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Marjorie Doyle. Reels, Rock and Rosaries: Confessions of a Newfoundland Musician.

Marjorie Doyle. Reels, Rock and Rosaries: Confessions of a Newfoundland Musician. East Lawrencetown, NS: Pottersfield Press, 2005, ISBN 1-895900-73-5

ON A TINY CORNER near an intersection in the heart of St. John's stands an unimposing monument. It is a solitary bronze figure, barely 3 feet high, of a uniformed young schoolgirl standing absorbed in counting on her fingers. One dark January evening I went for a closer look and found some seasonably sensitive soul had wrapped a black scarf about the statue's neck. "School children have played here for 250 years," the plaque gently begins; then it sketches the history of three nearby church-run girls' schools that served the denser working- and trading-class populations of past decades. Gone now are the intense religious and sectarian divisions; gone are most of the families to the suburbs and beyond, and gone are the schools.

Marjorie Doyle was one of the many hundreds who grew up attending the Presentation Sisters' Convent school in Cathedral Square, below the Basilica of St. John the Baptist that dominates the city. As the Irish Christian Brothers gave many hundreds of boys in their two nearby schools, the sisters gave Doyle a thoroughly Irish and Catholic education (18). She is the only daughter of the late Gerald S. Doyle, successful trader and distributor of medicinals, devoted collector, and non-profiting publisher of successive editions of Old-Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland (6). For decades as well, Gerald S. Doyle Limited sponsored the nightly "Doyle Bulletin" news program on Newfoundland radio. His was a household name all over the island.

The Sisters gave young Marjorie a thorough musical education, too, which she herself continued, later becoming a broadcaster, music critic, and columnist (7). We don't always write about what we know, but, somehow, we usually write about what we want to find out. Reels, Rock and Rosaries is the informal autobiography of a musician and critic, but also of a woman searching for herself and her place. In what she "confesses" and in what she does not, it appears to have been both the Catholic and the musical regimes that sustained and conflicted her. The study and practice of Classical Western (European) music, taking the time and concentration it does, and providing so complete the mental and emotional sustenance it does, is famous for conferring just these mixed blessings. Not to mention being reared a strict Irish Catholic (98).

Doyle is also troubled by what she calls her "patriotism" (8). She is even angry enough at times over Newfoundland's "loss of nationhood" to have played practical jokes on "mainlanders" (63). She brings it up again and again, yet she never discusses exactly what she means (157). If "nationhood" isn't a self-determining human community with its common public good and future in its own hands, then what, in the name of the Doyle Songbook, is it, exactly? If nationhood is this, then Newfoundland never had a nationhood to lose, for Newfoundland is and has always been in the ruthless grip of a clique of profiteering exploiters of one address or another, who bleed primary resources dry and give as little as possible back to community or ecology. Politicians and media have always done and still do their best to babble about anything else but this greatest and grimmest truth, yet it darkens and distorts every aspect of life, and surely it is the reason the outports are finally dying and those St. John's schoolchildren and their families have disappeared. End of sermon.

Reels, Rock and Rosaries ranges freely over Doyle's years from the "convent girl" of the 1950s and 1960s to her pranks and passions as an older student, her travels and adventures as a musician. Aside from the often irreverent satires of certain local comedians also raised in it, very little of balanced memoir has otherwise come down to us from that intensely Catholic world that began to dissolve in the late 1960s. Doyle's re-creation of the child' s daily regimes with some peculiarly Catholic details are precise and vivid (105). From what my sisters used to tell me, and what I myself recall from roughly the same years spent at St. Bon's College (for boys) up around the corner from Cathedral Square, I can vouch for the accuracy, too.

In the "The Disappearing Concert" (129), she assembles, from her years of performing, reviewing, and just showing up, one composite evening when everything goes hell, west, and weird. Very funny. It ranks with the anecdotes of the great accompanist Gerald Moore in his genial autobiography, Am I Too Loud? "A Chores Girl at Home" (148) is a finely sustained account of a Christmas visit to an old-age home with a pick-up choir of friends. It has something of the modern "creative writing" approach, with its interior monologue on so typically middle class a neurosis as the fear of the aged, but of all Doyle's chapters, this one meanders least in subject and mood.

Then again, proper autobiography is by nature one's private and wayward odyssey of quests and retreats, wanderings and returns. However glamorous or ignominious the camino may be, the pilgrim's journey is really an inner one; s/he is in a lifelong school for souls. So if you don't tell us what's on your mind, you're not writing autobiography.

"When the concert hall turns into a classroom," she comments late in the book, "the concert turns into a lesson, shoving out the magic" (138). Yet, by now, she has many times lectured us on this or that piece of music. However enlightened these rhapsodies are, without the music they become the painful pedagogy Doyle eschews. Pursuant to this theme, let me mention a prank I once pulled in music school. From CBC radio, I taped what began as one of the late Clyde Gilmour's Sunday afternoon sampler programs of music and song. It took me several successive "Gilmour's Albums" of taping, as I was including only his characteristic fawning, drooling, salivating introductions of singers, one after another. Then, in making the presentation to my voice master class, I heaped in a few more delicious declamations of my own. What started as an appreciation of lieder and interpretation ended up in the pastries and gimutlich at the Mozart Tea Room, Robson Street, Vancouver. Not a note was sung, but it was a hit. The prof had to give me top marks since he was laughing harder than anyone. It was welcome comic relief, too, for no musicians are more self-conscious than singers, because their instruments are themselves. Body, voice, childhood, musicianship, ears, habits, health, heart, education, and ego are all there to be seen and heard once you open your mouth and "heave it out of ya." So, as our Kodaly teacher often admonished, "Less talk, more singing, more listening!"

It entirely bewilders me that Marjorie Doyle, who was raised on great singing like John McCormack's, and great songs from near and far, from "The Kelligrews Soiree" and "The Trinity Cake," to "Linden Lea" and "Roses of Picardy"--music that gets into the hearts and veins of very few--should be so impressed with Alan Doyle's version of the Newfoundland ballad about the sporting "Jack Hinks" (33).

Yes, the Great Big Sea band members have sure hands on their instruments; but the singing, the face-pulling, the phony accents, the bounding and swaggering? Oh, come now. I agree that Jim Joyce's version of "Hard, Hard Times" is great indeed, but his approach is quite the opposite (47). What I would call a great interpretation of (almost) a Newfoundland song would be the job McCormack (1884-1946) would have done on "Pat Murphy's Meadow," for example, had it been written a few decades earlier and fallen into his hands, as so many otherwise obscure songs did.

And while we're on the subject of McCormack, Doyle does confess that she sang, learned, and then forgot a lot of songs without ever having understood them (74). Please allow me to note, then, that "The Garden Where the Praties Grow" is clearly a happy song by all measures (no pun intended). He got the girl he wanted. She was lovely and unpretentious and he met her in the potato garden next door. But those pangs of love were so sharp that he'd sooner go to jail than go through it again; he's happy because he won't have to, however, so it's a happy song (115). Songs of the lovelorn, on the other hand, were another of McCormack's specialties. "Terence's Farewell," "Molly Bawn," "Molly Brannigan," and "The Short Cut to the Rosses" may be of and by a singer of the incorrect gender, but they're far more powerful and expressive in lyric, line, and delivery than any of their many derivatives sung by the Dollys and Kittys and Hanks from down in Pennsatucky.

Hard, too, it is to imagine how Doyle reached her thirties without hearing these "country and western" songs (113). I grew up in St. John's in the 1950s and 1960s, too, and I escaped them only when I took to the farm or the woods. If my dad had put a radio in the barn with the cows, as some other farmers did, where could I have retreated with my book on winter evenings?

If I could've heard the "Trio" album, Tom T. Hall, Billy Ed Wheeler, Doc Watson, Judy Collins, Lew Murphy, Omar Blondahl, John McCormack, Paul Robeson, and Kathleen Ferrier on pop radio all day, I wouldn't have gotten any reading done. But before electrically produced rude impulse rock music took over the air, we were afflicted with characters in cowboy outfits who sounded like they all came from the same "holler," who played the same three chords and forever wailed about their love lives. You'd have to live a very cloistered life not to have heard them (64).

It is not that I am a snob. Quite the contrary. I am a dirt farmin', snake handlin', God fearin', fundamentalist folkie who believes there is folk music (including jazz) classical music and junk (56). As for snobs, who hog and exclude, they're everywhere, high and low, with more per capita in classical music, I've noticed, than in any other music (33). Most popular contemporary "music" is musically derivative and lyrically narcissistic junk. If it was food, many millions would be dead from it, says I. Music and song (like all the arts that interpret life) actually are emotional and spiritual human food (98). What does this say about the spiritual/emotional lives of those millions?

But giving a free choral concert of noble music in the public square is too little too late for those multitudes (97). I, too, believe in miracles, but I can neither perform nor predict them. The ancients were right when they recommended both the noble music of the lyre (harp) and the exuberant music of the aulos (flute) be given in equal portion and from childhood onwards. But if you withhold from one child, while granting to another for no apparent fault or merit, the "have-nots" will henceforward reject what was denied them, and they will despise those who have, because the iniquitous insult remains. This "sour grapes" reaction, when conscientiously used, is a healthy survival tactic for "have-nots." Doyle mentions in passing, that most of her classmates at Presentation "convent school" couldn't read their music, their voice parts (108). She came from a well-to-do family that was doing well enough to afford her private lessons.

This most crucial fact about her musical childhood she never mentions at all. It was as true in 1857, as in 1957, as it is in 2007: The exceptional child is he or she who learns and develops without private lessons, which are still necessary but not yet equally accessible to all.

In the early 1980s, Brother A.F. "Stalks" Brennan hired me one year to teach music in three St. John's east Catholic schools. Though equipped only with guitar and my Kodaly evangelism, I pulled off three successful Christmas concerts. But one dreary February afternoon, the old nun of a principal stuck her head in my door and asked, "Are the children doing any singing?" I took a moment to explain that they were learning how to sight-read voice lines by "moveable Do(e)." In a few years or less, they would be able to pick up a three- or four-part piece, and sight-sing it!

"But they'll all be gone up to the high school by then," was her muttered reply, before she scurried off to no particular emergency that I can remember. I stood blinking a moment before I stepped back into my classroom. If it hadn't hit me eventually, I might be there yet; but, months later, when it did, I stole away and cried a bit. This is where both the exclusivity and the "sour grapes" begin, with schools that deny children a basic musical literacy, while using music to showcase them to pacify parental vanity.

All the trashy music videos, the soft porn with a soundtrack, all the demented country songs, and the unintelligible apeing and squealing on television "idol" shows wouldn't lay a glove on children with half the music education young Marjorie Doyle had, or the even smaller fraction I had. I got myself into music school singing Sarastro's two major arias from "The Magic Flute," and though I placed first a few times, and graduated singing the beautiful Stevenson/Vaughan Williams "Songs of Travel" cycle, I didn't go where Ben Heppner went (135). (He also competed in the Vancouver Kiwanis Festivals of the late 1970s.) However, late and far from home, I finally got that classical music education I wanted, and, as with Marjorie Doyle's Barcelona experience, it has since gotten me through some pretty hairy hayrides, too.

And I'm still Irish and Catholic, in spirit. I don't got to mass, but I go to sleep listening to Palestrina whenever possible.

Dulce et decorum est pro musica viva. (Sweet and becoming it is to live for music.)

And so, to conclude my theme, I have a request: Could we hear Kathleen Ferrier singing Schubert's "An Die Musik"? It goes out to Marjorie Doyle, and to all those grown children who, as the plaque reads at King and Military in old St. John's, were "relaxed and secure, in their world of Education and Innocence," but were never given enough music to sustain them in life.

Frank Holden

St. John's, NL
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Author:Holden, Frank
Publication:Newfoundland and Labrador Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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