Salt-Water Moon



Music and the arts are central to life in Newfoundland and Labrador. Early fishermen and explorers relied on music to entertain them during long, cold winter nights, around campfires, on expeditions, and on fishing boats. Nineteenth century settlers brought ballads and songs with them from England, Ireland and Scotland. Eventually, people began to compose their own songs, reflecting life in Newfoundland and Labrador as they knew it. Folk songs deal with daily life. Newfoundland and Labrador's folk songs span a broad range of subjects, including the fisherman's life, tragedies such as shipwrecks, political commentary, songs dealing with hard times like the collapse of the fishing industry, odes, ballads and humorous works. The tunes were often original, but were also based on traditional folk music from England, with words adapted to suit current situations.

Songs were sung around kitchen tables at "kitchen parties" and groups of young people went door-to-door at Christmas time, dressed in costumes, singing and dancing, a tradition called "mumming". Gerald S. Doyle published collections of Newfoundland songs called The Old Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland from the 1920s to the 1960s. Many of these songs are still popular today.

In the 1950s, traditional music was supplanted for a time in the mainstream media, and in the hearts of young people, by the rock and roll craze that swept the world. Traditional music remained popular, however, in kitchens and parlours, with voices accompanied by violins or accordions. A 1964 CBC television show, All Around the Circle, helped revive traditional music, and interest continued to grow in the 1970s and 80s. A younger generation combined traditional music with rock and other styles, and made it fresh and relevant. This experimentation with traditional music continues today. St. John's Memorial University offers courses in traditional Newfoundland and Labrador fiddling, accordion playing and singing.

The arts scene in Newfoundland and Labrador is still vibrant. George Street, in St. John's, is home to live music, open mics and more. Groups like Great Big Sea have given a modern rock twist to traditional Newfoundland music. Actors from Newfoundland and Labrador abound on TV and film – Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh, Gordon Pinsent… the list goes on. The arts are a lifeblood for the province – and the province has been generous enough to share these gifts with the rest of Canada.


Since 2006, the NAC English Theatre has conducted an unique theatre research and development project known as The Ark. Canadian theatre students and professional artists gather to study either a period in theatre history, or the work of a master playwright. In 2011, The Ark's focus is on Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian poet and playwright (A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt, etc.).

In September, 2011 The Ark set sail as English Theatre travelled to Fogo Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, to learn more about this culture in comparison to Ibsen’s place of birth and inspiration.  The three-week session ended with an original and entertaining presentation of the research that was done. Fogo Island is the largest island off Newfoundland, and is known for its inspiring scenery.


In Salt-Water Moon, Jacob refers to the time his father spent fishing "on the Labrador." This refers not to the name of a ship, but to the coastline and fishing grounds off Labrador, where many men of that era spent five months of the year fishing, from May to September or October. As many as 10,000 Newfoundland men worked "on the Labrador" each year during the first half of the 20th century. Girls as young as 13 worked on-board ships cooking for the men, and helping to clean and cure the fish, and many children missed school in May and September to lend a hand. Conditions were rudimentary and rough: there were black flies, mice, lice and ticks, not to mention freezing cold water and long, hard days.

It is interesting to note that the water around Newfoundland and Labrador is so cold that most fishermen never learned how to swim. Hypothermia would set in within minutes if someone was unlucky enough to fall overboard, or if a ship capsized.

The fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador dates back to the early 1500s, when John Cabot returned to England with baskets of codfish. Hundreds of European fishing boats set out for the Grand Banks, a group of underwater plateaus off the south-eastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, to fish for whales, salmon and cod each spring. The Labrador harbour of Red Bay, a whaling port for Basque whalers, was one of the busiest places on the coast.

By the mid 1700s the fishing industry was in full swing. Cod was brought on shore to be split, washed and salted. Cod liver oil was squeezed from the cod livers. The fish dried in the sun and salted and could be easily transported back to Europe, where it was stored for months, even years.

Unfortunately, in the 1940s, changes in the migratory patterns of cod led to a decline in the fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. Many people who worked in the industry went to find work in the mines instead. In July 1992, the Canadian government instituted a moratorium on cod fishing indefinitely, putting tens of thousands of people out of work. Reasons for the declining cod stocks range from the more efficient technology that allowed fishermen to catch more fish, to the size of cod stocks having been overestimated.

Joey Smallwood, then Premier of Newfoundland, instituted a controversial policy of resettlement in the 1950s, a few years after Newfoundland joined Confederation. The province began an intensive road-building program, and began installing phone and electric lines. But many former fishing villages were remote and inaccessible. Smallwood's government offered incentives to move entire villages from the outports into larger towns. Over 250 outports were deserted; sometimes, entire houses were floated across bays to the mainland.  The most controversial aspect of Smallwood's resettlement project is that no compensation money was paid until the entire village was relocated. One hundred percent agreement among everyone living in the outport was required.

Musical tribute to Newfoundland fishermen:


When Great-Britain entered World War I in 1914, Canada, as a Dominion country, automatically entered the war as well. French and English Canadians were united in their desire to enlist and fight against the common enemy. In 1914, the Canadian Expeditionary Force left for Great-Britain, a contingent of 32,000 men. Five hundred men from Newfoundland, at the time a self-governing colony, made up part of this group.

By far the most tragic battle for the people of Newfoundland took place at Beaumont-Hamel (July 1, 1916), during the four-month-long Battle of the Somme. The Newfoundland Regiment was directed to march over No Man's Land, towards enemy lines. Artillery fire was supposed to protect them. But something went wrong and the great majority of the 780 men who set out that day were killed or wounded. Only 68 were able to report for roll call the following day. The entire island of Newfoundland experienced great loss on that tragic day. The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial stands in France today as a reminder. July 1 is Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador, a day to commemorate the heavy casualties from this battle.

Newfoundland's contribution to World War I was impressive. Around 12,000 Newfoundlanders volunteered to serve – approximately 35% of the population of 19-35 year-old men. Many more Newfoundland men and women helped the war effort from home.


April 1915

second Battle of Ypres       

68,000 Allied casualties*

July-November 1916        

Battle of the Somme

600,000 Allied casualties

July 1, 1916


710 Newfoundland casualties

April 1917

Vimy Ridge

11,000 Canadian casualties

October 1917   


16,000 Canadian casualties

*casualties include both the dead and the wounded


Tommy Ricketts (1901-1957) was the youngest person in a combat role to win the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for bravery to members of Commonwealth countries. He enlisted at age 15 and received the award at 17, when he served as a private in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during World War I. He studied pharmacology after the war, and opened a business in St. John's, Newfoundland. In Salt-Water Moon, Mary takes her sister Dot to the pharmacy to see Tommy Ricketts as an example of courage to inspire Dot to endure the difficult conditions in the Home where she has been placed.


Before the advent of modern technology, mariners relied on the night sky to aid in navigation. The human eye first served to observe the stars. Mariners also used astrolabes telescopes, and today we can observe the stars and planets from outer space, thanks to the Hubble and Kepler telescopes.

In Salt-Water Moon, Mary reveals that Jerome, the school teacher, has been educating Mary about astronomy. She can find the Constellation of the Harp, also known as Lyra. She knows the Big Dipper (also called The Plough), the Little Dipper, and Vega, a blue star in the Constellation of the Harp, and the fourth brightest star in the summer sky. She mentions having seen Jupiter's satellites (ie. its four largest moons). And she is learning to identify the valley, seas and bays of the moon.