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John White's collection of the songs of…

John White's collection of the songs of Johnny Burke

by Johnny Burke, William James Kirwin (Editor), John White

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You may talk of "Clara Nolan's Ball" or anything you choose,
But it couldn't hold a snuffbox to the spree at Kelligrews;
If you want your eyeballs straightened just come out next week with me,
You'll have to wear your glasses at the Kelligrews Soiree.
There was birch rind, tar twine, cherry wine and turpentine....

Those are the opening words of "The Kelligrew's Soiree," probably the most famous song by Newfoundland's great playwright, poet, and comic Johnny Burke (1851-1930). His corpus of works contains many other funny songs such as "Betsy Brennan's Blue Hen" (in which a thief steals the hen, and the singer wishes, "may he have bunions As big as small onions"), parodies such as "Trinity Cake" (a Newfoundland version of the Irish "Mrs. Fogarty's Cake"), and history songs such as "The Sealer's Strike of 1902." It is a large and very diverse body of work that gives a wonderful view of Newfoundland life.

If you can find all of Burke's works, anyway. That's one of two difficulties with this book: It doesn't appear to include more than a selection of Burke's poems (omitting, e.g., much of what Burke had had privately printed as "Burke's Ballads," a book which is now completely unobtainable). Of twenty-one songs and poems I've seen attributed to Burke in one collection or another, only eleven appear in this collection. The other problem is the lack of context. Take a song that is found in this book, "The Loss of the Regulus." This is based on an actual historical event -- the Regulus was lost on October 23, 1910. And the song became embedded in tradition; both Kenneth Peacock and MacEdward Leach collected versions. Yet there is no way of knowing the history of the Regulus from Kirwin's book -- it could be an account of a real ship, or it could be fictional; the reader can't know. The book really needs notes.

More information on tunes would help, too. We know that many Burke poems were sung, but no tunes are printed. Burke often borrowed traditional tunes, and some of these are listed (making up for the lack of musical notation) -- but there are many pieces which are known to have been songs for which no tune is indicated.

Also, there is a lot of material I've seen attributed to Burke on very flimsy grounds. It would be nice to know what is undeniably Burke's, what may be but is dubious, and what is Burke pseudepigrapha.

Those sundry complaints make it clear that this isn't a definitive collection of the works of Burke. There is need for such a book, but it doesn't exist. Maybe there will be one someday. Until then -- get this, because it seems to be the best you're going to get.
  waltzmn | May 5, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Johnny Burkeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kirwin, William JamesEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
White, Johnmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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