Ray Johnson: I Know that Voice
Ray Johnson is one-third of the musical comedy troupe known as Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, including Kevin Blackmore and Wayne Chaulk.
Ray is also known as the author of “... and I owe it all to Bridget and John,” his autobiography in which he shows how he was “influenced by the stories, characters, music and songs passed on to me so many years ago.”
Now, in his second book, “I Know that Voice: Rural Newfoundland and Labrador Songs, Recitations, Accordion and Fiddle Tunes,” he invites readers to “indulge in the rich music of yesteryear.”
In an email interview with this columnist, Ray says, “By no means do I feel the word ‘rural’ is ostracizing my work in terms of ... getting it into the hands of just rural readers; in fact, most of the people I have spoken to in the urban centres have informed me of their ... having come from a rural community.”
Music is very much a constituent component of Ray’s life. To explain the power of music that keeps people coming back for more, along with what it means to him personally, he calls upon the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, who said, “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”
Ray adds the power of Newfoundland and Labrador music “was driven by means of the spirit of the cod that brought fishermen and their wives to these shores, who were great storytellers, singers, musicians and dancers, etc.”
In his own case, the influence of others led to his pronounced “love for this place and, of course, the joy, pleasure of music” in opening an avenue of expression for him.
As a bonus for those who pick up his book, Ray has included a CD featuring a selection of tunes he recorded as a solo artist from 1969 to 1982. It gives the listener another opportunity to listen to a performer with a decidedly particular dialect, whose haunting tones “take the listener to his or her home where their heart seems to dwell on the place they love, left, etc.” He hopes it “will give insight into how music and song were part of (my) upbringing, as well as how (music and song) played, and continue to play, a vital role in the social well-being of the people of rural Newfoundland and Labrador.”
He begins with his composition, “My Isle of Song (Overture),” which he wrote to express his deep and undying love for the province. It’s dedicated to the memory of the 251 sealers who perished in two separate sealing disasters in March 1914, the SS Newfoundland and the SS Southern Cross.
“The melody,” he states, “reminds me of who we are and why this place and its people are cherished and loved by so many.”
John Reynolds of VOCM Radio suggests that “Fishin’ in a Dory,” a popular tune written by the late Paul Emberley of Bay de Verde, with music by Ray, “caught on like cold beer on a summer’s day.”
The musical selections on the CD have been transcribed for the sake of those who wish to perform the pieces themselves.
“It is my firm conviction,” Ray says, “that the traditional music, as I know it, if it is to survive in this province for future generations, there must be a continuation of young listeners, performers taking on the role as their parents, grandparents, that only can be delivered if taught in our schools, but more compulsory than what is being shown right now in many of our institutions here in Newfoundland and Labrador ... I would prefer to see a student having to pass a folklore course as part of the school studies in order to graduate.”
He would be gratified if his work “should end up in the classroom as part of the curriculum, as well as a study for students graduating from university.”
It’s great when young people approach Ray and comment on his distinctive musical style but, he says, “it’s when they take that music and apply it to themselves, whereby they reap the benefits for their own pleasure and, yes, a career that, in some way, enlightens their soul and allows them to remain in this province where all this started in the first place.”
Ray concludes, “The people who live in Newfoundland and Labrador are an enduring breed. We are people who are proud of our heritage, culture and music. May we never let it die!”
“I Know that Voice: Rural Newfoundland and Labrador Songs, Recitations, Accordion and Fiddle Tunes” is produced by DRC Publishing of St. John’s. — Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached