IMHO - Roy Absalom Payne, born April 3, 1939
A Reflection for the Museum of Canadian Music
Snowden. December, 2010
If you do an online search for Roy Payne you won’t find a lot. A few entries that say he’s a guy from Trout River, Newfoundland & Labrador. A few more might mention that he’s a singer songwriter. You might even find one or two that mention his military time in the Canadian Forces. What you won’t find is very many entries that say just what a great artist Roy Payne was and is. I hope in this reflection to do my little bit to correct this.
Roy Payne as a young man from Newfoundland & Labrador went away to the mainland ‘Upalong’ as so many did in the years since Confederation, and I might add, as so many still do. He served this country proudly as a military man and like all good soldiers went to the most dangerous and impoverished places of the world as he was told. One gathers from his songs that he may not have agreed with why he was in these places but his heart for the people shows through. Roy is a man of compassion and his songs reflect this, his love of children especially, and his reverence for the simple life. He then spent a lot of years beating around this country and others. Playing his music and writing his songs. It is this life’s effort that I want to talk about.
I was about nine or ten years old when I first remember hearing Roy’s ‘Goofy Newfie’ album. My Random Island relatives had it and it was getting a lot of local airtime as well. My cousins and I knew the album by heart…or at least the title track! Here was a song coming from the mainland that was all about the Newfoundland experience of being put down for our island dialect and ways, yet our pride showing through. These days there’s a lot of talk of the Newfoundland & Labrador pride, but one time it was not so easy to find – it was there but muted. Roy sang us out in song and we sang along, beaming.
And his sound! I was being raised on Wilf Carter, Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins on my parents’ side. My sister was into the Stones and AM country while my brother was a true blue Dylan fan. I had it all coming at me and here suddenly was Roy Payne, sounding like some Newfoundland Banshee channeling a blend of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Kristofferson and Stomping Tom Connors! His guitar picking and bar room beat (although at my tender age I didn’t realize this aspect) was infectious. Real toe tapping stuff! This was before I grew into the sounds of The Who, Tull, T-Rex, Bowie and Zeppelin.
But what really got my ear and mind about Roy Payne was not that he played guitar or that he sang. It was that he told a story in every song. This was the age before the internet, before video killed the radio star, (to steal a phrase). Roy’s songs all told a story that you could follow with your mind’s eye. That to me still is today what a song must do to be considered in my books. I don’t take much to some of the mindless pap I hear nowadays.
I don’t know really what happened over the years since. As I drifted so did he I suppose. Every now and then I would hear snippets of Roy’s music as I moved around. For a spell while I lived in Ontario I was revisited by the album and songs ‘I Wouldn’t Take a Million Dollars For One Single Maple Leaf’ and ‘Old Hank Always Makes Me Cry’. They became and remain two of my favourites. Roy’s pride in Canada and this great society in which we live is evident even as his songs of love and loss remind us that all is not perfect here.
Recently I was given a copy of a couple of Payne CD's that I had not heard and gave them a listen. This is a welcome return to the sound of Roy Payne that I had lost for so long. No doubt, there are others closer to him and more fortunate than I that have managed to stay with him all along. To them I tip my hat. These new (to me) songs remind me that a great writer tells his story, the pain and the joy, the sorrows and the hopes and shows that pride in culture and heritage is a blessing. I can only hope that someday I can tell a story half as well. I strongly urge all of you to listen to Roy’s music. Ignore the sometimes repetitive ‘beat box’ sound in a few songs and really listen to the story as Roy and his friends (fine musicians all!) present them to us. Remember if you will that every word has been taken from the real life of a real man, sometimes funny yet sometimes heartbreaking.
And as Roy might say, “Keep your arse to the wind”.