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John Joe English (1896–1991)

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Albert Roche (seated with back to the camera) and Dermot Roche (seated, looking left) listen to John Joe English perform (photo courtesy of Aidan O’Hara; used with permission).

John Joe English was born in Branch, St Mary’s Bay, and is remembered as a carpenter, boat builder, and great entertainer. John Joe started fishing when he was 11 years old; his father had passed away and he needed to support his family in the way that was most typical of his community.

When he was 32, he left Branch for Montreal, where he did a course in blueprinting and estimating at the Chicago Technical College. His training in Montreal eventually led to a career as a yacht builder.

A devout man by nature, he was a central figure in the building and restoration of several local churches. He also organized benefit concerts at the local hall in Branch and in a number of other communities throughout the Cape Shore and St Mary’s Bay, all in support of the local religious community.

He was a master storyteller and singer. John Joe was known for his humorous “dialogues” at parish concerts, and he also travelled widely to folk festivals across the island to share his songs and stories. His recitations, “Lobster salad” and “The census,” remain enduring favourites. It was from his kitchen, though, that John Joe exerted his most long-lasting influence. Collectors, folklorists, and broadcasters (including Aidan O’Hara) came from far and near to hear, learn from, and record John Joe. Representatives from CBC and NTV (Newfoundland’s main commercial broadcaster) were regular visitors, as were collectors from Memorial University’s Folklore Department, and younger performers like Pamela Morgan and Anita Best. Several of John Joe’s songs were published in Songs of the Newfoundland Outports by Kenneth Peacock (1966).

John Joe English sings for an audience of friends, August 1980 / The Radharc Trust Film Archive
John Joe English sings for an audience of friends, August 1980 / The Radharc Trust Film Archive
John Joe English sings for an audience of friends at the Roche house in Branch, Newfoundland, ca. August 1980. This image appears in Radharc’s 1981 documentary The Forgotten Irish (©Radharc 1981; used with permission).
 
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John Joe English sings for an audience of friends, August 1980 / The Radharc Trust Film Archive

John Joe English sings for an audience of friends at the Roche house in Branch, Newfoundland, ca. August 1980. This image appears in Radharc's 1981 documentary The Forgotten Irish.

John Joe English sings for an audience of friends, August 1980 / The Radharc Trust Film Archive

John Joe English sings for an audience of friends, August 1980 / The Radharc Trust Film Archive

© The Radharc Trust Film Archive

After John Joe’s death in 1991, the honourable Loyola Hearn (former Canadian Ambassador to Ireland) wrote the following verse:

He always had a story; a song or maybe two
No matter what the occasion, he always would come through.
A man of many talents, he journeyed near and far
And he’d tell of building schooners, catching fish, and cutting ‘var.’
He entertained at festivals and concerts of all sorts
And those of us who knew him said there was no better sport.
His tongue was made of silver, his heart it was pure gold.
The day that he was born, no doubt, was when they broke the mould.
But now he’s gone forever, and no more we’ll hear him tell
The story of the ‘Census,’ and the others we loved well.
I can see him now at Heaven’s Gate with St Peter in a trance.
When he says ‘I’m John Joe English and I just came up from Branch.’

John Joe was married to Monica Careen from Point Lance. They had seven children. Their youngest daughter, Frances, describes John Joe as a quiet and kind man, who possessed an extraordinary intelligence and sense of humour right up until the end of his life.


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My boy Willie / John Joe English

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My boy Willie / John Joe English

My boy Willie, song (The sailing trade is a weary life …) This English broadside ballad is also known as “The sailor boy” or “Sweet William.” It is widely anthologised and recorded, with variant versions transforming Willie from a sailor to a lumberjack. It recounts the pain of a woman who is left behind when a loved one goes to sea and dies far from home.  This song was among John Joe English’s favourite songs.

Lobster salad (Paddy Kelly's dream), recitation / John Joe English

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Lobster salad (Paddy Kelly's dream), recitation / John Joe English

Lobster salad (Paddy Kelly's dream), recitation (Last Saturday night I was invited …) This comic recitation describes the queue to get into heaven. Each new arrival is assessed by Saint Peter and is rejected from heaven for a variety of reasons. The last person to approach Saint Peter, Paddy from Ireland, plays a trick on St Peter in order to get into heaven.  John Joe English was known throughout the Cape Shore for his skills in drama and in performing dialogues. This performance of “Lobster Salad” demonstrates the flexibility of his voice and his capacity to enact different characters.

Fireman's story of a brave volunteer, recitation / John Joe English

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Fireman's story of a brave volunteer, recitation / John Joe English

This recitation tells the story of the heroic deeds of a train engineer who rescues a woman from being run down by a train. He is grossly disfigured in the incident, but she nevertheless falls in love with him and proposes marriage.

Paddy in New York / John Joe English

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Paddy in New York / John Joe English

Paddy in New York, song (Of an elderly man I'm going to tell you …) This comic song tells the story of an Irishman who goes to live in New York. Outraged when a barman overcharges for whiskey, he starts a fight, kills the barman, and is supported by other Irishmen in New York.

Mackenzie's dream / John Joe English

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Mackenzie's dream / John Joe English

Mackenzie's dream, song (One night of late I chanced to stray, from a shore so far away ...) John Joe English learned this song from his uncle, John English. The protagonist of the song, Mackenzie, dreams of all the heroes of Erin standing together against tyranny.  At the end of John Joe’s performance, Aidan O’Hara speculates that the song’s origins might have been in the Young Ireland movement. The song is more widely known as the 19th-century Irish broadside ballad, “McKenna’s Dream.” John Joe sings the song in triple metre, a slowed-down version of the melody for “Suíl, a ghrá.”

The dewy dells of Yarrow / John Joe English

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The dewy dells of Yarrow / John Joe English

The dewy dells of Yarrow, song (There was a man lived in this town …) This song is a variant of the border ballad, “The Dowie Dens of Yarrow.” It tells the story of a fight between a poor ploughman and nine brothers.  John Joe English learned it from a man who used to stop by the fish stores where he worked. 


Biographical Information

Courtesy of Frances Slade