The centuries-old Devon songs that are returning ‘home’ from Newfoundland


It’s a link that spans 3,500 miles and hundreds of years and today, the Devon-Newfoundland connection lives on not just through a sense of shared history, but through song.

It’s estimated that over 60% of people living in Canada’s most easterly province can trace their ancestry to South West England, and Devon in particular. When they left these shores for good, the settlers – largely fishing folk – took with them the songs they’d learned at home.

Centuries later, it’s in the relatively remote towns and villages of Newfoundland where these songs have survived in their fullest form. In Devon, they’ve been shortened over time – but the tunes and the similarities reveal unmistakably that the songs share the same origins.

People in Devon will get the chance to hear for themselves in April, thanks to a collaboration of folk musicians from both sides of the Atlantic as part of The Devon Newfoundland Story, a series of events organised by The Devonshire Association.

Marilyn Tucker and Paul Wilson from Devon-based charity Wren Music first met Newfoundland folk singer Jim Payne over 30 years ago and they’ve worked together a number of times since. In April, they’ll be travelling around the county with ‘Shore to Shore Revisited’, a concert, recital and lecture tour.

The tour takes in venues in Newton Abbot, Exeter, Brixham, Bideford, Sidmouth and East Budleigh. There are four 2-hour concerts and four 1-hour lunchtime lecture recitals, where Jim, Paul and Marilyn will sing two or three songs and talk about the songs’ origins. The recitals are free entry/by donation. For concert ticket details, see the tour information below.

If you take a look at a map of the world you’ll notice there’s a horizontal line between Devon and Newfoundland. It was a line followed by Devon fishing folk as early as the 1500s, when communities would spend the summer season working in the rich fishing waters off Newfoundland.

When Devonian explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed from Plymouth to St John’s and annexed Newfoundland for Queen Elizabeth I in 1583, it became England’s first colony. The first permanent settlement was in 1610 and many more settlements grew up during the centuries that followed. The links are particularly strong in Devon’s ports and fishing towns such as Bideford, Barnstaple and Appledore on the north coast and Teignmouth, Dartmouth and Plymouth on the south.

It was during an event in 1983 to mark the 400th anniversary of Gilbert’s annexation that Jim first met Marilyn and Paul. Jim recalled: “It was only when I heard Paul sing a couple of Devon folk songs that were also part of my own Newfoundland repertoire, songs that I had learned from people within my own family, that I realised those folk music connections still had a contemporary relevance in that many of the songs brought to Newfoundland by early settlers from the West Country had survived intact in Newfoundland over several generations.

“In Newfoundland, there was so much material that came here with early settlers, but then there was locally composed material that emerged from out of what the early settlers had brought. Song lyrics changed to reflect the circumstances of life in the new world, even while melodies remained the same.”

One example is a song about logging, ‘The Double Sledder Lad’, which is a Newfoundland version of the Devonian song that Paul sings called ‘Jim, The Carter Lad’.

Although some of the words may have changed in Newfoundland, Paul says: “If you want to know what Devon songs sounded like and Devon tunes and fiddle-playing sounded like in the past, go to Newfoundland. I can think of 30 songs off the top of my head that went across to Newfoundland from Devon that are still alive now but I’d say there are easily over 100, possibly 200, that are common to both. The songs migrated over there and took root.”

For Marilyn and Paul, seeing how the songs were such an integral part of Newfoundland culture was hugely influential in Wren Music’s work in bringing Devonian songs to the fore again: “I was actually quite envious of the traditions in Newfoundland music and we learnt a lot from that. We’ve gone about things in a different way by establishing groups around the county, but the aim has been the same, to bring these songs forward so that they and their stories are heard in the communities where they came from.

“And thanks to this project by the Devonshire Association we’ll hopefully be reaching new audiences.”

Learning that versions of old South West songs are very much alive in Newfoundland has literally been a voyage of discovery for Paul: “I’ll play a song and Jim will say ‘I’ve got a version of that and it goes like this’ and vice versa.” At some of their past concerts together they’ve done a ‘mash-up’ of both Devon and Newfoundland versions. Paul explained: “Jim sings a song called ‘A Tale of Jests’, a song of exaggeration which we know and sing as ‘The Lying Tale’. We do a verse from Devon and then a verse from Newfoundland and we tell the story together. We go across the Atlantic and back again about five times in the song, it’s absolutely lovely and it works really well. But with most of the songs, we’ll sing one version and refer to the other.”

The concerts will feature songs that represent the larger collection: “There are love songs, nonsense songs, funny songs, and there are lots of ballads – big story songs of murder and other dark tales,” said Paul. “And there are some very significant sea songs; the sea is what links us and the sea will feature in these concerts and the talks.”

One of the songs from Newfoundland is ‘Come And I Will Sing You’. In Devon it is sung as the ‘Dilly Song ‘and was passed down by a servant girl in Horrabridge: “The first line of the ‘Dilly Song’ is Come and I will sing you, so it’s the same song but it’s very different,” said Paul. “There’s also a classic ballad which in Newfoundland is called ‘She’s Like The Swallow’, but here it’s ‘On Yonder’s Hill’ and is associated with Bampton in Mid Devon.”

Among the songs Paul will be singing is ‘Captain Ward’, which is a pirate song from the era of Peter Easton, a pirate who operated off Newfoundland. “These are wonderful songs and we’re really looking forward to playing them,” said Paul. “They’re full of guitars, accordions and fiddles and the choruses have huge harmonies.”

Paul has a personal connection, too, as his grandfather moved to Newfoundland and was the first vicar of Great Falls – a town built up around the logging industry: “It’s one of the reasons why this project means so much to me. Newfoundland is very close to my heart. Their traditions are amazing.”

And, as Jim says, the roots of those traditions haven’t been lost through the passage of time: “Many Newfoundlanders still fly the Union Jack, the accents of Devon and Dorset can be clearly heard in many Newfoundland conversations, a large number of dialect words here come directly from the West Country. So the connections are still highly relevant today.”
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