Songs & Ballads from Nova Scotia

Ballads Cover 1

Front Cover Illustration by Reginald Knowles for Helen Creighton, Songs & Ballads from Nova Scotia (1933)

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Helen Creighton, a  then-budding musicologist, set about criss-crossing Nova Scotia to collect songs peculiar to the province.  In 1933 she published 150 of these songs in Songs & Ballads from Nova Scotia, the first of her many song collections.

I had the good fortune recently to come across a lovely first edition of this book and have enjoyed thumbing through it, while marvelling at the laborious effort reflected in its pages.  Here may be found songs of the sea, of love and its missing, of battle, of children’s play, as well as connections to the English, Scottish, French, Acadian and Mikmaq influences on this rich local music.  The book’s front and back covers are graced with an exquisite woodcut by the noted illustrator, Reginald Knowles, and depict scenes suggestive of the songs within.

Title Page

Title Page, Helen Creighton, Songs & Ballads from Nova Scotia (1933)

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Homeward Bound

“Homeward Bound,” from Helen Creighton, Songs & Ballads from Nova Scotia (1933)

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Devil's Island Scene

Frontispiece Illustration by R. Wilcox for Helen Creighton, Songs & Ballads from Nova Scotia (1933)

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Ballads Back Cover 1

Back Cover Illustration by Reginald Knowles for Helen Creighton, Songs & Ballads from Nova Scotia (1933)

39 responses

  1. My favourite publication by Helen Creighton, is ‘Bluenose Ghosts’. I read the original hardcover one summer in Scott’s Bay, NS; a place known for its ghosts. The family homestead, a century old now was the perfect atmosphere to appreciate the tales – one of two of which came from that locale 🙂

    • Very cool! I knew that she later also collected local ghost stories, so thanks for mentioning “Bluenose Ghosts”. As I recall, Scott’s Bay is very scenically situated and the area makes sense for such stories. 🙂

      • This tweaked my memory:
        I rescued a rain soaked man walking with a metal gas can in November,1998, near Wolfville; he said he was from Scot’s Bay, gave his name and invited me to visit he and his wife any time I was in the area. I drove him to the Irving at Greenwich, and back to his,” 1934 Dodge Brothers,” truck. He was so grateful. And said goodbye. The next summer I passed through Scot’s Bay to hike the Cape Split trail. I made inquiries; at first, no one knew the name; then, one elderly person, who told me, ” Oh, Dear, that family is long gone. He died in the 50’s, he peddled stuff. ” ???? an elder with impaired memory, or me, given bogus information ???? or….. Whatever, it did happen.

  2. The Helen Creighton Society in Nova Scotia does a fantastic job of preserving and disseminating the work of their namesake. That cultural heritage is so vibrant, and so fragile. I recently was in Halifax, and found myself at “What The Folk” – a twice-monthly open session hosted by the Society where all comers can share folk songs, folk tales and so on. http://helencreighton.blogspot.ca Worth checking out if you’re there!

  3. Helen must have been a woman of great foresight. I wonder what prompted her to take on the task of preserving this music? Was she able to see that the burgeoning recorded music industry of her era, was threatening musical diversity country wide? Does the book reveal her motivation?

    • Kate, I believe she was equipped with both foresight and resourcefulness, as were many of what we’d now call ethno-musicologists. The foreword to her book notes the recommendation by one of her former college professors to pursue the collection of this largely traditional music before another generation passed on. She then explored the province far and wide with quite a bit of fortitude as travel around the backroads of Nova Scotia then was quite challenging (it is even so today in parts!).

      • Fascinating. Thanks Brett. She sounds a formidable woman. The whole world needs to be grateful to people like her who are preserving/have preserved cultural diversity in the form of music, language, clothing etc. I will check the link one of your other readers, has added. The ghost stories sound wonderful.

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  6. I also have a 1st Edition. There are sellers purporting to have this Edition; covers are not woodcut, and the Original Publication date is 1933, not 1931 or 1932. I am a musician but my greatest take is in travelling in my mind with Helen to the kitchens and small halls where she recorded this bit of history. Even in the eras where societal development, in ideas and industry, was so primitive, music is anything but, the music, the lyric, a reflection of sophistication on so many levels; and a reflection of changing social attitudes, such as the value of women and children.
    Unlike the, IMHHPO, drivel of the past nearly 3 decades detailing at best our opiated crawl back to our caves..

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