Johnny Burke, an Excluded Canadian Troubadour
by Paul Matthew St. Pierre
Johnny Burke was a person of substance in the literature of colonial Newfoundland, but he has become a shadowy figure in contemporary Canadian literature. The shadow he casts is a long one, however, and its shape without form is fascinating to critics and historians. His influence as a Canadian troubadour extends to contemporary poet-lyricist-singers such as Leonard Cohen and Gilles Vigneault. His influence as a balladeer can be heard in the folk music of Atlantic Canada, notably in the cadences of legendary fiddler Don Messer. If the details of Burke's art are as plain as the words on the page and as memorable as a clever tune, the details of his life are as fragile as the dying fall of a plucked string.
John Burke, Jr., was born in 1851 in St. John's, Newfoundland, the city with which he is almost exclusively associated. In 1865, his father, Captain John Burke, a seal fisherman, and his older brother William were drowned when their ship Nautilus went down in a storm off the coast of St. John's. After the death of their mother, Sarah Burke, some time later, Johnny, his remaining brother, Alexander, and his sister, Annie, took on the responsibility of raising one another. Since none of them married, they continued to live together in their house on Prescott Street into their adulthood, right up until Johnny Burke's death in 1930. The house was the hub of Burke's song-writing and a cultural centre for much of the popular art in St. John's in the years 1890-1930. The Prescott Street Auction Mart was the in-house publisher of Burke's first song collection, St. John's Advertiser and Fishermen's Guide: A Racy Little Song and Joke Book (1894). Johnny Burke was affectionately known as the "Bard of Prescott Street."
Although he was by no means a bard in the Shakespearean sense, he was indeed bardic in three regards: he was a singing poet; he recited poems of his own composition; and he wrote verse for the purpose of historical commentary. Newfoundlanders (both in St. John's and in the outports of the colony) came to see Johnny Burke as the pre-eminent commentator on the fast-breaking events of the day, an editorialist, satirist, and busker all rolled into one.
Burke earned his living at a variety of service jobs (grocer, salesman) and amateur theatrical positions (talent show producer, opera producer); he was also the proprietor of a cinema, and on two occasions a theatre manager. But his work as a popular artist was his consuming avocation: the public ate him up. Burke's practice was to write variously humorous, satirical, witty, and sentimental ballads on current events, as the occasion arose and with all the immediacy he could muster, then print them on broadsheets (initially on his own press, and later at a newspaper pressroom), and finally hire boys to sell them in the streets of St. John's at two to five cents per copy.
But Burke did not work in isolation. He was part of an intimate company of popular balladeers (among them T. M. Lannigan, Gerald S. Doyle, Michael Power, Johnny Quigley, Johnny Quill, and James Murphy) and compilers of songsters (including George T. Oliver and Sir Charles Hutton, the latter Burke's cousin). With James Murphy, Burke collaborated on the Duke of York Songster and Christmas Advertiser (1901) and The Burke and Murphy Songster (1904); they also shared an interest in songs about the Newfoundland seal hunt. The term songster, which refers both to a song composer and to a song collection, captures the common disposition of the balladeer and the ballad, and it underscores the fact that Johnny Burke's Canadian literary identity resides primarily in a handful of song sters that have survived the vagaries of broadside publication and roadside distribution.
Johnny Burke's songs commemorate current events ranging from the occasional to the momentous. In "Stoppage of Water," for example, Burke challenges a 1927 order in council which would have permitted St. John's to cut off the water supply of citizens in arrears on their taxes:
Here the occasion is at once a potential civic injustice and a poor people's ceremony the dance that continues to flow even when the water does not. Burke's serious songs often focus on disasters at sea; fourteen such works appear in Burke's Newfoundland Ballads (1912). In "The July Fire," however, Burke addresses himself to the 1892 fire that destroyed much of St. John's, leaving many people homeless. The chorus is typical of Burke's reducing the calamitous to a human scale:
In its ongoing popularity, this song helped the people of St. John's to overcome the trauma of their trial by fire.
Burke's balladry ranges from parodic to satiric in mood. One of his most popular and enduring songs, and his personal favorite, "When Your Old Woman Takes a Cramp in Her Craw Give her Cod Liver Oil," is a parody of the popular nineteenth century Irish song "Cod Liver Oil." From his irreverent opening lines on, Burke mimics the spirit of compassion and healing that marks the original ballad:
In all his ballads, as here, Burke wrote original words but no musical accompaniment, relying instead on the well-known melodies of music-hall and stage-Irish songs of the day. His broadsides and songsters, however, often do not specifically acknowledge by name the songs they were "sung to the tune of." This disparity between lyric and melody, in addition to complicating the musicologist's and critic's tasks, stresses the essentially word-of-mouth tribal phenomenon of the Johnny Burke ballad.
One of his most cleverly satirical songs is "The Landfall of Cabot," an early work (1897) which mocks the debate over whether John Cabot's landfall of 1497 was at Newfoundland or at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. After several speakers promote the Newfound land position by claiming insiders' knowledge of Cabot, the singer concludes with deadpan irony, and a nod to fellow songster James Murphy:
This kind of commentary on Newfoundland attitudes was immensely popular, and Burke did much to consolidate opinion in his day, to the extent that his songs marked less events which were complete than the completion of events: nothing in Newfoundland was really finished, the public came to believe, until Johnny Burke had written a song about it.
Burke's best-written and most enduring songs gauge the ten sions of social gatherings. The litany of names and the insistent rhythms in "The Kelligrew's Soiree" capture the celebratory mood of "Clara Nolan's Ball." In "The Trinity Cake," the trappings of afternoon tea and posturings of the takers of tea conspire to induce a state of intoxication: "You'd crack off from the knees if you happen to sneeze, / After eating this Trinity Cake" (Burke's Ballads 38).
Although best known for his songs, Burke was quite a versatile writer, composing and producing musical comedies, operas, and vaudeville entertainments. Notable among these works are the opera The Topsail Geisha, based on Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado; the comic play Cotton's Patch, a burlesque of Major Sydney Cotton's attempt to locate the main "patch" of seals off the Atlantic coast; and the musical comedy The Battle of Foxtrap, a mock heroic farce. Burke produced these dramatic works at the Casino, the Star, the Mechanic's Hall, and other local St. John's theaters.
As a bard, Burke enunciated the chronicles of his tribe; as an entrepreneur, he turned information into a commodity; as a promoter, he transformed his private self into a celebrity. But Johnny Burke's place was not the global village but a tribal village, a tight-knit network of Newfoundland street-corners and outports.
Today, Johnny Burke is as isolated from the Canadian canon as Newfoundland is from the Canadian mainland. His exclusion from critical studies and poetic anthologies diminishes the continent of Canadian literature and letters. John Robert Colombo's exhaustive Dictionary of Canadian Quotations (1991) contains not a single word by Burke. The ambitious "Canadian Writers" volumes of The Dictionary of Literary Biography feature no entry on Burke. William Toye's Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1983) features not only no name-entry on Burke but not even an allusion to him in its general entry "Writing in Newfoundland," where he deserves to take at least a venerable or a beatific place among such canonical Newfoundland writers as E.J. Pratt, Farley Mowat, and David French. Even Carl F. Klinck and W.H. New's august editions of Literary History of Canada (1965-1990) make no mention of Burke in their litanies of names dropped. In the end, Johnny Burke is not a name dropped into the Canadian canon; it is a name that has been dropped out of it. The Canadian critical establishment's burking of Johnny Burke demands a counteract of critical deburking. My hope is that this brief life of Burke might be seen as "counteract one."
A Chronology of Writings, Editions, and Compilations by Johnny Burke
Burke, Johnny. St. John
Advertiser and Fishermen 's Guide: A Racy Little Song and
_____. The People Songster. Buyers Guide,
and Gems of Poetry and Prose,
_____. The Duke of York Songster and
Advertiser. Ed. Johnny Burke and James
_____. The Burke and Murphy Songster.
Ed. Johnny Burke and James Murphy. N.p.:
_____. Burke's Newfoundland Ballads.
Comp. Johnny Burke. St. John's: John Burke,
_____. The Allies Patriotic War
Songster. Comp. Johnny Burke. St. John's: Privately
_____. Burke's Xmas Songster. Comp. Johnny Burke. St. John's: John Burke, 1920.
_____. The Irish Songster. Johnny Burke. St. John's: John Burke, 1922.
_____. Burke's Popular Songs. Comp. Johnny Burke. St. John's: Long Bros., 1929.
_____. Burke's Ballads. Comp. John White. St. John's: John White, 1960.
_____. The Ballads of Johnny Burke: A
Short Anthology, Newfoundland Historical
Kirwin, William J., ed. John White's
Collection of the Songs of Johnny Burke.
A Short List of Critical Works on Johnny Burke and Newfoundland Balladry
Devine, J.H."The Bard of
Prescott Street." Newfoundland Stories and Ballads 1.1
Halliday, Claire."Cod Liver Oil." Atlantic Advocate 53 (October 1962): 33-37.
Mercer, Paul. Introduction. The Ballads of
Johnny Burke: A Short Anthology Ed.
Mercer, Paul, comp. Newfoundland
Songs and Ballads in Print 1842-1974: A Title
Murphy, Michael P."The
Balladeers of Newfoundland." The Atlantic Guardian 13
Peacock, Kenneth, comp. and ed. Songs of the
Newfoundland Outports. Volume 1.
Story, G.M."The St. John's Balladeers."
The English Quarterly 4 (Winter 1971):
Johnny Burke's papers are located in the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's), in the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archive (St. John's), and in St. John's public libraries.