The Invention of a Newfoundland Tradition
In October, 2010 Myrle Vokey conducted a Screech-In ceremony at a reception following the marriage a young woman from Newfoundland and a young man from Ontario. The wedding reception was being held at a hotel in St. John’s and Vokey was hired to stage the initiation ritual as a way of welcoming the groom’s family and friends to Newfoundland.
Vokey, who was 71 years old, wore rubber boots, a fisherman’s water-repellent jacket and coveralls (referred to locally as oil skins) and a fishermen’s rain hat (referred to locally as a sou’wester). As he entered the ballroom, Vokey banged on the floor with the end of a wooden oar that he carried like a staff to get attention.
Vokey introduces himself and quickly launches into a story to illustrate what he calls Newfoundland’s “queer talk” dialect. After telling a “queer talk” story Vokey hands out song sheets to the guests, straps on his accordion, and engages the wedding party in a sing-along of traditional Newfoundland songs like I’se the B’y. Following the sing-along but before conducting the Screech-In ceremony, Vokey, a former school teacher, takes a moment to teach the mainland visitors a few Newfoundland words, like ‘scuff.’ His teaching takes the form of a recitation which he tells the wedding party was a form of entertainment, a part of the traditional Newfoundland kitchen party.
Following the conclusion of the recitation Vokey announces that the moment has arrived to perform the Screech-In ceremony. When asking for volunteers he deliberately uses the expression “victims” instead of volunteer. He persuades the mainland guests to kneel and perform four tasks: eating a piece of bologna, repeating a tongue-twisting Newfoundland saying, consuming a one-ounce drink of Screech rum, and kissing a cod fish. At the conclusion of the ceremony Vokey declares that the guests are now “Honorary Newfoundlanders” and presents them with a certificate attesting that they were now members of the Royal Order of Screechers.
Myrle Vokey performed his first Screech-In ceremony in 1976. By his October 2010 estimate, he has screeched-in between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors to Newfoundland. Myrle Vokey’s son, Keith Vokey, a performer of the Screech-In ceremony commonly seen at Christians Pub in St. John’s, estimates he has screeched-in between 30,000 and 35,000 visitors to the island since he first performed the ceremony in 1994. While Myrle Vokey can be credited with popularizing the Screech-In tradition, he did not invent it.
The Screech-In ceremony is a very popular, enduring, yet contentious, invented tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Bendix 1989, Byrne 1997). My position is that the Screech-In ceremony can be viewed as a “site of struggle” (Seiler and Seiler 2001:29) or a “diagnostic event” (Moore 1987:730) which reveals tensions between competing visions of Newfoundland identity. Though Kirtsoglou and Theodossopoulos were writing about a town on an Honduran island when they observed that “every cultural performance entails a statement about collective identity and thus the battle for cultural ownership relates to the politics of self-representation” (Kirtsoglou and Theodossopoulos 2004:135), my view is that they could have been commenting on the Newfoundland Screech-In ceremony.
There is ample evidence that the Screech-In ceremony is the site of a struggle. Some observers charge that the ceremony is “false and demeaning” (Rowe 2007:A11) or an “obnoxious routine” (Wakeham:2007) while others defend it as a harmless entertainment and one that it “is silly to be upset by” (Hiscock 1990:9). The province’s first Director of Cultural Affairs calls the ceremony “revolting” (Perlin interview: 2010), but Danny Williams, the provincial Premier whose government adopted the province’s current cultural policy, describes the ceremony as “fun” and “entertaining (Williams interview 2010). When I asked Danny Williams about the controversy surrounding the ceremony he said “I know there’s been controversy over it, but you know, look, if it’s something tourists want when they come here, why don’t you want to give it to them?” (ibid).
The enduring popularity of the Screech-In ceremony and the contentiousness surrounding it raises three questions. 1) Where did it come from? 2) Why is it popular? 3) Why is it controversial?
My theoretical approach to understanding the dynamics of the Screech-In ceremony is grounded by Hobsbawm and Ranger’s concept of invented traditions where “traditions which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1993:1), Myerhoff’s notion that “Rituals and ceremonies are cultural mirrors” (Myerhoff 1978:32), and Handleman who argues that “For the ethnographer, public events are privileged points of penetration into other social and cultural universes” (Handleman 1998:9).
Where did the Screech-In ceremony come from?
In 1983 a national Canadian Television Network (CTV) program credited Myrle Vokey with inventing the Screech-In ceremony in 1980 (Live It Up:1982). Vokey, however, told me he staged his first Screech-In ceremony in St. John’s in 1976. The occasion was a national convention of school teachers that was being held in the provincial capital, St. John’s. Vokey, who was 35-years-old at the time, was a school teacher and part of the local organizing committee planning the social agenda for the convention. Vokey recalls that the committee wanted to create what he called some “shenanigans” (Bill 2007:29) as a way of entertaining the visiting school teachers from the mainland of Canada. Myrle Vokey told me had seen a Screech-In ceremony at a local St. John’s nightclub and decided to stage his own version of it.
During the course of my PhD program I met Myrle Vokey several times and watched him perform Screech-In ceremonies both live and on tape. In June of 2010 he invited me to his home where we video recorded an interview. I asked him to recall the first ceremony he staged in 1976. He retrieved black and white photos of the ceremony which depicted the nautical theme the committee chose for the evening’s entertainment.
Myrle Vokey: “So I put on the oil skins for that first show and if I have any regrets, I don’t have many, but if I have any regrets I don’t think I would have ever done that because . . .
Roger Bill: It was hot?
Myrle Vokey: Oh, hot! The oil skins, you know are very colourful and is typical of what most people think of Newfoundland, fishing and the sea and so on, but it’s very hot. It’s like a sauna. It wasn’t so bad in the winter, but my gosh, in the summer times I’d almost pass out from heat especially when I would be going for an hour or two with the oil skins on” (M. Vokey interview June 11, 2010).
Myrle Vokey recalls asking the visiting school teachers to kneel down as he conducted the ceremony. Each visitor was given a piece of bologna to eat. Vokey characterized the bologna as “Newfoundland Steak.” I have often heard bologna referred to as Newfoundland Steak which I suspect is a humorous way of acknowledging the fact that bologna is a low-quality, inexpensive meat product which was often served in homes in rural communities where a wider variety of store-bought meats was not available. If this explanation is sound, then the choice of bologna as an ingredient in the Screech-in ceremony and cod fish, even though the visitor kissed rather than ate the cod fish, would be consistent with Andrews’ argument that “food is often used explicitly in the invention of national identity” (Scott and Selwyn 2010: 37).
The visitors were also required to repeat a tongue-twisting Newfoundland saying. The saying is still used in the ceremony almost four decades later. Myrle Vokey told the visiting school teachers that at the conclusion of the Screech-In ceremony they would be asked “Are y’e a Screecher?” and when asked that question the visitors had to reply “De’d I is me ol’ cock and long may your big jib draw.”
Myrle Vokey: “It took me a few days to come up with that saying. I wanted something which was unusual and unique. Something that they wouldn’t understand at the first saying. That was a deliberate thing so I could teach them and have a little bit of fun with them, and something that would maybe cause their eyebrows to raise but I didn’t want anything vulgar or anything, but something that was common to the Newfoundland way of life, too.
Roger Bill: This was the word ‘cock’?
Myrle Vokey: Yes. And it’s a derivation of the word cockney from England. As you know much of our ancestry goes back to England and Cockneys were part of the language that seeped into our culture along with a lot of others, Irish and Devon and West Country and all the rest of it.
So, ‘D’ed I is’, well, people tend to say ‘Indeed’ and it was a devil of job to get people to say ”D’ed I is.’ They would want to say “Indeed’, but ‘D’ed I is’ and now ‘Me ol’ cock.’ In many parts of England, the west coast of England, and in many parts of Newfoundland, Upper Island Cove especially, use that saying on a day to day basis. ‘Me ol’ cock’ which ‘cockney’, ‘me ol trout’, ‘me old friend’, you know that’s exactly what it meant.
And the last part of the saying, I wanted to put in some sort of a good wish, a salutation, and ‘Long may your big jib draw’ and again that’s very common in Newfoundland. In fact, Art Scammell wrote a song, Long May Your Big Jib Draw, a very beautiful song and it’s the same thing a ‘Bon Voyage.’
And when I put it together and I run it together as a Newfoundlander would say “De’dIismeol’cockandlongmayyourbigjibdraw,” (Vokey speaking very quickly). “What did you say?” You know, “What is it?” And then, this wasn’t deliberate, but as I went through thousands and thousands and thousands of them they would get the words intertwined and mixed up. Hoist up the sail and don’t let your cock go too long and all kinds of things that would cause laughter and I didn’t realize it was as difficult as it was, but my gosh, many Mainlanders we would have to repeat five, six, and some would never get it, would never get it, And, of course the pressure of being in the spotlight and people listening to them that added to it, but I thought that that saying was a Newfoundland type saying that would cause them some difficulty and some laughter and would be acceptable” (M Vokey:2010).
Little did Vokey know in 1976, that decades later the expression “Long may your big jib draw,” which had disappeared from everyday use, would become a signifier for Newfoundland in the 21st century.
Myrle Vokey contends that the expression was “very common” in Newfoundland, but the evidence I’ve accumulated leads to a different conclusion. Myrle Vokey told me he was familiar with Art Scammell’s song “Long May Your Big Jib Draw” and I think Scammell’s song is a more likely explanation for Vokey’s inspiration for using the expression in the Screech-In ceremony. Myrle Vokey, however, did not hear the song “Long May Your Big Jib Draw” during his childhood on Bell Island.
Art Scammell was born in 1913, moved to Montreal when he was in his 20s, attended McGill University, taught school on the mainland, and returned to Newfoundland in 1970 following his retirement. A collection of Art Scammell’s songs, Songs Of A Newfoundlander, was published in 1940 and it included a number of songs Scammell says were “written in my early youth” (Scammell 1940:2). The song “Long May Your Big Jib Draw” is not included in the collection which would tend to rule out the possibility that Myrle Vokey heard it in his youth.
In 1966, while he was still in Montreal, Art Scammell published another book titled My Newfoundland: Stories/Poems/Songs and the song “Long May Your Big Jib Draw” does appear in it (Scammell 1966: 136-137). Opposite the book’s dedication to his Mother and brother, Cecil, Scammell added a single paragraph of credits. In the credits Scammell expresses his “sincere thanks to Mrs. Elsie Anthony who helped in composing the tune to ‘Long May Your Big Jib Draw’ and to Mr. Donald C. Cook who scored it correctly” (ibid). The song was copyrighted in 1966 (ibid:137) and appears on a recording released in 1974 which was long after Myrle Vokey had settled into St. John’s, a teaching career, and two years before he donned a fisherman’s costume and conducted his first Screech-In ceremony.
The fact that “Long may your big jib draw” did not disappear with the age of sail can be credited to PK Devine’s reference in his 1937 book of Newfoundland old words and phrases (Devine 1937:65), a reference in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English (Story 1983), and a song written by another Newfoundland school teacher, Art Scammell, who lived most of his adult life on the mainland of Canada where the song was recorded. I suspect, it was the song released on a record in 1974 rather than encountering the expression ‘Long may your big jib draw’ in the course of everyday life that inspired Myrle Vokey to incorporate the expression into the Screech In ceremony.
Eating a piece of bologna and repeating an invented Newfoundland saying were two of the four Screech-In tasks. The other two tasks were kissing a cod fish and consuming a one ounce drink of Screech rum. Kurlansky notes that “the word rum was sometimes used as a generic term for alcoholic beverages,” (Kurlansky 1998:95), but like bologna Screech rum was a beverage found in working class homes like the one Myrle Vokey grew up in on Bell Island.
Myrle Vokey: “My recollection was that rum, and whisky was a commodity one could only have on special occasions, Christmas time or somebody’s birthday. And you have three or four bottles of rum for an occasion you’d have your bottle of Screech, but that was for ordinary consumption. If somebody came in that you respected and you hounoured and so on you’d never give them Screech. That was for another time. Screech was not a very highly respected rum” (Vokey interview).
The trademark rights for Screech rum are held by the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation (NLC) and Screech is the largest selling dark rum in Newfoundland. It is a two-year old, oak aged rum produced by the Appleton Estates distillery in Jamaica. A myth surrounding its name, Screech, is sometimes repeated during the Screech-In ceremony and promoted on an NLC website.
“Long before any liquor board was created, the Jamaican rum that was eventually to be known as Screech was a mainstay of the Newfoundland diet. Salt fish was shipped to the West Indies in exchange for rum; the fish became the national dish of Jamaicans and the rum became the traditional drink of Newfoundlanders.
Not being overly concerned with alcohol content, the early fishermen tended to drink the rum at incredibly high strength with no attempt made to temper the taste. When the Canadian government took control of the alcohol trade in the early 20th century, they put the rum in a sophisticated, un-labelled bottle and fortunately did not alter the rum itself. This delightful product may have continued indefinitely as a nameless rum except for the influx of American servicemen to Newfoundland during World War II.
As the story goes, the commanding officer of the first detachment was taking advantage of Newfoundland hospitality for the first time and was offered a drop of rum as an after dinner drink. Seeing his host toss back the liquor with nary a quiver, the unsuspecting American adhered to local custom and downed the drink in one gulp
The look of shock and the glorious shades of color on the American’s face were overshadowed by the bloodcurdling howl made by the poor fellow as he managed to regain his breath. Sympathetic persons from miles around rushed to the house to assist the poor man in such obvious agony and of course to satisfy their curiosity as to what was going on. Among the first to arrive was a garrulous old American sergeant who pounded on the door and demanded “What the cripes was that ungodly screech?”
The taciturn Newf who had answered the door replied simply, “The screech?” ‘Tis the rum, me son.”
Thus was born a legend.” (www.screechrum.com)
Clearly, a mythology has been created that attempts to distinguish Screech rum from its competitors and the fact that owners of the Screech brand see value in claiming legendary status for its otherwise, ordinary two-year-old aged rum lends support, I suggest, to the findings of anthropologists who argue there is more to drinking alcohol than getting intoxicated. Igor de Garine argues that alcohol “acts as a social lublricant” (DeGarine 2001:2), while Isabel Turmo describes drinking alcohol as a “powerful identification mechanism” (ibid:142). Luis Abad contends that alcohol is a “local cultural marker” (ibid:154) and Frederick Smith’s research in the British Caribbean led him to conclude that “the use of alcohol in oaths reinforces the argument that alcohol had an important role in building community (ibid:217). In addition, Wilson argues that “drink is one of the most noticeable, emotional, and important ways in which people express and discuss their identities and cultures. Alcohol is one of the ingredients in social cement” (Wilson 2006:7). Those, I suggest, are precisely the roles Screech rum plays in the Screech-In ritual and though the ritual has undergone change the consumption of Screech rum has been a constant feature in the ceremony from its moment of invention. Screech has become, according to Overton, “the taste of Newfoundland. In drinking Screech we celebrate national identity and tradition and the event created to celebrate identity and tradition itself becomes a symbol of identity and tradition” (Overton 1996:164).
Myrle Vokey told me he believed the Screech-In ceremony was first staged during the Second World War when large numbers of American and Canadian military personnel were stationed in Newfoundland. The roots of or the influences for the tradition can be traced back to the Second World War and the arrival of tens of thousands of uniformed visitors, but earliest evidence of the ceremony I have found dates to July 3, 1975.
July 3, 1975 was a Thursday night and the Bella Vista club, the largest night club in St. John’s at the time, staged what they called Tourist Night and introduced the Screech Club. Fred Walsh, the Manager of the Bella Vista Club, was called the Chief Screecher. The band was called The Beachcombers and its leader, Joe Murphy, worked as an advertising salesman for the largest daily newspaper in St. John’s. The lead singer in the band was Joan Morrisey, one of the most popular entertainers of the day. Jim Healey, an entertainment co-ordinator at the club, was one of the bartenders in the Bella Vista that summer night in 1975.
Jim Healey: Tuesday was good. Wednesday wasn’t a bad day, but Thursday was kind of a down day . . . Friday and Saturday took care of themselves, of course, so what are we going to do about Thursday night and I said why don’t we try and get some tourists in. So we were trying to find what’s a good way to get tourists in so we figured we’d dress up in old Newfoundland outfits” (Healey interview).
Jim Healey takes credit for the idea of trying to fill seats in the club on a slow night with tourists, but he credits Joe Murphy, the advertising salesman, with the idea of the Screech-In.
Jim Healey: “Joe, he used to come over every week to get his ads for Friday and Saturday nights . . . so we started chatting about something and I said, ‘we’re trying to get something on the go for Thursday night’ and I was a good friend of Joan Morrissey. I used to sing with Joan at the Admiral’s Keg at the hotel, so I said, ‘Joe why don’t we do something for tourism?’ So I think Joe Murphy came up with the idea of the Screech In and we took it and we ran with it.”
Running with it meant recruiting tour bus operators to add the Bella Vista’ Tourist Night and its Screech Club to their itineraries. The recruiting fell to Jim Healey who sometimes worked as a guide for tour bus operators.
Jim Healey: I knew a guy, this fellow Merv. I was chatting with him one day and he worked with Trentway Walker and he never had a tour guide one day and he said ‘You know St. John’s?’ I said, ‘I know St. John’s like the back of my hand.’ So he said, ‘I’m going to take the people up Signal Hill’ and it was evening time and I was at the, I don’t know where I met him to, and anyway he said to me ‘Would you take them up the hill and explain St. John’s to them? And I said ‘B’y if they can understand me I don’t mind going with them, you know, because of our accents and he said, ‘No, you’ll be fine.’ So I was in the middle of telling people and I said, ‘Tomorrow night we got a Screech In at the Bella Vista so you should come over because it’s Newfoundland music great time’, you know. So they came over the next night. Merv brought his crowd over so he told all the other drivers and the word got around to the drivers that if you’re in St. John’s on Thursday night you gotta go here. Phone Jim and get your reservations. If you got 48 people on your bus make 48 reservations. And that’s how it started. It snowballed from there” (ibid).
In the absence of any written record it is not possible to know who first had the idea of the Screech-In ceremony, but the band leader Joe Murphy had marketing skills, Jim Healey had a connection to the tour bus industry, and Joan Morrisey was a successful entertainer who performed in the bar at the largest hotel in the city and would have encountered tourists regularly. Fred Walsh, however, was the person who brought them together. Being the Manager of the Bella Vista he was the person who was being paid to figure out how to draw 200 to 300 people to the club on slow Thrusday nights. Dave Young, the owner of the Bella Vista in the 1970s, says Fred Walsh invented the ceremony (Bill 2007:30) and Fred Walsh’s daughter, Linda Doody, agrees.
Linda Doody: “They would have tables with bologna and probably some pickles and things on it. I’m not quite sure, but certainly would be bologna there and when Dad began he had them kiss a squid instead of the cod fish. I think that came later on. And he would get them to come up and there would be a little verbal interchange and I don’t recall exactly what that was . . . and he would take his sword and put in on their shoulders sort of like a knighting and they would get a certificate and of course in order to get the certificate they would have to down an ounce of Screech which was free to the customer and that would largely be it. . . And of course there would have been Newfoundland music and entertainment and tourists very much enjoyed it. I recall. They had a great laugh. It was a fun time, you know.
Roger Bill: Jim Healey recalled for me that when they would do the ceremony it would last like an hour.
Linda Doody: Oh yes.
Linda Doody: Well, Dad would put on this regalia, too. He loved pageantry and he wore what would have been, I guess, a governor’s hat with a plume and a waistcoat and he had a silver chain with a silver wine tasting thing that he got in California when he did a wine tasting course and he had a long sword and all the other people who were involved in the ceremony like Jim and Bill Purchase (as second bartender) dressed in costume as well and in his history as a club manager and an entrepreneur he was very much into ceremony and, you know, something different, always pageantry. When he was in Argentia he would do Octoberfest, shipwreck parties, famous lovers parties, all of this. He was very creative that way. And he saw the opportunity in presenting something that would interest people and pique their curiosity and giving them something different. He said, ‘You’ve got to have a program’ in terms of business and he was no different when he came to St. John’s after he left Argentia.
Fred Walsh was born in the town of Marystown on the Burin peninsula and he went to work at the American Naval Station at Argentia, Newfoundland in 1943 when he was still a teenager. As noted in Chapter Three the creation of American and Canadian military bases in the 1940s had an immense impact on Newfoundland.
Fred Walsh eventually became the Manager of the Officer’s Club at the Argentia military base.
In its day the Officer’s Club was the largest club in Newfoundland which likely meant Fred Walsh managed one of the largest entertainment budgets of any entertainment enterprise on the island and would have been one of the most senior civilian employees on the base. Fred Walsh did not start out at the top however. He went to work in Argentia when he was still a teenager and his first job on the base was working in the kitchen:
Linda Doody: “Early on the experience wasn’t pleasant for him because there were many times that he was embarrassed simply because he was so inexperienced and I just recall one story he told me. He was working the scullery, I think, when he started because he started from the bottom. And the chef or somebody said, ‘Well go clean the silver’ or ‘Go get the silver’ and his conception of silver was money. And, of course, he looked all around the kitchen and he didn’t see any money and he said to the chef “Well I don’t see it’ and he said ‘Oh, you’re stupid’ or something to that effect. ‘It’s over there right in front of your eyes’ and, right, this was the silverware. So, there were probably many episodes of things like that. And I guess, you know, to some extent the Newfoundlanders were the white slaves of the Americans. And because of limited experience, limited exposure, they seemed to be probably not intelligent, not smart. So, I’m sure that Dad would strive, knowing Dad, he would strive to make sure no one ever thought of him again like that.
Roger Bill: It is interesting. As I listen to you I find myself thinking that one of the reasons that he did the Screech-In and somebody else didn’t is that he had worked with outsiders so much. He had worked with people who were tourists.
Linda Doody: And maybe that was his last laugh.
Roger Bill: But he worked every day with outsiders, visitors.
Linda Doody: Although he had quite a large staff who were all Newfoundlanders
Roger Bill: Yes, but the milieu . .
Linda Doody: Yes, and. .
Roger Bill: . . there was no place else like Argentia
Linda Doody: No, no and I mean the people that he would have worked with were the cream of society in Argentia and certainly in the military, I mean, it was brigadier generals and admirals, movie stars, presidents. I mean Eisenhower, he entertained Eisenhower. And you were dealing with important people and very important egos in many, many cases. You know, it was like a little kingdom and captain of the base was the king in the castle and you had to know how to treat them and so on. So, there was a lot of pandering, but he was really good at it. He knew how to do it” (ibid).
I believe Linda Doody’s recollection of her father’s years at the Argentia Naval Station offer an insight not only into the roots of the Screech-In ceremony, but an insight into why some people find the Screech-In ceremony to be demeaning and a reinforcement of negative Newfoundlander stereotypes. If Fred Walsh was a “white slave” who succeeded by learning how to pander to authority, then it could be argued that his actions were an example of what Pat Byrne describes as playing the Uncle Tom in ‘Newfieland.’ Uncle Tom, of course, is a derogatory term for a black person who behaves in a subservient manner towards a white person or as Bogel describes it as someone who is “hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind” (Bogel 1973:4).
Pat Byrne: If you’re in a situation where you depend on those outlanders because they’re paying money and they’re giving you jobs and all the rest of it you can’t confront them head on, right? So what you do is you play the fool or you play the numbskull when it gets you what you want and then as soon as you get away from their hearing, among yourselves, you turn it back on them. You know, ‘these goddamn Americans don’t know a goddamn thing, my son. If you put them out there they wouldn’t know how to catch a fish if they were starving to death.’ But, in front of the dominate culture it’s ‘Yes Sir, Sure Sir, Oh Yes Sir’ type of thing. I think Newfoundlanders did that in some degree with their own in terms of when you were dealing with the merchant, dealing with the Member when he came to visit whenever there was an election and you know they would play the Uncle Tom type character (P. Byrne interview).
At the Argentia Naval Station subservience was not a function of colour for Newfoundlanders, but Fred Walsh interacted with the foreigners in his role as an employee and eventually a person whose job it was to serve and entertain. Fred Walsh would also have been exposed at the Argentia Naval Station to two rituals that may have been seeds from which the Screech-In ceremony eventually grew. One ritual is the Hail and Farewell ceremony. This military ceremony is performed on the occasion of a changing of senior officers. The incoming officer is welcomed and the outgoing officer is bid farewell. The ceremony is marked by toasting the entrance and exiting of officers with an alcoholic beverage.
The second ritual, which also contains elements that are found in the Screech-In ceremony, is the Crossing The Line ceremony. This ceremony is performed as a ship crosses the equator and represents, for sailors who are crossing it for the first time, “a rite of passage or initiation into the ranks of the seaworthy” (Bonner 2006:9) and “marks them as sailors, implying this is a special, superior, even extra-human status that warrants a ritual transformation analogous to coming of age and membership in a select circle” (ibid:22).
In the Crossing The Line ceremony a person portraying Neptune and others portraying his Court take command of a ship and conduct mock trials where the un- initiated, or Pollywogs, are subjected to a variety of embarrassments, including eating “glazed fish eyes, sea slugs, and the boiled aged gooney bird and sea blubber stew” (ibid:19).
Neptune and his court are dressed in costume and at the conclusion of the initiation ceremony the Pollywog receives a certificate declaring them to be members of the “Order of the Deep, Old Sea Dog, or Raging Man” (ibid:15).
Myrle Vokey and Fred Walsh did not wear a Neptune costume, but they did dress in costume and kissing a cod fish may not be as sickening as eating glazed fish eyes, but for a tourist from urban Ontario there is a moment of embarrassment as their lips come near the mouth of the fish. Another obvious similarity in the rituals is the receiving of a certificate in the Crossing the Line ceremony into the Order of the Deep or in the case of the Screech-In, the Royal Order of Screechers.
There is another similarity between the two rituals apart from the elements in the ceremony itself. According to Bonner crossing the equator “is significant as a setting because of its division of the North Seas connected with home and reality, and the South Seas associated with being far away, an exotic location” (Bonner 2006:24) or “a socially constructed line dividing ‘here’ and ‘out there” (ibid:36). Whether by accident or design the island of Newfoundland represents “out there” for many visitors from the mainland of North America.
Though Fred Walsh would not have witnessed the Crossing The Line ceremony at the Argentia Naval Station, he would have over the course of 30 years on the base, met and worked with mariners who had participated in the ritual and were familiar this naval tradition.
What I argue is plausible is that in 1975 a bartender and part-time tour bus guide at the Bella Vista club in St. John’s thought that dressing up in old Newfoundland costumes and targeting tourists would bring in business on a slow Thursday night. Fred Walsh, the club manager who had worked with American military visitors for 30 years would have been familiar with their Crossing the Line ceremony, and borrowed some of the ingredients of that ceremony for Bella Vista’s Tourist Night. Finally, an entertainer who sold newspaper advertising and understood marketing suggested branding the ceremony by borrowing from the name of a popular American television program, Laugh-In.
In photos of the earliest ceremonies at the Bella Vista Fred Walsh is dressed in the costume of a 19th century naval officer. The costume, according to his daughter, was borrowed from the wardrobe department of the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, ironically a centre which many, as noted in Chapter Four, accused of being interested only in the high arts.
Photographs show Walsh holding a sword and tapping the kneeling guest on their shoulder as they are inducted into the Screech Club. In contrast to Myrle Vokey’s oilskin clad fisherman the initiator in the original ceremony was a person of rank and authority and who, like a king bestowing knighthood, dubs the visitor on the shoulder with a sword rather than a wooden oar.
What I believe is likely is that Myrle Vokey borrowed the name of the ceremony and two of the four elements for his version of the Screech-In ceremony from the Bella Vista original. He borrowed drinking an ounce of Screech rum and eating a Newfoundland foodstuff. Vokey altered the other two elements. At the Bella Vista tourists kissed a stuffed-toy in the shape of a squid. Vokey replaced the stuffed toy with a cod fish. According to her daughter, Joan Morrisey the vocalist performing with the Beachcomber band, would tell the tourists when asked at the end of the ceremony if they were Screechers to reply, “You bet your sweet ass I am.” (Bill 2007:30). Vokey replaced “You bet your sweet ass I am” with “De’d I is me ol’ cock and long may your big jib draw” as the tongue-twisting response to the question “Are you a Screecher?
There is a further difference between the original version of the ceremony and Myrle Vokey’s version. In the original the visitor became a member of The Screech Club and received a card that could be redeemed for a drink of Screech rum.
Following Vokey’s popularization of the ceremony visitors received certificates identifying them as members of the Royal Order of Screechers.
During the 1970’s the certificates were printed by the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation which continues the practice in 2013 where certificates for the Royal Order of Newfoundland Screechers, signed by the President and Chief Operating Officer of the liquor corporation, can be obtained at the liquor corporation internet site http://www.screechrum.com.
How the ceremony got its name is the subject of conjecture. A probable explanation is that it derives from the American television program Laugh-In. Laugh-In was an American comedy program broadcast from 1968 to 1973 and its title may have derived from the Love-Ins and Be-Ins that were popularized in the United States in the late 1960s and from Sit-Ins that were part of the American civil rights movement and Teach-Ins that were part of the Vietnam antiwar protests in the early 1960s. Regardless of its origin and the now-distant memory of a comedy show on American TV, the name Screech-In has endured.
The Bella Vista Country Club created an event for tourists, tour bus operators were willing partners in promoting it, and according to Jim Healey the Screech-In was an immediate success.
Roger Bill: “How long would the ceremony take?
Jim Healy: By the time you get 200 people through well it would take you an hour and a half, an hour, hour and a half. It’s be warm summer nights and you’d be, those big old outfits on you’d be, you couldn’t wait to get them off, you know. There’d be sweat running out of you. Then of course if you had to go back to work serving bar and all that kind of stuff, you know, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t go near a bar that night. I’d be drinking too much screech. Ha Ha. Wouldn’t go near a bar, but it was a great bit of fun.”
It is not clear how long the Bella Vista staged Tourist Night and Screech-Ins on Thursdays, but the following year a school teacher who was raised in a mining community on Bell Island began performing the ceremony and by 2010 thousands of visitors to Newfoundland were being Screeched-In at St. John’s bars, at conventions, at weddings, on tour boats, and at private parties with Screech-In kits purchased at Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation liquor stores. For Myrle Vokey, however, the seeds were planted in his home on Bell Island.
Myrle Vokey: “Newfoundland up until around 1950 was a fairly isolated province and community and in the little communities around the coves they were isolated, they were cut off from the rest of the world. Certainly in the winter months when transportation was curtailed because of ice and so on and they developed the art of self-entertainment, of story-telling, or playing instruments, of recitations and poetry.”
The self-entertainment in Newfoundland homes was centered in the kitchen of homes like Myrle Vokey’s on Bell Island.
Myrle Vokey: “It was the third largest community in the province at the time, 13,000 people, right behind Corner Brook and St. John’s. Dad worked in the mines. He worked there for 42 years and Mom was an at home Mom like all Moms were or most Moms were in those days. We had a large extended family which was quite common for Newfoundland families in those days. My Dad has 10 brothers and sisters and my Mom had 10 brothers and sisters which meant 20 times two, 40 uncles and aunts and hundreds of cousins so we had quite an extended family.
Bell Island was a fairly prosperous community, in fact, we had most of the amenities that kids at that time, a swimming pool, a boy’s club, an arena, sports stadium, sports field . . .
Roger Bill: Water and sewer at home?
Myrle Vokey: Water and sewer came a little later. I got water and sewer in my home at about age 12. I was a big boy when we got it, but it came during that time. But, we were a wealthy community by Newfoundland standards and the home parties and the kitchen parties especially during the winter months were very much a part of our social living and every weekend during Christmas and the winter months people would visit each other’s homes. Stories would be told, songs would be sung, instruments would be played much like the Irish setting and as a boy, I remember, I had two or three uncles on both sides of Mom’s and Dad’s family who were excellent story tellers, excellent singers and I would be there with my mouth open listening to them as a little boy and say, ‘I want to be just that.’ And, I think that’s where the motivation came from and the idea came from, when I grow up I want to tell stories and I want to sing songs and I want to entertain like Uncle Harry can Uncle Herb, you know they were my models and that’s what promoted my interest in this sort of thing.
Roger Bill: How old were you when you started to get up in the kitchen parties and do your recitations?
Myrle Vokey: Oh, I was listening until about the time I got into my mid-teens, 15, 16, and 17 and then I started to play my part in those kitchen parties.”
Myrle Vokey became an entertainer, at least part time, but he was not destined for a life of a miner. He graduated from Memorial University with a Bachelor of Education degree, taught school, became a school administrator, later became the head of the province’s Federation of School Boards, and after retiring from a career in education he became a senior member of the political staff of a provincial cabinet minister.
Myrle Vokey was not raised in a fisherman’s family, but his Screech-In character was, as Vokey introduces him on occasion, a “queer talking” fisherman. McKay observed a similar process of invention in Nova Scotia where “The stereotype of the slow-talking unimaginative, placid and contented Nova Scotia Folk was not something invented by contemptuous outsiders … it existed mainly in the imagination of urban cultural producers” (Mckay 1994:222).
Vokey’s Screech-In character also parallels the Folk in Nova Scotia in the sense that it has been a commodity for tourists from the beginning. As McKay notes “The category ‘Folk’ was, from the start commodified. From the beginning we find people looking for the marketable story, the money-making song, the winning image” (ibid:273).
Myrle Vokey’s son Keith also stages Screech-In ceremonies six out of seven nights a week during the summer months. He describes his version of the ceremony as “a cross between guerilla theatre and folk drama” (Davis, R. 2011:6) and he wears a fisherman’s costume similar to his father’s. Keith Vokey told me that one of the reasons he dresses in a fisherman’s costume is “partly to meet expectations of people who come here” (K. Vokey interview). I would argue that Keith Vokey’s choice is an example mirroring or giving the tourist what they expect or as Rothman describes it producing “reality as the tourist understood it” (Worbel 2001:117). Myrle Vokey, however, told me his choice of the fisherman character with a pronounced dialect is an expression of his desire to retain cultural characteristics that make Newfoundland unique.
Myrle Vokey: “If we don’t sing the songs, if we don’t have the dialects, if we don’t wear the clothes, if we don’t do those things some people will be happy. And in another generation people will still come to Newfoundland. They’ll come to see the scenery and the environment because that’s beautiful, but other places do have beautiful scenery and beautiful lakes and ponds and all the rest of it, but the colour of the Newfoundland people, the way we sing, the way we talk, the phrases that we use, the food that we eat, the things that we have will be no different from Indiana or Ontario or wherever.”
Myrle Vokey has been advancing this argument for some time. In the Canadian Television Network (CTV) broadcast in 1983 Vokey was introduced as someone who was trying to “save Newfoundland’s more ancient ways” and when asked why he was performing the Screech-In ceremony Vokey told the interviewer one of his objectives was “To make Newfoundlanders and visitors aware of the island’s heritage” (Live it Up 1983: CTV).
It is fair to question Vokey’s notion of the “island’s heritage” when watching a 1990 recording of him performing a Screech-In ceremony. The ceremony was being conducted for the members of the national executive of a union who were visiting St. John’s for a union meeting. In the video recording of the ceremony Myrle Vokey is identified as the “Screech-In Ambassador” and one of the stories he tells as part of “making visitors aware of the island’s heritage” is a Newfoundland joke where the butt of the joke is the dumb Newfoundlander.
The title of the video is The Great Newfoundland Screech-In and it is dated March 29, 1990. Myrle Vokey is wearing a fisherman’s sou’wester rain hat and oil skin jacket and pants. A half a dozen visitors from the mainland sit in chairs in front of Vokey as he says:
“Here’s a story.
Two fellas from Upper Island Cove come into St. John’s to buy a car to go to Toronto to get a job like many Newfoundlanders do.
So, they come in on Kenmount Road there and went up to the salesman, “Ol’ man, I wants to buy a car.”
He said, “How much money you got?”
“Me’self and me buddy are going to Toronto and we’ve got a thousand dollars between the two of us.”
And he said, “b’y you’re not going to get very much for a thousand dollars.”
“Well b’y, that’s all we got.”
Buddy says, “There’s an old car over there in the corner. She’s not in very good shape but you can have her for a thousand bucks if you want it, but I have to warn you there’s no reverse gear on it.”
“That’s all right, ol’ man, we’re not coming back.
So he says, “George, get in the car and see is she works alright.”
(Myrle Vokey looks downward like he’s looking at the headlights on a car).
“Ya’ headlights work ok ol’ man. Try the tail lights.”
(Myrle Vokey walks a few paces and looks downwards like he’s looking at the tail lights on a car).
“Yep, tail lights work.”
(Myrle Vokey walks the few paces back to his original position and looks downwards like he’s looking at the turn signal lights).
“He says, try the signal lights”
“He says, are they working?”
(Myrle Vokey turns his head back and forth in a sideways manner as he looks downward like he is looking at the turn signal lights and says as the imaginary turn signal lights blink on and off, first on one side and then on the other.).
“Yes they do. No they’d don’t. Yes they do. No they don’t.”
“OK ol’ man” he said, “we’ll buy her. We’re going to go to Toronto. No problem.”
It was in the middle of July, lovely summer’s day, so they bought the car and away they took off down through the country and they were going through Terra Nova park in central Newfoundland and as they were driving along they came to a straight stretch in the road, see, when they’d get a straight stretch they’d take off like a bat out of hell. When they’d come to a turn they’d slow right down again and another straight stretch they’d take off again and a Mountie saw them and pulled them in and said,
“Boys, I’m gonna have to give you a ticket.”
“What for old man?”
He said “you’re driving very erratic.”
He said “Well I’m only following instructions.”
He says “What instructions?”
“Tells us to drive that way; says on our licence.”
“Come on now” he said “It doesn’t tell ya that.”
“Yes ol’ man look here’s me licence right here look tells ya on the licence right in the centre. ‘tells ya: ‘tear along the dotted line’.”
“No no, he said, “That’s not what that means,” he said. “That’s not what the means,” he said. “Watch the signs and what the signs tell you to do,” he said. “You follow that,” he said “guaranteed you’ll have no problem.”
“Ok ol’ cop, no problem”
So they went across the gulf on the ferry and they’re driving up to Nova Scotia up there in Antigonish there and they’re doing about 115 kilometers see. Mountie pulled em in, he says “boys you’re going too fast.”
“No man, we’ talking about back in Newfoundland, we knows we’re following the signs. And the speed limit is 115.
“No, this is the Trans Canada Highway,” he said. “It’s not,” he said “115”
“No man!” he said. “We saw a sign back the road,” he says. “bout two miles back the road” he says. “RR 115.”
“And he says “What do you think RR 115 means?”
“Well I dunno,” he says, “Race Around 115 I spose.”
“No no no,” he said. “That means ‘Rural Route 115′. I’m glad I caught you before ya struck the 401 I can tell ya that right now.”
“Anyway,” he said, “follow the signs and carry on, you’ll be all set.”
“No problem ol’ cop, no problem.”
So they go on, on up through New Brunswick. Just as they got outside of Fredericton they saw a big sign on the road up there which said “Clean Washrooms Ahead.” And between there and Montreal they cleaned 48.
Anyway, they got through Montreal, they turned on the 401, and as soon as they turned onto the 401 they saw a big sign up on the 401 which said “Toronto Left.” So they turned around and came back home again.”
Myrle Vokey created the queer-talking Screech-In fisherman character in 1976 and it has been a central feature of the ceremony ever since. The Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation has a specialty store in downtown St. John’s called The Jig House that advertises an “Authentic Screech-In” and though the actor performing the ceremony wears jeans and a t-shirt he is also wears a fisherman’s sou’wester hat.
A survey of video recordings of Screech-In ceremonies at the Internet site http://www.youtube.com contain several examples on the ceremony initiator wearing a hat and/or clothes of a fisherman. In a video uploaded to the site in 2011 called Hulk Hogan’s Screech-In Ceremony the wrestler Hulk Hogan wears a fisherman’s sou’wester hat while the initiator of the ceremony wears a fisherman’s hat and rain jacket and pants as the ceremony is conducted in the middle of a wrestling ring. In a video uploaded to the site in 2012 called Screech In: 2 Brits in Twillingate the bartender at Captain’s Pub in Twillingate wears a fisherman’s hat while two British visitors participate in the ceremony. In a 2009 video called Newfie Screech In Ceremony – Part 2 a Newfoundlander at a resort in Jamaica wears a bathing suit, no shirt, but a yellow sou’wester fisherman’s hat as he conducts his version of the Screech-In ceremony.
In contrast, the ceremony has been performed on American television by a Newfoundland-born film actress with no costume other than a dress with a plunging neckline. The ceremony was performed on the Conan O’Brien late night television show and O’Brien was told the ceremony was staged to mark a special occasion, like the birth of a child (O’Brien and his wife has just had a child) rather than to welcome and initiate people into what Myrle Vokey calls “the club.”
Another exception to the use of the fisherman character is the Screech-In ceremony marketed by a bar in St. John’s called Trapper John’s. Trapper John’s website claims that 100,000 people have been Screeched-in at the bar, but consistent with the trapper motif of the bar the Screech-In initiator at Trapper John’s wears a coonskin hat popularized by a Walt Disney television character, Davey Crockett, in the 1950’s.
Why is the Screech-In popular?
Ignoring the celebrate-the-birth-of-a-child version of the Screech-In ceremony on the Conan O’Brien American television program, the popularity of the ceremony raises the question, why do tourists want to become honorary Newfoundlanders? One explanation is entwined with the notion of a rural escape.
Jim Healey: “I used to do tours and I had a woman with me from Toronto and she said ‘I don’t know what I’m doing in this shit hole’ . . . and this woman, when she came to the Southern Shore with us and she spent a night in Calvert, because we were all, we had had too many beers to drive back and we stayed at this woman’s house and this woman made us welcome, she said, ‘you know, you Newfoundlanders are unique people,’ she said. She said, ‘I hated you, I was here for two weeks cursing and swearing on you and now I gotta go back tomorrow and I don’t want to go.’ That’s what it’s all about. They know what we’re all about. We’re a good people, an honest people, and they like it . . . something peaceful about it. You know, it’s not the rat race here it is in Toronto . . . and that’s why they want to be screeched-in. They want to be part of it. They want to take this back with them.”
Myrle Vokey suggests there are two reasons for tourists wanting to be honorary Newfoundlanders. One reason is that there is an element of crossing the line or going from here to out there when crossing the Gulf of St. Lawrence which separates Newfoundland from the mainland of Canada.
Myrle Vokey: “You wouldn’t believe, I said maybe I screeched-in 400,000 people, I’ve heard it thousands and thousands and thousands of times the comment, ‘Well I’ve been to every province in Canada and at last I got to Newfoundland.’ This was the last point of destination and they looked upon it, their travels from a North American or Canadian perspective was complete if they had arrived in Newfoundland. That gulf is more than just a gulf. It is a separation.”
Myrle Vokey does not say “rural escapism” is the second reason for the popularity of the Screech-In with tourists, but his rationale is not unlike Jim Healey’s.
Myrle Vokey: “When they come to Newfoundland . . . they want to taste Newfoundland and experience all the things to be experienced and when they come here they want to be part of it. They want to be out in the fishing boat. The want to be down on the wharf with the lobster coming in. They want to go into the woods with the wildlife. They want to go into the mine tour on Bell Island. They want to experience like any tourist would want to experience what they are seeing. And the Screech-In I think gives them an opportunity to be, I won’t say ‘one of the boys’, that’s not the right phrase in this day and age, but ‘one of the crowd’ and they can sing songs and they can get up and dance a jig. They can hear the stories and they can probably, ah, sometimes I have them if they have a talent for singing I ask them to share with us some of their stories or songs and they get that little certificate which says they’re here and that they are now an honorary Newfoundlander and it’s just a part of belonging and wanting to be part of the crowd I think that makes it so popular.”
Two tourists I met at the bar where Keith Vokey performs the Screech-In ceremony told me that, as much as Newfoundland markets itself as being as far from Disneyland as you can get, getting the certificate at the end of the ceremony was like “going to Disneyland and getting your mouse ears.” Mouse ears and Screech-In certificates are both, I suggest commodified forms of memory or as Susan Williams describes it, “objects marketed to concretize the visitor’s experience of another place” (The Project on Disney 1995:190)
Sheila Williams, who performs Screech-In ceremonies for the St. John’s-based Spirit of Newfoundland theatre company describes the ceremony as “hugely popular.” The week before I interviewed her she screeched-in 400 visitors.
Sheila Williams: “I think the whole desire comes from, I think when people come to Newfoundland and Labrador they realize that we are inherently different from anywhere else in Canada and that’s true. We are different and I think people are endeared to our culture. I think they are endeared to our community, our sense of hospitality. I think those are all things that people think, ‘My gosh, this is like a trip back in time.’ And, I think people want to become part of that and so the Screech-In ceremony is sold so that people will become honorary Newfoundlanders. . .and, why would they? Because I think people want to say, ‘We experienced it all. We got screeched-in and everything.’ You know, and that’s proof. We have a certificate.’ (S. Williams interview Aug 12, 2011).
The souvenir certificate proclaiming that the Screeched-In visitor has become a member of the Royal Order of Screechers is one of the ways the memory is stored. It is proof of the experience though its meaning varies. For some, it may be nothing more than a memory of a late night in a Newfoundland bar. For others, like the host of a television program called Culture Shock, the Royal Order of Screechers certificate has a deeper significance.
The account of the journalist Stephanie Allaire’s visit to the St. John’s bar district was broadcast on the CBC Newsworld channel in 2004. Ms. Allaire was Screeched-in at Trapper John’s pub where she told viewers 80,000 visitors “have come to receive this blessing” (Allaire:2004). The reporter characterized the tongue twisting “D’ed I is me ol’ cock and long may your big jib draw” as a “pledge of allegiance” and the souvenir certificate she received at the end of the ceremony as proof of her “honorary citizenship of Newfoundland” (ibid).
It is tempting to suggest that the Quebecois journalist might be one of those people who philosophy professor Lin Jackson says “want to feel that somewhere out there beyond the confines of their overpopulated, thoroughly industrialized cities, an original life in nature still goes on undisturbed” (Jackson 1986:4).
The journalist may have been engaged in “This hopeless search for the real,” which Bruner argues, “is simply a variant of the myth of the vanishing primitive” (Bruner 2005:208). When Bruner uses the expressions ‘vanishing primitive’ he is referring to white, western tourists and non-white locals. Newfoundlanders clearly do not fit the profile of non-white locals, but except for the variable of race, much of the critique of African tourism by Bruner could, in my estimation, apply to Newfoundland tourism. For example, Newfoundland is marketed as not being part of the “rat race” of Toronto. Instead, Newfoundlanders according to Myrle Vokey sing, dance, and tell stories. Newfoundland communities have been marketed as quaint and their residents as friendly. Less charitably, quaint and friendly can translate as pre-urban or pre-industrial. Kemper made a similar observation during his research in Sri Lanka where he once had an executive tell him “that Sri Lankans were ‘traditional’ because of the late arrival of television technology. In this sense ‘traditional’ means behind the times and not technologically savvy” (Kemper 2001:141/142).
Jane Desmond, who borrows the notion of “soft primitives” from Bernard Smith (Smith 1985), argues that Hawaii is positioned “as a part of, yet apart from, the mainland. Hawaii is safe, secure, yet exotic … its essence is a slice of the past” (Desmond 1999:84). My view is she could have been writing about Newfoundland.
There are obvious parallels between Newfoundland tourism marketing and what Desmond observed in Hawaii. For example, central to the Newfoundland tourism ad Top 40 is traditional Newfoundland music and dancing. The ads Architecture, Place Names, Counting, and Clothesline featuring rural Newfoundland rely on images of rural life that could be characterized as pastoral or a “slice of the past,” images like a woman hanging clothes on a clothesline, an older man and woman holding hands as they walk together through a field, children running behind two bicyclists as the cyclists ride along a gravel lane in a village, a man standing in front of a wood clapboard building playing an accordion, or a woman holding wild flowers as she appears to be tending a small flock of sheep. If Newfoundlanders had dark skin, then the parallels might be more obvious. Some may find the suggestion that a group of white Canadians being marketed to tourists as primitives, soft or otherwise, unpalatable. If that is the case, then I would argue that the fact the suggestion stings helps to underscore why the Screech-In ceremony stirs such disagreement in Newfoundland.
Why is the Screech-In controversial?
In the article “Booze, Ritual, and the Invention of Tradition: The phenomenon of the Newfoundland Screech-In” (1997) Byrne argues that Newfoundland experienced an identity crisis in the 20th century. Byrne takes the position that this identity crisis was exacerbated by Confederation with Canada and led to the emergence of what he calls “Newfieland” (ibid:237). Byrne argues that it is against this backdrop that the Screech-In was invented.
According to Newfoundland philosopher Lin Jackson what gets promoted in the place that Pat Byrne calls Newfieland, are Newfoundland’s “colourful” and curious aspects; its amusing or picturesque side” (Jackson 1986:28). Jackson argues that “what now usually passes for Newfoundland heritage is nothing but the hodgepodge of popular caricatures, potted traditions and stereotypes which have already reduced the Newfoundland personality and environment in the minds of many Canadians to a kind of cartoon” (ibid:28).
Whether “playing the Newfie card,” as Pat Byrne described it in an interview with me, is an act of subservience or an act of resistance is at the heart, I suggest, of the debate about the Screech-In ceremony.
Anita Best, a collector of traditional Newfoundland songs, a professional singer, and one of the team of Provincial government employees who drafted the government’s current cultural policy, is on the subservience side of the argument.
Roger Bill: “Some people love it. Some people hate it. Are you a . . .?
Anita Best: I’m, of course, a hater of it? In fact when I was touring professionally that was in my contract. I don’t perform at places that do Screech-Ins. And, I certainly would never appear on the same stage that a Screech-In had just been done on. That, I feel really strongly about that. (Best interview).
Danny Williams, the provincial premier who adopted the cultural policy drafted by the team that included Anita Best, describes the Screech-In ceremony as “entertaining.” Then-Premier Williams told me, “I’ve attended the ceremonies. I’ve laughed through them. I’ve enjoyed them and I’ve been at functions where we sponsor people to come in here, this was before politics, where these ceremonies were done and I actually laughed all the way through it and totally enjoyed them and I have to be honest with you I never ever sat there, never ever felt embarrassed by them” (Williams interview). It is worth noting that Williams, a businessman before he became a politician, also holds the view that if tourists want the Screech-In product, then why wouldn’t you want to give it to them?
Jane Nadal-Klien, a researcher whose work focused on the emergence of tourism following the decline of the fishery on the coast of Scotland, could have been writing about Premier Danny Williams when she posed the question “how do the purveyors of Scottish heritage decide which face of Scotland to project?” and then wrote, “The answer lies in what sells” (Nadel-Klein 2003:180).
Clearly, the Screech-In ceremony sells and many people like the Premier like it. However, the Province’s first Director of Cultural Affairs, John Perlin, isn’t one of them.
John Perlin: “I find that the most offensive, one of the most offensive things we do, the Screech-In. It is not Newfoundland. You know, it’s not something that would, under normal circumstances, you know, initially, and uh, Peckford was participating in it as the Premier and I was at some events, you know, we had some national conference or something like that here and Peckford was at and I would cringe and I would say to myself, ‘Oh my God’ you know and they’re saying that this is typical of Newfoundland. It’s not. . . I mean to me it’s the most revolting thing. It’s a total degradation of Newfoundland. It’s no wonder we became the laughing stock of Canada” (Perlin interview).
The person who succeeded Perlin as the province’s Director of Cultural Affairs was Elizabeth Batstone.
Elizabeth Batstone: Screeching-In is not a Newfoundland tradition. It’s a modern tradition. It’s a tradition, but it’s a modern tradition. When I was growing up in outport Newfoundland, I mean, nobody knew what Screech-In was. It didn’t exist in fact. It did not exist … So if a person believes that going back to time immemorial in Newfoundland this was a traditional way of greeting and embracing outsiders, that is simply not true. If there is some understanding that Newfoundlanders had a habit of kissing codfish, one woman said ‘I sort of thought that probably went back to how important the codfish was to Newfoundland.’ She did. She said she wondered why the kissing of the fish, the kissing of the codfish was in this and she said, ‘I figured out it had to be because it was, in its origins it was a honouring of the fish that made the food and the economy grow.’ So, I think that if I have a major objection to the Screech-In it is that it is not presented as what it is. This is, over the past x number of years this is a fun, a fun little ritual that we use to create some fun around the fact that we’re so happy you’re here with us . . . It’s a modern day invention and I guess what I’m saying is I don’t see anything inherently wrong with it as long as it’s not presented to tourists as some ancient tradition that evolved out of outport life” (Batstone interview).
Mike Clair succeeded Elizabeth Batstone as the Province’s Director of Cultural Affairs.
Mike Clair: Government supported this for the longest time. Because when I joined the Department of Tourism in 1982 we used to give out these certificates, you know big certificates, nice colourful so, well you got Screeched-In they got signed and given to you. And at some point somebody asked the question, I think, are we encouraging alcoholism or something like that and so it made people realize, you know, we shouldn’t be doing this. It wasn’t even so much the inauthenticity of the event even though I think that played a role into it, but the factor there was alcohol in there might have been a factor.
Roger Bill: What I understand is that Brian Peckdord signed them (the certificates). He had this machine that signed them.
Mike Clair: Yes, that’s right.
Roger Bill: Clyde Wells comes to office, finds these certificates,
Mike Clair: Right.
Roger Bill . . .Wells finds the ceremony offensive . .
Mike Clair: Yes.
Roger Bill: . . for different reasons and he says, ‘we’re not going to have any part of this.’
Mike Clair: You may, I think you’re right.
Roger Bill: and he sort of sets the tone.
Mike Clair: Right.
Roger Bill: I spoke to him (Clyde Wells) recently about it and he was kind enough to answer questions, but he wouldn’t be recorded because he is a Supreme Court judge and he doesn’t want to comment on anything controversial and the Screech-In is a contentious issue.
Mike Clair: Yes, still. They’re still doing Screech-Ins.
Roger Bill: Enormously popular.
Mike Clair: Yes, but the government is not supporting them. Not the way they used to in the past.
The Department of Tourism may not be designing and printing Screech-In certificates for tourists any longer, but the government owned and regulated Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Commission (NLC) is. The NLC enjoys a monopoly on the sale of wine and spirits in the province and Screech brand rum is its number one selling dark rum. The brand is important enough to the Commission that during the course of my field research the NLC opened a small, retail liquor store adjacent to the St. John’s Convention Centre and one of the largest downtown hotels in the city. The sign on the front of the building above the door said “The Jighouse” and then beneath the name of the store the sign said “The Original Screech Experience.” On the sidewalk in front of the liquor store was another sign advertising “Authentic Screech-Ins” and the “Summer Screech-In Schedule 2:00 PM & 4:00 PM.” I spent a long time looking at the sign on the sidewalk wondering what constituted an authentic Screech-In. Greg Kerr is the Brand Manager for the NLC and he was the company official that gave me permission to video record Screech-In ceremonies in the Jighouse retail store.
Greg Kerr: We do notice a big uplift in Screech particularly in our Jighouse store downtown and that store was put there to cater to tourist traffic and since we have kind of branded that the Home of Screech we’ve really seen Screech sales do much better . . . now that we’ve focused on tourists we have noticed a lift in Screech.
Roger Bill: How big of a lift?
Greg Kerr: I think in the last couple of years it’s been upwards of 20%. (Kerr interview).
The NLC contracts the services of a professional theatre company called The Spirit of Newfoundland to conduct the Screech-In ceremonies at The Jighouse twice a day, seven days a week, beginning in June and ending in September. I video recorded Screech-In ceremonies and interviews with tourists at The Jighouse on three occasions. The daily ceremonies at the Jighouse lacked the costuming and songs and stories that are a part of Myrle Vokey’s Screech-In ceremony, but the basic ingredients of the ceremony were identical. Tourists ate a piece of bologna, tried to repeat the tongue twisting “D’ed I is me ol’ cock and long may your big jib draw” saying, kissed the bum of a toy stuffed puffin, drank an ounce of Screech brand rum, and got a certificate.
Greg Kerr: “It’s so lighthearted and it’s so all about the fun and all about you and Newfoundlanders having a good laugh at the same time that, you know, I don’t know of any other ceremony where you become an honorary British Columbian or an honorary Ontarian just by going through a ceremony. So those that critique it, it’s hard to argue with the fact that people want to become an honorary Newfoundlander via this ceremony and then critique the ceremony about how it’s done” (ibid).
The Premier whose government drafted the current provincial cultural policy describes the Screech-In ceremony as fun. The person who manages the Screech rum brand for the NLC describes the ceremony as fun. I’ve witnessed hundreds of visitors participate in scores of Screech-In ceremonies and they were having fun and those who characterize the Screech-In as resistance contend that the joke is on the visitor. As Keith Vokey points out, at the end of his Screech-In ceremony is a test. The initiator asks the newly inducted members of the Royal Order of Screechers if they have eaten some Newfoundland steak, said a silly saying, gotten down on their knees and kissed a fish, and drank some harsh rum. When the newly initiated say yes, Keith Vokey says, “then who is silly and goofy?”
Stan Cook agrees with Keith Vokey. Cook operates an ecotourism business on the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula and he is a former president of the provincial tourism industry association. Stan Cook contends that the Screech-In ceremony is the only manufactured tourist product in an otherwise authentic Newfoundland tourism marketplace and he rejects the idea that the Screech-In ceremony reinforces a negative stereotype of Newfoundlanders. Stan Cook contends, “The reverse is true.” The joke, he says, “is on the mainlanders” (Cook interview).
Fred Walsh’s daughter, Linda Doody, also sees an element of resistance in the Screech-In ceremony. “Who is the joke on?” she asks. Linda Doody sees the tension in the Screech-In ceremony between resistance and subservience entangled with the contentiousness of the word “Newfie”. Linda Doody, who like Myrle Vokey is a school teacher, was at the 1976 national teacher’s convention when Myrle Vokey staged his first Screech-In ceremony.
Linda Doody: “It’s like the Newfie joke. There are people who are very bothered by a Newfie joke and embarrassing Newfoundland people and belittling them and, you know, portraying them as buffoons and so on. And there are people who say, ‘well it’s humour. You have all kinds of jokes.’ But it is a more sensitive era. Ethnic related jokes are not popular. I attended a comedy performance on the weekend and he happened to tell a joke that was ethnic and the whole audience went ‘Ohhhh!!!’ like that. I mean ten years before that everybody would be laughing, so I mean times change and people’s sensitivity changes.
It may go back to, you know, some people want to see Newfoundland as a modern, progressive, industrialized place that, you know, forget the past. And we in Newfoundland we sort of have an approach/avoidance response to our history and our heritage.
I think of an example, when young teachers in the 60s and 70s would come to Memorial University and they would come from all the bays and hamlets across the island all with their unique dialects which were not mistakes of the English language, but artifacts of language coming from England and Ireland and different places that their ancestors had come from. What the university tried to do and they actually had a language lab and a person whose job it was, was to eradicate those dialects. And there was no value seen in them and it wasn’t perhaps until some of the people in the linguistics department started to describe the use of dialect and begin to make people aware, this was something of value and something that perhaps we should cherish and preserve.
We have such a tremendously rich history in the province, but in terms of marketing it and telling the rest of the world about it I think we’ve done a very poor job. And part of it is, I think, because we were so anxious to get away from it, to become modern because Newfoundland was so poor, so destitute, the past was not always something people were proud of. And we wrestle with that” (Doody interview).
There is evidence to support the view that the Screech-In ceremony is an act of acquiescence and there is evidence to support the view that the ceremony is an act of resistance. Patrick O’Flaherty, the author the 1990 report on the Province’s arts policy, Drawing Conclusions, published a Newfoundland tourist guide titled Come Near at your Peril and in it he argues that Newfie jokes are a “racial slur” (O’Flaherty 1994: 21) and “hucksters” invented ceremonies like the “hateful Screech-In” (ibid 10). “Racial slur” and “hateful” would not be my choice of words, but in my view dressing in a fisherman’s costume to entertain tourists reinforces the familiar Newfie stereotype and when the person wearing the fisherman’s costume tells a Newfie joke in the course to entertaining tourists, then it is hard to make a case that what is transpiring is an act of resistance.
When the Screech-In initiator, however, is a woman playing the role of a well-dressed host of a television talk show the ceremony sheds some of the Newfie stereotype. When she tells Canadian tourists that there are no cod fish left in Newfoundland and the way she knows the frozen, gutted cod fish they are going to kiss came from Canada is because it is “gutless,” then a different message is being conveyed.
The woman who plays the role of the well-dressed television talk show host is Sheila Williams, an actor with the Spirit of Newfoundland theatre company. The veteran entertainer conducted her first Screech-In ceremony in 1999 and onstage Williams’ character is Ruby Brace, a sharp tongued television program host. She does not imitate, as Myrle Vokey does, a “queer talking” fisherman. She speaks with a St. John’s east end accent. She does not use bad grammar and she wears a bright red dress and high heel shoes rather than oil skins and rubber boots and sou’wester hat.
Williams reminds visitors that they are on one of the largest islands in the world. She reminds visitors that they are in St. John’s, a city older than any other in North America. Mexico City and Saint Augustine, Florida would dispute that claim, but exaggeration is often found in the tourism business. Apart from the details when Williams tells visitors “You are in the motherland now” she is saying you are not in a look-alike post-World War II suburb, but instead you are in a special place with deep roots. When Sheila Williams conducts a Screech-In ceremony she does it from a position of confidence and authority.
Sheila Williams: “I am true to the feeling of what it is I want to portray Newfoundlanders as and that is clever people who would never do this. We would never do this. No, no, no. This is for you because you weren’t lucky enough to be a Newfoundlander” (Williams interview).
Sheila Williams’ version of the Screech-In ceremony, I would argue, is an act or resistance yet she is keenly aware that the Screech-In ceremony is controversial.
Sheila Williams: “With the Screech-in ceremony it can be degrading a little bit.
Roger Bill: Let’s talk about that for a bit because some people love it and some people hate it.
Sheila Williams: Right.
Roger Bill: Danny Williams, he loves it.
Sheila Williams: And I do to. I used to hate it
Roger Bill: Well, that’s interesting. Explain to me the conflict if you will between loving it and . . .
Sheila Williams: I tell you, you know what, I love it when it’s done in a clever way. I love it when it doesn’t personify all peoples’ negative images of Newfoundland and Labrador or our people. I love it when it portrays us in an imaginative and intelligent manner. If it doesn’t I don’t like that” (ibid).
Myrle Vokey’s and Sheila Williams’ Screech-In characters represent not just different versions of Newfoundland identity, but competing versions of it. Vokey in his fisherman’s costume is the queer talking, uneducated, goofy Newfie. Williams in her television host attire is a smart, educated, successful, and modern. It could be argued that one reinforces the negative Newfie stereotype and the other does not, but it is this competition between portrayals of Newfoundlanders that allows one to see the ceremony as what Robert and Tamara Seiler describe as a “site of struggle” (Seiler and Seiler 2001:29).
Robert and Tamara Seiler contend that a similar welcoming and initiation ceremony in Calgary, Alberta is a completion between “the West as a site of cultural and technological innovation, the land of promise and possibility, the land of the future; and the West as a paradise fit for ‘natural’ man, forever lost to barbed wire and machinery, the land of the idealized past” (ibis:34).
The White Hat ceremony involves a guest repeating a pledge, being given a white cowboy hat, and then joining others in saying “Yahoo.”
There is no fish to kiss or rum to drink or a tongue twisting saying to repeat. The visitor merely repeats the following:
“ I (speaker inserts his or her name), havin’ visited the only genuine Western city in Canada, namely Calgary, and havin’ been duly treated to exceptional amounts of heart-warmin’, hand-shakin’, tongue-loosenin’, back-slappin’, neighbor-lovin’ Western spirit, do solemnly promise to spread this here brand of hospitality to all folks and critters who cross my trail hereafter. On the count of three, we will all raise our hats and give a loud ‘Yahoo’!”
The ceremony was created in the 1950’s by the then Mayor of Calgary, Don MacKay, and unlike the Screech-In ceremony that is performed in bars and at parties the White Hat ceremony is more likely to be performed at a Chamber of Commerce or a Board of Trade luncheon or when a dignitary visits City Hall.
The question at the heart of the controversy surrounding the ceremony, according to Seiler and Seiler is, “is a white hat really the appropriate symbol for Calgary?” (ibid:33). The same, I suggest, can be said of the Screech-In ceremony in Newfoundland.
Seiler and Seiler argue “two very different visions of the meaning of the West” (ibid:35). are reflected in the controversy. Again, the same, I suggest can be said of the Screech-In ceremony in Newfoundland. In both instances the controversy surround the ceremonies reflects the tension between the discourse of nostalgia and the discourse of progress.
Myrle Vokey’s and Sheila Williams’ Screech-In characters reflect different and competing versions of Newfoundland identity, but they share one important characteristic. They both play to the tourist gaze and fuel the cycle of amplification, re-amplification and distortion that can accompany the marketing of culture in the tourism marketplace.
If distorting reality sells and if giving tourists what they want justifies it, then one should not object to what Jackson calls “local buffoons playing the Newf for pay in the pubs” (Jackson 1986:28). On the other hand, Jackson, writing four years before Urry popularized the concept of the tourist gaze, argues “the really tragic thing is how infectious such phony images of the local culture have been at home; how those whose heritage it is have themselves come to believe in the caricatures … presented as comic-book heritage, it actually encourages attitudes of indifference, scepticism and even ridicule” (ibid: 28/29).