Living tradition

If you’ve ever heard a Newfoundland jig, reel, or ballad from someone other than your grandparents, chances are that Figgy Duff had a hand in it. In the late 1970s, when Newfoundlanders were just beginning to develop a sense of pride in their culture and language, the original members of Figgy Duff combed the outports, collecting traditional melodies and stories. The combination of ethereal vocals, traditional instruments, and driving rock guitar and percussion resulted in a sound that was unique in North America.

Decades after they first set out, long-time members of Figgy Duff are performing together again this summer, at a series of highly anticipated reunion shows, including stints at the Bella Vista in St. John’s on August 7, and at the Folk Festival August 10. The Bella Vista show will see the release of Figgy Duff’s newest CD, Figgy Duff Live: Silver Reunion, which was recorded at the Delta in 1999.

Andreae Prozesky caught up with Pamela Morgan by phone in Trinity, where she is working on another project, a folk opera called The Nobleman’s Wedding.


Congratulations on the album. How does it feel, almost ten years after recording, to release it?

It’s great. People’s reaction to it is really positive. I didn’t actually foresee releasing it. I mixed it because I thought it should be mixed. I didn’t have any concrete plans to put it out, but with the events of the summer, it seemed like a good time [to release it].

What was that show like?

It was at the end of a tour. That silver anniversary tour, it was my idea but it was not a very good one… it was to take the music back to the places from where we learned it. We went to places like Woody Point, Fogo Island, Placentia, St. Mary’s Bay. But the population is so sparse that it just didn’t work. I mean, it was great for the band. We had a ball. But financially it was a disaster [laughs].

By the time we got to the Delta, we actually sounded like a band. We had a great time being together again, because we kind of grew up together on the road. So it was fun. I think that energy did translate into the music that wound up on the record.

There’s only one of your original tunes on the album: does that reflect the tour and the idea that you were going back to the places where you had learned the traditional songs?

Partially, but if you look at the songs that we did over all these years, a large proportion of it was traditional. We had only started writing in the last little while. Downstream was… it was a little early to go back there, so we didn’t.

It was really fun to go back to the early material, like “Tarry Trousers,” that we hadn’t thought of for years, and which remain some of our strongest arrangements.

A lot of people who grew up when I did, in the 1980s and 1990s, can’t imagine a world before trad and rock were combined. Do you think of yourself as a pioneer in the genre?

Yeah, we were, especially on this side of the water.

Now, there were bands that we listened to that were doing it over in England and Ireland. The beauty of it was that Newfoundland had its own versions of those songs. That was the astonishing discovery for me. I just couldn’t believe that we were listening to these great ballads done up in this kind of rock-trad-modal thing, and then to discover that we had our own source here…

The other thing was that when we toured, there was no venue for us. We played a lot of blues clubs. We were too folky for the rock clubs and to rocky for the folk clubs. No one really knew what to do with us. That aspect of it was tough. I think that probably we forged a few trails there.

When I hear young, local trad bands, I recognize melodies that I first heard from Figgy Duff. It must be interesting to see how that has come around.

That’s great, because it means that we’ve given the songs a life that they wouldn’t probably have had otherwise. And while it’s lovely to see another generation of traditional music evolving, there is still a lack of interest in the long story ballads. There’s not a lot of people doing those. They don’t translate well in the bars, for one thing. The jigs and reels are doing fine, but the long ballads are still kind of underground. It would be nice to see a few more of those get picked up. But, anything I hear that we did first, I’m always happy about it.

The ballad aspect of things, that’s what I’m doing out here. It’s a folk opera, and it’s the perfect vehicle for some of those songs. I was fortunate enough to catch the last living tradition of ballad singers in the 1970s, and I learned a lot of great melodies. I’ve taken bits and pieces of the melodies and some of the words, and I’ve written a lot of words—I understand that language really well, having spent so much time with it. So I’ve created a story based on the old ballads, using the traditional melodies.

In the space of my career, which is over thirty years, I’ve noticed a definite decrease in attention in the general population. It’s becoming increasingly rare to find an audience that will sit down and listen to a song that’s got twenty verses.

How are you feeling about this summer’s reunion shows?

It’s exciting, but I have to admit, I have this habit of sticking my neck out, and now… I’m not worried, but I have to fill the Bella Vista!

It’s a treat to be able to get together with the boys again. There’s a comfort zone, almost like home, with that. We did this short stint in the CBC studio, we just got together and banged out a few tunes, and even that was thrilling. There’s a chemistry that happens with people who play together for a long time. It’s like you know each other’s pockets. The enthusiasm level of every single one of the boys when it first came up—they just said “yes” without even thinking about it. That’s really great, that after all these years we’re still interested in playing with each other.

I know that people won’t be disappointed. It’ll be great fun. I’m looking forward to all of the shows. [The Bella Vista show] is a full show, and it will include material that didn’t make it on to the album. It’s going to be a great time in a great room.

Figgy Duff was formed in 1976 by percussionist Noel Dinn, of Lukey’s Boat fame. Original members of the band, including Pamela Morgan, travelled the island, collecting traditional tunes from the outports. A relentless schedule of Canadian and international tours began, and, as Morgan writes, “the road became a way of life.”

Over the years, some of the best-known names in Newfoundland music contributed their talents to the band, including Kelly Russell, Art Stoyles, Dave Panting, Frank Maher, Geoff Butler, and Sandy Morris.

The early albums, 1981’s Figgy Duff and 1984’s After the Tempest, featured primarily traditional tunes fused with rock energy. Weather Out The Storm (1990) and Downstream (1993) allowed Noel Dinn and Pamela Morgan to focus on original songwriting.

In 1993, Noel Dinn passed away at the young age of 45. Two years later, the band put out a best-of album, A Retrospective: 1974 – 1993.

Silver Reunion is Figgy Duff’s first new release in 15 years. According to Morgan, they have no plans for future studio recordings.

Figgy Duff are performing at four reunion dates in August. at the Bella Vista Nightclub on Thursday, August 7th with guests The Ducats. Doors Open 8pm. Limited Seating Available. Tickets $28.00 (tax included) Available at Fred’s Records, O’Brien’s Music, or by phone 722-5237

They will also be performing at the closing night of the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival on August 10 in Bannerman Park.

On August 12 and 13 they will hit the west coast and perform at the Woody Point festival.

For more info visit their website at ambermusic.ca

2 comments

Catbot Tower

Catbot Tower, taken with Instagram

25 November 2012

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