This past Saturday, I participated in my very first Jane’s Walk. This walk was held to honour the memory of a lady named Jane Jacobs. During her life, Jane Jacobs was one of the pre-eminent experts of urban planning and, in particular, ensuring that communities were made livable for the citizens who lived there. Jane Jacobs was a champion of the idea that neighbourhoods needed to be vibrant, open spaces where people could move freely and safely. Such spaces, Jacobs argued, gave people a sense of community and personal identity within a collective framework. So, this past Saturday, my family and I, along with about one hundred other citizens of my town, went for two walks. We learned the history of those particular areas, along with making commitments to help preserve the unique heritage found there so that future generations could also come to share that same space in a knowing and thoughtful way.
The idea of community has always been an important part of my life. I was born and raised in Nova Scotia during a time when many people left their doors unlocked at night. At my home, our door was always open and our teapot was always filled with water and at the ready should there come a knock upon our door. And there were always knocks upon our door. Knowing our neighbours as well as we knew our relatives was part of the culture in Glace Bay, where I grew up. In the evenings, as a teen, we gathered downtown along Commercial Street, which was the main street of our town. Many nights, nothing of consequence happened there…..we just hung out together and talked and had fun. Some times, though, there was romance or the odd fight. There was usually music and chip truck french fries. But mostly, we simply appreciated having a place to gather and be with each other. It may sound lame to today’s generation to know that I spent some of the happiest moments of my teen years standing around downtown Glace Bay doing nothing in particular, but that is what happened. I feel confident in saying that those who stood there with me look back on those times with fondness and affection, too.
But that is not how it is today in many parts of our country. People are not encouraged to gather together in large numbers. In fact, there aren’t many places for people to gather together casually in crowds of any size and simply just be together. Urban planning these days tends to view public spaces as being lost revenue, and as such, so many of our green spaces are being plowed under and paved over so that land developers can build as many homes, as tightly packed together, as they can manage. The end result of this is that subdivision dwellers tend to live inside of their homes instead of outside, in yards that host gatherings. Even shopping is different now. Downtown cores have long battled the lure of shopping malls. Well today, even shopping malls are changing: closing down in favour of big box store plazas where all stores are separate buildings and all entrances lead outside. So now, we drive in our cars to these plazas, go directly into the stores to do our shopping and then we retreat back into our cars and return home, usually going straight inside. These days, our contact with others tends to be through the screens of our phones or computers. Entire generations of young people are growing up with the notion that living lives of compartmentalization is how life is meant to be. But, in fact, that is not how life is meant to be. For what it is worth, I believe that life is a journey that is meant to be shared.
And so, I begin the Great Canadian Road Trip series in one of the friendliest, most welcoming and happening communities in all of Canada…..St. John’s, Newfoundland. I am not sure if it is an East Coast-thing or not, but when you travel to the eastern part of Canada, you find many centres where you can tell those in charge of urban planning have put the needs of humans before the wants of the almighty dollar. Places like Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia have both done a fabulous job of developing the area along their waterfront as public spaces. There are lots of restaurants, small businesses and many cultural events there….and always, lots of music. In St. John’s, NFLD, there is a street called George Street, which is home to a seemingly endless stretch of bars, pubs and restaurants. George Street is usually closed to vehicular traffic so it is a safe place to wander about…..to see and be seen, as it were. The powers that be have also decreed that, although sales of alcohol are cut off at 1:00am, the restaurants may stay open all night and, as such, it is common for music and dancing to go on until morning.
This atmosphere was captured very well in today’s song entitled, The Night Pat Murphy Died by one of Canada’s most popular bands, Great Big Sea. Newfoundland has had a long tradition of celebrating their history and culture through music. There are scores of songs about the sea, about fishing, about the harsh climate and, just as many again, about acts of community and brotherhood/sisterhood that often involve romance and/or drinking and/or singing and other shenanigans. I grew up listening to bands from The Rock such as Ryan’s Fancy and Figgy Duff. In the 1990s, Great Big Sea was the main band. They passed the torch to other bands such as Hey, Rosetta! and many others. Regardless of when the songs were sung and who was doing the singing, music has always been a large part of the social fabric of the communities that dot the Newfoundland coastline. Because of that fact, urban planners purposely created spaces where people could gather, songs could be sung and good company kept all the while. This sort of purposeful direction from local Town and City Councils goes a long way to giving the place where you live, a sense of community. This is reflected in a song such as The Night Pat Murphy Died.
The Night Pat Murphy Died is a song whose origin stretches back into the murky fog of history so much so that no one can say for sure who actually wrote the tune. But, it was when Great Big Sea recorded it for their 1997 album, Play, that the popularity of the song spread beyond the island of Newfoundland, to the rest of the country. Great Big Sea are no longer together, but in their heyday, during the years between 1990 and 2015, they were one of the biggest and most popular bands in Canada. Lead by vocalists Alan Doyle and Sean McCann, Great Big Sea had a string of Top Ten hits including When I’m Up, Mari Mac, Ordinary Day, Lukey and Consequence Free. They earned eleven Gold records and went Platinum multiple times. They have won numerous Juno Awards, as well as winning the award for “Group of the Year” six times in a row at The East Coast Music Awards. However, despite the popularity of their “hit” songs, Great Big Sea were always most well known for their live shows. At these shows, the band often sang more traditional Newfoundland songs such as England, Excursion Around the Bay or today’s song, The Night Pat Murphy Died. These songs were always crowd pleasers and often provoked a reaction within their audiences that saw people dancing and singing and having the time of their lives.
The Night Pat Murphy Died is a song about an Irish wake. As often happens in Newfoundland songs, there is plenty of crossover between the experiences of those in Newfoundland and those who came to it from across the sea in England, Scotland or Ireland. So, The Night Pat Murphy Died revolves around the antics of those who came to honour the memory of their friend, Paddy Murphy, who had passed away. Needless to say, much drinking and rabble rousing ensues. The party, turned celebration of life, spills out of Pat Murphy’s former house and onto the streets of St. John, eventually landing at a real pub on George Street called The Sundance Saloon. It is at The Sundance Saloon that the revellers stay until sunrise before laying their friend to rest. As songs go, The Night Pat Murphy Died is a hoot and a holler. It is a great sing-a-long song. Furthermore, I defy you to keep your toes from a-tapping.
“That’s how they showed their respect for Paddy Murphy,
That’s how they showed, their honour and their pride.
They said it was a sin and a shame
And then winked at one another
Every drink in the place was full
the night Pat Murphy died.“
There are numerous videos on YouTube of Great Big Sea performing this song live. Any one of them will make for awesome viewing. The Night Pat Murphy Died is one of those songs that is hard to sing poorly. I believe that the reason for this is because songs that honour people are part of the cultural DNA of the entire population of Newfoundland and when you build your world around the values that real people hold dear, you do right by them. That mutual love is reflected back in the form of a strong sense of community so that every time you watch Great Big Sea perform The Night Pat Murphy Died, it seems as though you are watching a party happening between the band and several hundred/thousand of their closest friends. Sometimes, music is more than chords and notes. Sometimes, music is in our blood and our hearts. This is the case here.
So, without further delay, here is Great Big Sea with The Night Pat Murphy Died. Enjoy. See you all next time on this musical journey we call The Great Canadian Road Trip. Bye for now. 🙂
The link to the video for the song, The Night Pat Murphy Died, by Great Big Sea can be found here.
The link to the video for a cover version of this song by German “Speed Folk” band, Fiddler’s Green can be found here. This is a punked-up version that is rawer than that of Great Big Sea and which, also, has a terrific second half and an awesome ending. I know this version will be right up the alley of a few of my faithful readers. Enjoy this one, too. It is great!
The link to the official website for Jane’s Walks can be found here.
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