In downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, there is a legendary music store by the name of Fred’s Records. Its slogan, emblazoned on the clapboard exterior simply says, “for the record, its Fred’s.” Since 1972, those words have rung true.
For 40 years, Tony Ploughman has been behind the counter at Fred’s, steadfastly promoting and championing Newfoundland music in all its shapes and forms.
Recently on social media, Tony posed a question. “If I were to compile a list of the greatest Newfoundland songwriters who ever lived,” he wrote, “who would be on that list, and in what order?” And for good measure he added, “assuming of course Ron Hynes is number one.”
It struck me as a question designed to cause huge debates and ferocious arguments. A question calculated to stir a contentious pot. The kind of question that could lead to blows.
And sure enough, it did just that, figuratively at least. A passionate debate exploded among music lovers. All of them arguing for their favourite songwriter’s place on the list.
But what is worth noting, not one person questioned the notion that Ron Hynes was our greatest songwriter. In a land of contrarians, not one soul questioned his place at number one.
For us, Ron being the best is a simple universal truth.
But that doesn’t tell the full story. Because we also know in our heart of hearts, he is not just our greatest songwriter; he is one of the greatest songwriters by any standard anywhere in the world.
If you are not familiar with Ron’s songbook, there are a myriad of reasons. Ron’s life and his career were complicated. There was bad luck, hard living and poor choices. There were decades of addiction. That never ends well. It is a story that’s been told before. A truly great talent who was his own worst enemy.
Despite the darkness and his demons, he was a gifted and prolific artist. His words were pure and true. They speak to the human condition. They speak of love and loss. They speak of leaving the place you need the most and they speak of returning.
And because of this, because of his songs, this flawed character was loved and cherished by the people of his province. We loved him because as an artist he gave us so much. We recognize his gift.
It’s hard to explain to people who do not live in Newfoundland and Labrador the impact Ron had on the place.
On the day he died, November 19, 2015, Newfoundland and Labrador was in the middle of a contentious provincial election. Despite this, CBC did not broadcast an evening newscast because, election or not, there was only one story that day – the passing of Ron Hynes. It was a gut punch to all of us. We mourned not just for Ron and the voice that was silenced, but for the songs he would never compose. The hell with the election, the entire news hour was devoted to his legacy.
Across the province, flags were lowered to half-mast, and his songs seemed to come from everywhere. What followed was a funeral the likes of which the province had never seen. I would say it was the kind of funerals held for premiers and prime ministers, but that would not do it justice.
He was our Rocket Richard, he was our Gordon Lightfoot, he was our Leonard Cohen. A simple send-off would not do.
Thousands of mourners packed the pews of the Basilica of St. John The Baptist to say goodbye to “the man of a thousand songs.”
It was decidedly a non-Roman Catholic affair. There was no mass. And yet somehow, Ron being Ron, the church made an exception to their rules and opened the doors to their largest and most ornate church for a celebration of life that was filled with music, laughter and reflection on his legacy, his work and his struggles.
Ron would have loved it. It was a packed house. It was a big show. Despite the election, the premier of the province was there seated not far from both the leaders of the opposition and the NDP. All three parties suspended campaigning on that day. Convincing political campaigns to tool down during an election was a miracle that only Ron could pull off.
The funeral in its entirety was carried live on the largest private radio network in the province. It aired on CBC and was broadcast across the province on NTV.
And when his songs were sung, the entire Basilica knew the words.
It was a de facto state funeral. Except with dancing in the aisles. Something never seen in the Basilica before or since.
There was laughter and there were tears. But as his friend and long-time colleague, actor Greg Malone, said in his eulogy: “Who else would we weep for if not for Ron? Who more deserves these tears than he? All those lovely songs are now the ties that bind our hearts to his and to each other.”
And we did weep. The entire province wept and sang.
If aliens from another planet or even if a visitor from a distant land popped into the province on that day, they would have been baffled at the fuss, the stories and the funeral on tv. They would probably surmise, “their king must be dead.”
But no. It was all for a boy from Ferryland whose lyrics touched us all.
Almost a decade later, when Alan Doyle began to ask Newfoundland singers and musicians if they would like to appear on an album of songs written by our greatest songwriter, not one of them said “who?”
Instead, they all said yes.
They knew, like we all knew, Ron was the best.
And you can put that on the record.