The island of Newfoundland seen from a map looks like fractal geography as printed fact. The island proper—the biggest part by far of the whole of what we call The Rock—has a kind of polyp on its southeastern-most side. It looks like an island that looks roughly like the island from which it hangs; and hang it does, because it is not an island at all, but a peninsula. It’s called the Avalon Peninsula—king and queen-fed courtly dreams of paradise in that name—and the closer and closer you read on the map, the more it looks like a living geological Mandelbrot Set. The ocean gives way to big bays, big bays to smaller ones, which give way to harbors and coves and little inlets; just like the Trans-Canada Highway, which starts here before stretching its ribbon of asphalt it seems like forever, gives way to smaller highways such as 70, 75, 80, which in turn become Main Streets and Water Streets and finally devolve into something called “drungs,” which are rural Newfoundland lanes. Avalon looks from here like the claw of a crab—cartography is maritime destiny—or maybe, in the knuckles and muscles and bones of its towns and the blood and veins of its roads, it resembles a damaged, but very much living, human hand.
If you drive in a long, tight “U” from the capital St. John’s (and you will have to drive—there is no bus, although there used to be) you are moving down around the eastern and then up along the western side of Conception Bay. Now, every bay is a conception bay necessarily; just as, given the womb-tomb conundrum, every bay is necessarily an end. As Donne said, in the voice of a navigator’s compass, “Thy firmness makes my circle just, / And makes me end where I begun.” And that is where this finds us, in a place called Carbonear, which is where Duane Andrews was born and raised. Like him and a lot of other folks with certain kinds of talents and dreams, we’ll leave it, but we will be coming back to it soon.
Between the Klondike-inspired stories in rhyme of Robert Service and the macabre free-verse clarity of Margaret Atwood, E.J. Pratt is sandwiched in the years as a once-upon-a-time “most famous Canadian poet.” Nobody but the scattered CanLit dead-ender reads him now, but Pratt was an interesting cat. He was born and raised in Western Bay—about 20 clicks north of Carbonear—where his father was a Methodist minister, as he himself later became ordained. A sign up the road marks the site of the first Methodist Church built in North America. Although Pratt spent the brunt of his life in Toronto teaching at the University that takes the city’s name—and where a library, a poetry prize, and a professorship all now bear his—Pratt mined his Newfoundland roots from beginning to end in his poems. The Government of Canada in his honor has placed a nondescript plaque with a compact biography outside the Western Bay Post Office, though you would have to already know it was there to give it your notice.
There is a volume of Pratt’s from 1932, Many Moods, that reminds me of Duane Andrews’ music, but especially of his relatively recent, delicately filigreed, and deeply textured release Conception Bay (2015). It is an album that catches the weather of its eponymous place—the dramatic seasons, the volatile shifts from fog to sun to dapples and shadows, the winds for which the word “bracing” was invented, the occasional profound stillnesses. In addition to the many moods are the many names of this place, a scattershot representation of dark humor and diverse pedigree, of the sea’s centrality and the sentimental touch:
Ochre Pit Cove
Butter Pot Park
Bay de Verde
For instrumental music, Andrews’ has lots of linguistic pleasures. It must be strange to speak only with your fingers, some wood, and some string, though the titles also talk. In Newfoundland people are taciturn, until they turn voluble, but friendly, once they figure you are worth the effort. Great talkers are among them and there is music in what they say. It is not quite like the Deep South, where the oddball constructions and the elisions of the accent are mitigated by the syrup slowness of the delivery. Here people talk fast, and there is a different diction—the Dictionary of Newfoundland English runs to 700 pages of words that you never have heard—and for all I know, if you throw a half-case of India Beer into the mix (the slogan of which, under a picture of a Newfoundland dog, is “Man’s Best Friend”), it makes it even harder to follow because you are always trying to go back and catch up to something you missed and is already gone.
The titles Duane Andrews makes up or appropriates are fun to read and give the same pleasures as those names on the map. There are the ones that ring of Newfoundland “itself”: “Joe Batt’s Arm Longliners,” “The Sailor’s Bonnet,” “The Breakwater Boys,” “Bell Island,” “The Petty Harbour Bait Skiff,” “Land and Sea Medley.” Then there are the French titles, which come from both multiple drives and a singular source: “La Gitane,” “Nantes,” “Gigues,” “Douce Ambiance,” “Valse des Niglos.” There are the remade, actually classical, classics (“Improvisations on Chopin’s Opus 64 No. 2,” “Improvisations on the First Movement of Mozart’s String Quintet”) and some classics of Americana and Tin Pan Alley and classic pop and classic country and classic rock: “Oh Susannah,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Mr. Sandman,” “Tennessee Stud,” and “Layla,” for instance, the latter three on Fretboard Journey (2016), a killer hodge-podge of an album that is the work of a Newfoundland guitarists supergroup. (What other kind of group could reinvent “Layla” without asking for ridicule?) There Andrews trades rhythms and licks in a well-woven tapestry with Sandy Morris, Gordon Quinton, and Craig Young, the latter with whom Andrews also made the album Charlie’s Boogie (2013).
You have got to describe the songs that he plays to get a handle on their range and the easiest way to do that is to talk about genre or form. There are the reels, the jigs, and the waltzes:
Pique Point Reel
Kelly Russell’s Reel
The Portugese Waltzes
St. John’s Waltz
The rags, the blues, and jazz:
The Supermoon Rag
Ragtime Annie/Ragtime Rufus
Four on Six
Fables of Faubus
At first I figured just by looking at its title that another song, “Bartlett & Frissell,” was an homage to the jazz guitarists Bill Frisell and Bruce Bartlett (Modern Jazz Guitar Styles: “Seeing Bruce Bartlett live at Ryle’s in Boston was and is a required pilgrimage for guitar students at Berklee.”) Maybe it is a palimpsestic homage, though, because the former guitarist’s name has one “s,” not two. Turns out there is another Bartlett and Fris[s]ell who have something in common besides the guitar. Bob Bartlett was a sea captain and explorer born in Brigus, just south of Carbonear; Varick Frissell was an American filmmaker whose last film, The Viking, starred Captain Bartlett as the S.S. Viking’s captain. Most of it was made in Quidi Vidi (just outside of St. John’s) but during the filming of some action and iceberg sequences off the coast of Labrador, a cache of ice-breaking dynamite exploded. The film was Frissell’s last because he was killed in the blast, along with over two dozen other men. Captain Bartlett wasn’t among them.
The interest of Andrews in film is evident too in more obvious ways. There is a load of soundtrack work—his website lists 29 titles. He also made a swing album for children with Laura Winter and Erin Power as The Swinging Belles, called More Sheep, Less Sleep (2015), which won Canada’s Grammy, the Juno, in 2016 for “Children’s Album of the Year.” The collaborative drive is defining in Andrews, as it is with many musicians and artists at large, no doubt; but the way the single ego gets absorbed into the collective in his work reminds me of music played in places where the playing itself is the spine of social life, not an independent art project. It recalls a time when you could probably play something, and if you couldn’t play something at least you could sing, and if you couldn’t carry a tune perhaps you were nimble enough to dance, and if you could dance you needed pickers and fiddlers and somebody on a squeeze box and a washboard and an oil drum and maybe someone to snap and pop the spoons—virtuosity without pomposity sitting easily with anyone who can hang on a musical bell curve that finally excludes no one. How this is all conveyed so strongly in his oeuvre without devolving into rote reproductive nostalgia, how a corpus that could be a real Frankenstein’s monster of clumsily-stitched, grotesquely disparate parts is, instead, a fully formed body, an organic whole, wholly him: this is the loveliest wonder of it.
To my mind, the most beautiful of the Newfoundland songs played by Andrews is “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s.” He has recorded it twice—on Conception Bay, with a string quartet, and on The Empress (2012), the second of his albums with Dwayne Côté, a masterly fiddler. The song has been called Newfoundland’s “unofficial anthem” and was written by an interesting man named Otto Kelland. Like his father before him Kelland was a policeman, then became a warden and finally assistant superintendent of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s. After hanging up the badge in 1966 he taught boatbuilding for a decade, wrote multiple books of stories and verse, and ended up with the Order of Canada for his cultural contributions, before dying one month short of a century old.
Kelland put pen to paper in 1945 to write the words of “Cape St. Mary’s,” but according to his granddaughter, Sally Kelland-Dyer, who told it to Robert Doyle for the second edition of Doyle’s Almanac of Newfoundland, and who had heard the story from her father: “The song was written in his head long before it was written down. He used to pace the hall at home with his violin and sing some words. As he was pacing he would spit his chewing tobacco in a bucket and then pace some more. Once [it was] written down, he spent some time playing with the words and making minor revisions. . .He did not,” she said, “have a singing note in his head,” but he “was a great fiddler and organist” who “played music by ear.” Knowing Kelland’s creation by heart was de rigueur for the family: “Learning and singing the song was mandatory, so to speak, for all his many grandchildren. He felt it placed something in our hearts about the love of the province that would never leave, and he was right.”
He was right, even if you are not Kelland’s grandchild. I had heard Andrews’ instrumental versions before I ever read the words and they seemed to capture several provincial spirits. The one with Côté is a couple of guys playing a lullaby to end a long night of revels, telling everybody without ever saying so that it is just about time to hit the sack. The one on Conception Bay is more of an aubade—it has been my favorite song for waking up to for over a year, replacing another favorite, Ahmad Jamal’s “Morning of the Carnival”—but, like Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song,” it is an aubade with a residual darkness. In the modest mixes I make to drive around to, that version of “Cape St. Mary’s” follows the title track of Conception Bay, a brooding sea-swell and storm of a song. The way Andrews and the quartet play Kelland’s tune is less about another sunny start to another fabulous day, than it is a kind of pleasant albeit exasperated prayer for having survived another night’s tempest, yet again, at least for awhile.
“Confederation with Canada is surely the greatest single event that has happened to us since our Island was discovered. One casts one’s mind over the five centuries of our recorded history and finds nothing so great.” So wrote The Honorable Joseph R. Smallwood in 1967, almost twenty years after the Confederation took place, which he more than anyone helped facilitate; you could say that he made it happen. It was a long time coming and a long time resisted and not everybody thought it was so great. A half-century after he wrote those words introducing the third-volume of The Book of Newfoundland as its ex-Prime Minister, I heard a couple of rancid but funny jokes told on Joey Smallwood’s behalf within two days of staying in Carbonear. Such is one of the boons of Confederation, a partial lifeline and relinquishing of freedom about which the populace remains so ambivalent that only humor can begin to process the results.
Newfoundland is in many ways, indeed, like a kind of Confederate state. I come from Alabama (sans banjo on my knee), where much of the population, despite presumably being big-hearted in most aspects of their lives, have become hateful and ugly and gone stark-raving mad (the narrow if buoying win of Doug Jones over a perverted, hypocritical bigot notwithstanding). Newfoundland is like Alabama but without the hateful, mad, and ugly part; or maybe it is just the stranger’s job to romanticize things; but I’m pretty sure that I’m right. It is not that the native stance of the Newfoundlander is undefensive, but rather that anger hasn’t curdled the humor there; nor has misplaced nostalgia led to a vicious sentimentality or to a saccharinity of friendliness, one that can turn carcinogenic when charred by a difference of opinion.
I think Andrews tells a Smallwood joke himself. On his album Raindrops (2008), he has a song called “Bees and Flowers / Joe Smallwood’s Reel.” It is a short diptych of a track, a bit over two minutes, and at the crease where Smallwood’s reel begins it does take a minor turn. When you put bees and flowers together something pollinates and you get something else and longer lasting, so perhaps that is Andrews being fair to what all was actually gained. That is more a measured piece of wit than an outright joke. The next song on the album, though, is Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” and since it is obvious that his albums are immaculately sequenced, it is also obvious that reel and fable are the chiastic hinges that link Faubus and Smallwood.
You might not recall Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, whose refusal to integrate the public schools after Brown vs. Board of Education deserves the eternal enmity of decent people. Bringing out the state’s National Guard to keep the Little Rock schools segregated and to bar the door to nine innocent children—and to implicitly suggest that it was publically fine to smear them with racist bile—led the usually amenable, normally affable, ultimate greatest of greats Louis Armstrong to cancel a U.S.-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union; to directly castigate President Eisenhower for his cowardice in not nipping Faubus’ venality in the bud; and to refer to Faubus himself, in speaking to the student journalist Larry Lubenow, as a “no-good motherfucker,” which they could hardly print in the paper, of course. Lubenow proposed “ignorant plowboy” instead and Armstrong said that it would do. So you tell me about the juxtaposition of Orval and Joe.
Through the magic of iTunes—which like a great prestidigitator in the cloud can make hundreds and even thousands of dollars worth of paid-for music disappear—there was revealed one of those algorithmic quirks that, digital though they may be, manage to approximate on occasion what it is like randomly to browse in a library’s physical stacks. Because everything is arranged alphabetically by the artist’s first name, in my iTunes library all of my Duane Andrews albums are bookended by Duane Allmann on the one side and Duane Eddy on the other. This serendipitous sonic non sequitur could be taken as a karmic divining rod. They have something in common besides the mere guitar, surely, but what is it? It must have something to do with individuality and hybridity and how to manage those dualities of ditties. Duane Eddy moves from Dylan to Ellington, from sock-hop to schlock, from “St. Louis Blues” to “Sioux City Sue” to “On Top of Old Smokey” to “Blueberry Hill,” always playing Duane Eddy, picking out that reverberative rockabilly, that rolling, echoing, surfing sound. Duane Allmann is that long-haired country cracker playing black blues who rigs those blues with rock and electrically reinvests rock with the Southern soul from which it came and who stretches out in jazzy improvisations and helps devise a new kind of band that jams.
If I scroll up a bit in the iTunes alpha-bit there is another great guitarist, perhaps the greatest of them all, Django Reinhardt, where Andrews and Allmann most meet, in the form of “Jessica,” a song Dickey Betts wrote and on which the almost-whole Allmann Brothers Band elaborated, an extendable vamp meant to be played with two fingers, in honor of the gypsy guitarist Reinhardt, whose fretting hand was badly burnt in a caravan fire, leaving him at a temporary loss but eternally alive. Duane Allmann doesn’t play on “Jessica,” because Duane Allmann was recently dead when it was written; in that sense, though, the absent presence of the song is not just the brilliant but damaged hand of Django, but a bygone brother from a surviving but damaged band.
Django Reinhardt is Duane Andrews’ lodestone. The power of the pull is immense. The latter picker is an unabashed proselytizer for the former—the reverent words of the sermon are apparent in almost every note played, and I would wager that not a week goes by without Andrews saying Django’s name out loud to someone he hopes will appreciate him. It is refreshing to hear mature artists secure enough to be so enthusiastic in their acknowledgement, not of something so etymologically insidious and casually described as mere “influence,” but of something more like total possession. They are not a matter of ownership, mind you, these claims of Duane’s; for in the way that the most loving art most vividly testifies, there is a strange temporal hiccup whereby Reinhardt, instead of being owned by Andrews, possesses, like a benevolent spirit, the music of Andrews through time.
As with Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” (which has had “Nuages” played upon it who knows on how many occasions), Andrews’ guitar is valued by its owner in a strong musical and personal relation to Django; as with the owner of Trigger, Andrews is, as the CBC reports, "a one-guitar man, as opposed to a collector." His vehicle of transport was made by a young luthier from Italy named Mauro Freschi, modeled on the kind of Selmer guitar played by Reinhardt. That is certainly one way to possess one’s own possession, to own up to one’s obsession, to make every session a resurrection. After studying jazz at St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Andrews moved to study composition at conservatories in Paris and Marseille. One wonders if it took moving away for him to look back more clearly on what music his native province had to offer; if being back in Newfoundland now leads him to look back ever more fondly to Reinhardt as mentor and France as a musical home; if there is not something of a gypsy existence whereby one is always travelling away from a place and finding oneself in new art, discovering the new in the old, recovering iterations of oneself in returning, of leaving and ever returning.
If my rough math is right, Andrews must have begun his peregrinations around the time that the Newfoundland cod fishery was collapsing. The cod moratorium was instituted in 1992 and it was meant to last a year. There is still a moratorium. I don’t know if the average Joe was ever financially well-to-do in Conception Bay, but I cannot imagine the moratorium helped. No, it certainly hurt, for a long while at least. Probably it was just another reason to distrust “Canada,” which is what some locals call the gargantuan part of the country that isn’t Newfoundland. To put things in perspective, imagine if there was a venture capital moratorium in Silicon Valley; and that it lasted twenty-five years; and that instead of being peopled by a bunch of eager and well-heeled newcomers, it was deeply lived in by the children of children of children of children, who had been doing that one thing all their lives. This is the nature of a catastrophe, a turning of the verse.
In the Carbonear of Andrews’ youth, a large portion of the town depended on Fred Earle’s fish processing plant to make ends meet. Now the best relic of any halcyon days sits partially sunk in Harbour Grace, a stone’s throw from Carbonear. It is the S.S. Kyle, a legend of a ship, owned by Fred and his brother, the dashing local hero Captain Guy. (They say there are lots of kids from here to Labrador and back that bear a resemblance to the Captain.) Fred’s daughter used to swim out to the Kyle once a year in commemoration, but time seems to have recently ended that too. Across the way sits a lifesize statue of Amelia Earhart, another hero, who left from an airstrip in Harbour Grace to start her transatlantic flight. That venture was among the great successes of its kind. Yet the air taketh and giveth away, the memorial reminds us, just as the rusted and hulking Kyle reminds us, so does the sea. Whether you sail or fly back to the mainland, something ventured has led to something gained and likely to something lost; and for everything you take with you from Conception Bay, even more is left behind. No worries—you can recover some of it by listening to that Freschi guitar Duane Andrews steers through the fog.
A playlist of Duane Andrews tracks named in this article is on the M&L Spotify channel.
Andrew DuBois teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His books as author or co-editor include Ashbery's Forms of Attention (2006), The Anthology of Rap (2010), and Close Reading: The Reader (2003). He is currently writing a book on Anita Loos and editing a selection of Charles Whibley's essays.