This could be the final breath
This is life and death
This is hard rock and water
Out here between wind and flame
Between tears and elation,
Lies a secret nation
Ron Hynes’s 1998 song The Final Breath is a poetic call for a culturally independent Newfoundland. The late St. John’s folk singer was born in 1950, one year after his province joined Canada. Never knowing a Newfoundland whose identity wasn’t being eroded by outside influences, he devoted himself to creating ballads that connected a secret nation to its pre-Confederation past.
“He was our greatest songwriter,” says Rick Mercer, the television personality and native Newfoundlander. “And we pay a lot of attention to songwriters in this neck of the woods.”
Hynes, who died of cancer in 2015, is the subject of a new tribute album, Sonny Don’t Go Away, which gathers 20 Newfoundland artists on the same number of songs written by Hynes. The title is taken from Hynes’s most well-known song, Sonny’s Dream, a melodic lament about a mother worried that her son would leave the family farm. “Ron was our Rocket Richard, he was our Gordon Lightfoot, he was our Leonard Cohen,” Mercer wrote in the album’s liner notes.
The Globe and Mail’s obituary of Hynes in 2015 posited that, with his death, an age had passed. It was doubted that the remote, under-populated province was capable of producing another like him.
The doubt was well-founded. But the issue isn’t that Newfoundland can’t produce a songwriter as talented as Hynes today; it’s that a regional icon anywhere might not be possible any longer. More and more, music is consumed globally. Streaming services make local radio less relevant, and viral TikTok videos know no borders. The struggle Hynes sang about on The Final Breath more than 25 years ago feels like a lost cause today.
Remember: Hynes became a household name in Newfoundland as a member of the Wonderful Grand Band, a St. John’s-based troupe of musicians and comedians that had its own variety show of the same name on CBC Television in the early 1980s.
“The world stopped when The Wonderful Grand Band came on,” Mercer says. “At a time when Dynasty was the number one show in North America, it was number two in Newfoundland.”
Now? CBC produces fewer and fewer locally derived shows. The shift in programming is a significant cultural development.
“The Wonderful Grand Band changed the way Newfoundlanders thought about themselves, and the way Canada thought about Newfoundland,” says actor-comedian Greg Malone, one of the troupe’s founding members. “And Ron was the star. He sang the story of our generation. He was our troubadour – he sang about us.”
That kind of sentiment is the reason why Alan Doyle (formerly of the sea-shanty specialists Great Big Sea) had no problems recruiting Newfoundland artists to participate on Sonny Don’t Go Away. “The first 20 people I asked all said yes,” says Doyle, who produced the album.
The record begins with a warm-hearted version of Hynes’s folk rocker Leaving on the Evening Tide. Amelia Curran and Duane Andrews intimately rework Dark River, a ballad about a town no longer on the map. Jodee Richardson so much as Paul Simonizes Cryer’s Paradise, and Matthew Byrne gently presents the wistfulness of Hynes’s 1962 that permeates the project as a whole:
And I had all his records,
He was my favourite then.
But that’s all gone,
It won’t come back again.
There is a melancholy to Hynes’s music, with expressions of loss in various forms – loss of love, of home and family, of friends and faith, of life and freedom. He fought addictions and he was, by all accounts, not a man at peace with himself. Although associated with Newfoundland through songs such as Atlantic Blue and St. John’s Waltz, Hynes did attempt to launch his career in Toronto and Nashville over the years. The relocations never stuck.
“I think he was lonely,” says Malone, who delivered the eulogy at Hynes’s funeral. “I believe he was only happy in Newfoundland, if he was ever happy at all.”
Malone, who famously imitated Jean Chrétien, Barbara Frum and Queen Elizabeth as a member of the Newfoundland comedic troupe Codco, understands Hynes’s identity issues. In his youth, he himself set out for Toronto.
“I wanted to become the greatest actor in North America,” Malone says. “But when I got to Toronto, I realized right away I wasn’t a Canadian. I arrived in Toronto as one, but I left there as a Newfoundlander.”
In 2010, Newfoundlander William MacGillivray made a documentary about Hynes, Man of a Thousand Songs. At a screening in St. John’s, Hynes observed the audience as much as he watched the film. At one point, the crowd began singing along to Sonny’s Dream. Hynes turned to MacGillivray sitting beside him and said with a smile, “These are my people.”
While making the film, the balladeer’s status was evident. “We couldn’t walk five steps in St. John’s without somebody stopping and wanting to talk with him,” MacGillivray says. “The insularity of Newfoundland allowed someone like Ron to be noticed like that.”
That insularity is increasingly a thing of the past. In a day and age when audiences have every song in the world at their fingertips, local music superstars are a quaint anachronism.
“I go on my iPhone and I can listen to anybody from anywhere at any time,” MacGillivray says.
Hynes was born in St. John’s and he died there as well, but he grew up in Ferryland on the southern shore of the island – “fifty feet from the ocean,” Hynes once told The Globe. The “Sonny” of Sonny’s Dream who “watches the sea from a room by the stairs” is based on a family member.
Perhaps because Sonny’s Dream has already been covered by dozens of artists, the song was one of the last chosen for the tribute album. Singer-songwriter Kellie Loder identified with the story of a young person who lives 100 miles from town and “goes to the highway and stands there and stares.” Loder was raised in Badger, N.L.
“When I was growing up, I can’t tell you how many times I went to the highway in my town and just stared down the road, wondering if there were other people like me with big dreams and who identified with me in that way,” Loder says. “And while we had dreams, to believe that they actually could come true or you could pursue them was a whole other thing.”