Last night I watched a 1992 episode of Land & Sea, the long-running CBC documentary series about Newfound and Labrador. The CBC YouTube account has a playlist with over 120 episodes, digitized in all of their low-resolution glory. These videos provide us a glimpse into rural Newfoundland, acting as a fascinating time capsule of coastal outport life.
You could say that Tim Severin is a historical re-enactor, but that would conjure all the wrong images, of renaissance fairs and Colonial Williamsburg. At nearly 80 years old, his accomplishments are better described as experiential archaeology, recreating legendary journeys to prove they could have happened. His historical adventures are based on years of upfront study, working with scholars to decipher ancient texts and find period-appropriate technology and materials. I only recently learned about Severin’s work, through his 1978 book that documents a fascinating early project called The Brendan Voyage.
Mummers? If you live in America, and have heard that term before, it’s likely in connection with the annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade. While they may share some distant relatives, that New Years parade in the City of Brotherly Love is a far cry from the Christmastime tradition of Mummering in Newfoundland. Dating back over 200 years, imported from Irish and English settlers, Newfoundland Mummers don’t masquerade like their American cousins, who dress up as someone else. The tradition is instead rooted in disguise, using everyday clothing in unconventional ways to conceal one’s identity. Common techniques include pillow-case face masks, lace veils, layers of bulky stuffed coats, mismatched gloves, and gender smokescreens like skirts on men and bras worn over outerwear. Once disguised, a group of mummers will travel unannounced to a house in their community, and if allowed to enter, start dancing and playing music. The host provides snacks and drinks, while trying to guess the identities of each visitor. Easier said than done, as the mummers not only disguise their bodies but distort their voices or refuse to speak. Once everyone has been named, or if the heat inside makes the layered costume untenable, the mummers are revealed and group moves on to another house.
Fifty years ago, on November 12, 1969, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired The Latecomers, a sound documentary by Glenn Gould, the accomplished pianist who at that point in his career had stopped performing live in favor of studio recording. The latecomers in question are from Newfoundland, the last Canadian province, which joined the federation just twenty years earlier. It’s produced in a unique style, which Gould called “contrapuntal radio,” a reference to his favored musical approach where numerous independent melodies are played simultaneously. In this case, he interweaves the voices of thirteen Newfoundlanders into overlapping and layered stories about solitude, politics, hard work, and identity. Interspersed, and at times overpowering these stories, is the sound of the ocean beating against the rocky shoreline. The waves are an organic through-line, ushering voices in and out of this non-linear collage. In our current era of highly produced podcasts and audio stories, this experimental radio piece from five decades ago holds up extremely well.
The concept behind Lawrence Millman’s book Last Places: A Journey to the North is such a perfect fit to my interests, and this blog, that I knew I had to read it. Millman endeavors to follow the trail of the Vikings, traveling from Norway to Newfoundland via Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, mostly via sea and foot, camping along the way. It’s a personal travelog, from an opinionated and seasoned traveler with lots of stories to tell. It’s not his first time in any of these locations, which is perhaps what frees him up to seek the most remote, difficult, or forgotten corners of these already far flung islands.