Songs of Labrador

For the second week in a row, we’re looking beyond narrative into other kinds of Labrador books.  This time, the topic is music.

Cover of the 1993 edition of Songs of Labrador.
Cover of the 1993 edition of Songs of Labrador.

Songs of Labrador delivers exactly what its title promises—an anthology of Labrador songs.  The book is the brainchild of editor and compiler Tim Borlase, a long-time Labrador educator who also had a stint as the Director of the Labrador Institute, from 2002-2005.  Now retired, Borlase remains involved in the Labrador arts scene primarily through the long-running Labrador Creative Arts Festival, which he co-founded in 1974.

The first edition of Songs of Labrador was produced as a school curriculum resource in 1982, and a second, expanded and improved edition followed 11 years later, in 1993.  This edition was co-published by Borlase’s employer, the Labrador East Integrated School Board, and Fredericton-based Goose Lane Editions.

Both editions of the book were the products of many years’ labour of love.  The extensive acknowledgements section on page 7 of the 1993 edition gives some sense of just how many people helped the project along, whether by contributing, collecting, transcribing, or translating songs, music, photos, and supplementary text, or by directly assisting with the book’s preparation.  The whole was guided by a nine-member Labrador Song Book Committee that features many eminent names in Labrador music, education, and history.  Nonetheless, the central vision was Borlase’s, and he expresses the book’s core ideas eloquently in his Foreword.

Here are the very first words:

“This song book came about as a result of my journeys throughout Labrador. As I travelled from community to community, I realized how rich the musical tradition was, and yet how little was known of it outside the community in which the song originated” (page 9).

So, much like the Labrador Creative Arts Festival, the Songs of Labrador project is a way of taking arts and culture from the local scale (individual schools and communities) to the regional scale (all of Labrador).  In a 2007 article for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, looking back on the project, Borlase emphasizes that the book’s approach is “pan-Labrador” (page 361).  In retrospect, he considers that “The most extraordinary result of the songbook is the affirmation that the sentiments expressed in the songs and music are universal” (365).

The idea, in short, is to reveal and celebrate common connections across Labrador, by sharing all of the songs from different communities.  Back to Borlase’s foreword:

“The songs have been brought together to show how a people have come to be as they are.  Regardless of the language of the song—English, Inuktitut, Innu-aimun or French—these songs speak to a common Labrador experience and the sharing of cultural values that have made this place so remarkable and unique” (page 11).

This approach to a regional identity—the idea of imagining a single, unified Labrador “people”—first came to prominence in the 1970s, not only with the school board and Tim Borlase, but also with many other people, places, and institutions around the same time.  (I am currently writing a short article on this wider trend for the next issue of Them Days, if you are interested.)

But this is a little bit by-the-by.  However you look at it, Songs of Labrador is a treasure trove.  The anthology brings together well over a hundred songs in an accessible way, and there is simply no other resource like it.  The songs are of all different kinds, too—there are good ones for adding a cultural flair to formal events, good ones for kids, and good ones for campfires or cabin-party strumming.  All the classics are there, too, if you ever need to double-check the lyrics to “Sons of Labrador” or “Tishialuk Girls,” for example.

Everyone has their own areas of particular interest, but from my point of view, this book is close to a must-have for any Labrador culture enthusiast.  I believe you can still get copies from the Labrador Creative Arts Festival office, twenty-seven years later.  They have some in storage.

On the other hand, Borlase himself was already looking forward to future editions back in 1993 (page 11), and some darn good songs have been written since then.  So it may be time for someone to take up the torch and tackle an update!


Student Cheat Sheet

Songs of Labrador, edited by Tim Borlase (1993)

Editor. Tim Borlase is best known as the co-founder and long-time coordinator of the Labrador Creative Arts Festival.  He had a long and varied career in the Labrador school system, especially at Nain and in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.  He was Director of the Labrador Institute from 2002-2005, and was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2016 for “contributions to arts, music and drama initiatives, particularly for youth.”
Summary. Songs of Labrador is an anthology of songs that “speak to a common Labrador experience” (page 11).  Words are given in one or more of English, Inuttitut, Innu-aimun, and French, along with simple music—usually a melody and guitar chords.  Supplementary notes on Labrador life and music are interspersed throughout.
Origin. Songs of Labrador is product of Borlase’s long-term efforts to unite the arts and culture of farflung Labrador schools and communities in a regional forum.  Borlase’s employer, the Labrador East Integrated School Board, first published the anthology in 1982.  Borlase overhauled the book in 1993, with help from a nine-member Labrador Song Book Committee and support from several funding sources, including the Canada Council.
Legacy. As Christine Buchanan’s contemporary review begins, “Songs of Labrador is a cultural gold mine.”  The anthology’s initial reception was enthusiastic, and its impact was sufficiently broad and long-lasting for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies to publish a retrospective by Borlase himself, tracing its “afterlife” and influence.  Even in 2020, while an update to include newer music would be welcome, Songs of Labrador remains the standard.

Working on a book report for school?  Here’s how to cite this article:

Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: Songs of Labrador.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 12 June 2020, lilaonline.ca/2020/06/12/songs-of-labrador/. Accessed [today’s date].

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