MUSIC

Proof in an electric pudding

Figgy Duff’s modern arrangements are enriching the traditional songs of Newfoundland

MICHAEL CLUGSTON August 24 1981
MUSIC

Proof in an electric pudding

Figgy Duff’s modern arrangements are enriching the traditional songs of Newfoundland

MICHAEL CLUGSTON August 24 1981

Proof in an electric pudding

MUSIC

Figgy Duff’s modern arrangements are enriching the traditional songs of Newfoundland

The fog swirls into the narrow harbor to wrap the tiny whitewashed village of Quidi Vidi, Nfld., in a silver gloom. The haunting, powerful song on the wind seems to be coming from nowhere and everywhere at once, retelling a legendary tragedy at sea. Cymbals ring softly like the muffled timbre of ocean waves and the bass bellows of an accordion murmur like the wind. Then the passionate tale, The Greenland Disaster, end ; for the thousandth time since it was first sung on the bleak Labrador coast. But as in other areas of Newfoundland life, technology has caught up to Newfoundland’s folk traditions: this version of the lament is battened with the rock ’n’ roll rhythm of an electric bass and drums. The band, Figgy Duff, is showing that the delicate melodies and lyrics of the traditional songs can travel through electric instruments, amplifiers and speakers and emerge not damaged but enriched.

The mood changes quickly in the cosy, smoky interior of the tiny Quidi Vidi Inn of Olde, as singer Pamela Morgan breaks into the bawdy Tinker Behind the Door in her soft accent: “He got this maid behind the door,/Gently laid her on the floor. . . .” Life was not all shipwrecks in those parts, as mainland audiences will discover this month when Figgy Duff (named after a heavy, raisin-filled pudding) begins a tour of Western Canada and the Eastern United States. A year ago, Figgy Duff was the surprise hit of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, one of the major festivals on the continent; “Figgy Duff was the freshest breath of new music in the whole festival,” wrote Philly Week. Or, as proprietress Linda Hennebury puts it, while carting a tray of Black Horse and Blue Star beer through the full house of students and laborers, teen-agers and old fishermen, “Everybody loves Figgy Duff.”

But popularity at home did not come easily. “We did it for the love of the music, boy,” says Noel Dinn, 33, the drummer and band leader whose long black hair and beard give him a medieval look. A vete: an of Newfoundland rock groups, Dinn always wanted to play “the old stuff,” and was a major catalyst in the revival of traditional music over the past decade. But between the two extremes of country and western followers and purists who saw tradition as sacred and immutable,

Figgy Duff’s blend of old and new did not find ready audiences at first among their fellow Newfoundlanders. Through six years and several member changes the band persisted, weaving the varied musical background of Newfoundland into an exotic hybrid of classical, rock and folk. Instead of the commercial Ps the B'y That Builds the Boat variety, they found relatively unknown native ballads, laments, jigs and reels as well as some that lead back to Ireland, England and France. They spent months in the outports, learning songs around

kitchen tables from singers in their 60s and 70s who were delighted that their music would not die with them. “It would get the old people starry-eyed, sometimes,” recalls accordionist Geoff Butler, 22, who shelved plans for medical school three years ago to join the band. “That’s the sort of thing that gave us the energy to keep going.”

The band moved to Toronto briefly in 1978, and found audiences familiar with the “trad-rock” of such British groups as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, who made the genre famous in the 1970s. The style grew directly from English folk instead of the American

variant of the blues, which forms the lineage of most rock ’n’ roll. The arrangements start from the ground rule that the original tunes and words will be preserved and then, in what Dinn calls a “skull-wracking session,” the group juggles combinations of tin whistle, electric bass, accordion, drums and other instruments around, say, a 16th-century tune based on an ancient modal scale. “ ‘Traditional’ music means it has to survive through all the generations in a way that gives meaning, so there’s a link,” Dinn says.

“It’s a revolutionary thing as well as a traditional thing.”

Revolution is catching. Their first album was released in Canada last December and is expected to be released before Christmas in Britain and West Germany. “Oh, it’s lovely music they make,” says Ellen Carroll, the 70-yearold singer from Stephenville who taught the band Matt Eiley, which she learned from her mother. When she’s in St. John’s, the band chauffeurs her to their concerts and back—their link to the past remains strong. Sometimes it’s hard to know where revolution ends and tradition begins. —MICHAEL CLUGSTON