, 1965

Dylan sings Newfoundland Folk

Bob-Dylan-at-Newport-1965Music critics have written that Bob Dylan’s career path was established on the night of July 25, 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island where he performed a rock-and-roll set to a chorus of shouts and boos from a dismayed audience. The folk purist in the audience did not like the fact that Dylan was moving away from his ‘folk roots’ and embracing ‘rock and roll’.

Sitting in the wings as witnesses to this musical shift were two Newfoundlanders who had on the same weekend performed on the same stage, Arthur Nicolle and Annie Walters of Rocky Harbour.

Arthur Nicolle and Annie Walters were two well established traditional Newfoundland folk singers who were invited to prestigious Newport Festival by Robert Jones and Ralph Rinzler, they travelled Atlantic Canada and the USA in 1964 cultivating the use of traditional talent at the festival and unearthing these artists from various locations. In 1965, Jones joined the operation of the Newport Folk Festival and in 1965, he accepted a position at Festival Productions.

The two Rocky Harbour residents were originally brought to the attention of the world through the work of Kenneth Peacock. He is considered one of the pioneers of the Canadian folk revival movement; between 1951 and 1961 he visited Newfoundland six times to do folksong research. A number of the songs in his collection were taken from Nicolle and Walters.

The Friday evening concert at the Newport Festival (July 23, 1965) that featured Newfoundlanders, Arthur Nicolle and Annie Walters also featured the internationally celebrated artists Peter, Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger. The audience was estimated to be as large as 17,000 persons.

The connection between the Newfoundlanders and Bob Dylan especially Mrs. Annie Walters connection is of particular interest.

It is a part of the folk festival tradition for singers to listen to their peers in ballad swapping sessions. It has been speculated that Dylan may have been at a swap session where he heard Mrs. Annie Walters sing a few of her songs. One of the songs in her repertoire was ‘The Blooming Bright Star of Belle Isle’ the Newfoundland adaptation of an old Irish love song, ‘Loch Erin’s Sweet Riverside’, the song tells the familiar story of a lover who returns after a long absence and tests his sweetheart’s fidelity before revealing himself.

Dylan released the song, five years after the Newport Festival under the title “Belle Isle.” The song is performed by Bob Dylan and appears on the album Self Portrait (1970) and on the box set The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait 1969-1971 (2013).

The song has made the seemingly unlikely journey from outport anthem to the mainstream of North American popular culture.

The program, for the 1965 Newport Festival that Mrs. Annie Walters brought back as a souvenir to show her family and friends was acquired during the past month by the Canadian Museum of History.

The Fender Stratocaster electric guitar that Dylan played at the festival sold for nearly $1 million, the highest price ever paid for a guitar at auction. A new book by Elijah Wald, Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties, takes a look at the event that two Newfoundlanders sat in the wings and witnessed.

Recommended Archival Collection: Memorial University of Newfoundland Kenneth Peacock fonds Accession Number SC 1.6. The collection is 144 audio cassette copies of field recordings done in Newfoundland and Labrador by Peacock in the summer months of 1951 and 1952 and at various times during the years 1958-1961, along with copies of Peacock’s tape indexes. Much of this material was published in 1965 as Songs of the Newfoundland Outports.

Recommended Reading: Folksongs and Folk Revival: The Cultural Politics of Kenneth Peacock’s Songs of the Newfoundland Outports by Anna Kearney Guigne, 2008.

Recommended Recording: Annie Walters & Arthur Nicole can be heard singing on the LP “Songs of the Newfoundland Outports” released in 1984 by Pigeon Inlet Productions. (Unfortunately it is now out of print). Original recordings by Kenneth Peacock.

Kenneth Peacock’s Songs of the Newfoundland Ouports is available CD ROM since 2005 from SingSong Inc. It includes the full lyrics and music for the 517 songs in the original printed edition, all of Mr. Peacock’s notes and photographs, 244 original recordings, including those of Arthur Nicolle and Annie Walters. It also includes an audio file for each song to enable people who don’t read music to hear the song melodies. www.singsonginc.ca/index.php/catalog/full-catalogue/6-songs-of-the-newfoundland-outport

Listen to Dylan sing traditional Newfoundland: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/belle-isle

The 39th Annual Newfoundland & Labrador Folk Festival is poised to be another incredible weekend of entertainment for the whole family. The Festival is the coming together of community, province and culture – our province is renowned for its contributions to the musical fabric of Canada and we do all we can to wave that flag high and proud. For more information: http://www.nlfolk.com/festival.php