Like Don Messer a generation earlier, thirty years ago Harry Hibbs seemed to be a national Canadian icon of cultural regionalism. He epitomized the variety of Canadian culture at a time when Canadians were intensely aware of American cultural dominance. That intensity has passed and Harry Hibbs himself has been dead for thirteen years. The release in late 2001 of a CD containing two dozen titles, on 21 tracks, of music performed by Harry Hibbs is a welcome event. This CD, produced by Russell Bowers for and distributed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, provides a new view of an important part of the canon of Newfoundland vernacular music of the 1960s through the 1980s. Harry Hibbs was born in 1942 on the then industrial Bell Island, a mining community in Conception Bay, not very far from St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland. He grew up in a musical family with a fiddling father and a singing mother, and in his early years he must have soaked up influences from the lively musical community around him. In the middle of the twentieth century there was a vigorous musical culture on radio, and Bell Island was well situated to hear local, American, and Canadian stations. Bell Island was fine for Harry, but by the 1960s it was clear the life of Bell Island’s large mine was limited and, four years before its final demise, he left home in 1962 for Toronto, the destination of choice for his generation of Newfoundland emigrants. He never lost his roots on Bell Island, and continued to symbolically connect himself to it through his musical career. Nonetheless, a musical career was not his first choice. In Toronto he worked as a press operator for five years. A work accident crushed his legs in 1967, putting him in hospital for months and leaving him with the prospect of being unable to work for the next few years. An activity that kept him occupied during his convalescence was playing his accordion and singing the songs he’d learned as a boy and later. This eclectic mix sustained him for years. In early 1968, newly released from hospital in Toronto, he was convinced to hobble, on crutches, on to a stage at a party and perform. Word of his musical talents spread rapidly among Newfoundlanders in Toronto and thence to a wider audience. In the context of late-sixties, multicultural Canada and the emigrant culture of Newfoundlanders in Toronto, he was seen as a new star in the firmament. Harry liked this new fame and line of work. A month later, the Caribou Club opened. It was a favourite home for Newfoundlanders and the club featured him as its star. A series of career events cascaded: radio and television features, a recording and touring deal, magazine write-ups, and a television series all contributed to make Harry Hibbs a nearly overnight Canadian star. Hibbs’s music was, if not revolutionary, then sharply evolutionary and syncretistic. In the popular traditions of music in Newfoundland in the 1950s, the accordionist was mainly an instrumentalist. Hibbs was among the first popular Newfoundland performers to play his accordion and sing at the same time. This was possible partly because of his mastery of microphones and amplification — he often sang in unison with his accordion, but knew how to manipulate levels in such a way that his voice was in the lead. Wilf Doyle, who has had a forty-five year career regionally in Newfoundland was a forerunner in this regard and Hibbs was probably aware of his late-fifties radio and record performances. Hibbs used country music instrumentation freely: …
- Laws, G. Malcolm Jr. American Balladry from British Broadsides. Philadelphia: AFS, P14, The Nightingale (One morning in May): 255.