The recent passing of Ron Hynes triggered a well-deserved outpouring sadness and appreciation for one of the greatest songwriters and musicians this province has ever known. Though he wrote and performed many wonderful songs, Sonny’s Dream is widely considered his crowning achievement as it both one of the most beloved songs in Atlantic Canada and has been covered by the likes of Emmy Lou Harris among others.
The Ron Hynes coverage coincided with the start of the Christmas music season on the radio and I remember listening to the Mummer’s Song right after hearing about the importance of Sonny’s Dream and I couldn’t help but think that Simani has not gotten nearly enough recognition and appreciation. Regardless of whether you like Newfoundland folk music, there are two songs by Simani that you have undoubtedly heard many times; the Mummer’s Song and Saltwater Cowboys.
I love Sonny’s Dream, and as someone who spent a lot of time away from home it has always resonated with me, but the song in not particularly specific to Newfoundland. Relatively few Newfoundlanders have lived on a true farm or have been sailors who never come home. Newfoundlanders were mostly fisherman, not sailors, and they were home all the time. Though almost everyone outside of St. John’s grew vegetables, full time farmers were a distinct minority. By contrast, both the Mummer’s Song and Saltwater Cowboys are quintessentially Newfoundland songs. A Nashville recording artist could never cover one of those songs.
The Mummer’s Song was about the dying tradition of mummering in Newfoundland, but instead of just being a lament for a lost tradition, it actually managed to preserve and revive it. Simani and its most famous song legitimately deserves the bulk of the credit for the tradition of mummering still existing in this province today.
Mummering was not invented in Newfoundland. We brought it with us from the British Isles. It also existed in 19th Century Russia. There is actually a section in War and Peace where some of the main characters go mummering, yet the practice has long since disappeared from Russian culture. The only place on earth where a large majority of the population have ever heard of mummering is Newfoundland and Labrador and that is due in large part to a great song by Simani.
Saltwater Cowboys is not as popular, nor has it had the same kind of cultural impact as the Mummer’s Song, but it is the most culturally relevant, both when it was first released almost 35 years ago and today. The song, which is about Newfoundlanders going to Alberta to work in the oil industry and coming back home looking and talking differently could just as well have been released last week as in 1981.
In some ways it is understandable that Simani does not get much attention these days. They gave up performing 18 years ago and half of the duo, Sim Savoury, passed away in 2010. Bud Davidge, who wrote and sang all of the songs is still alive and well, and it would be nice to see him get some of the recognition that he so rightly deserves while he was still with us.