Newfoundland Grandmothers and Their Accordions

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Introduction

Newfoundland grandmothers excel on the accordion, and a historian is keen to bring them to the stage. In the fishing community of Flatrock, when Newfoundlanders gather in a kitchen, 79-year-old Madonna Wilkinson often takes center stage, cueing the next song with a snap of her fingers and playing her accordion.

Madonna Wilkinson’s Story

Wilkinson, who started playing at 15 after discovering an accordion left behind at one of her parents’ lively parties, has since played at Sunday masses, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and a myriad of community events.

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“People invite you to parties and say, ‘Bring your accordion!'” Wilkinson shared in an interview, laughing. “I still love it. Music can do wonders for you. That’s my belief, anyway.”

Heidi Coombs and “I’se Not the B’y”

Wilkinson embodies the kind of musician that historian and musician Heidi Coombs had in mind when she and two friends launched “I’se Not the B’y”, a monthly performance session for women, non-binary, and gender-diverse musicians playing traditional Newfoundland music at a downtown St. John’s pub.

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Personal Musical Backgrounds

Both Coombs and Wilkinson grew up in musical families in rural Newfoundland. As a child, Wilkinson’s father would gather her and her sisters to dance while he played the harmonica. Wilkinson bought her own accordion at 19, using her first paycheque from her 32-year teaching career. It was a second-hand button accordion costing $20, a significant amount at the time.

Coombs remembers her grandmother playing accordion and her father as a drummer. The family always had the radio on, listening to Newfoundland music programs. Coombs learned to play the piano, guitar, and bodhran, an Irish drum.

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The Importance of Newfoundland Music

While living in New Brunswick, Coombs realized how central Newfoundland music is to the island’s culture, acting as social glue at various events. However, upon returning home, she found it challenging to join the male-dominated music sessions in downtown St. John’s, despite her experience in New Brunswick.

Challenges and Opportunities

Wilkinson focused more on family than performing, though she did have a few stage appearances with Shanneyganock, a successful Newfoundland trad rock band. After raising three children and six grandchildren, she began teaching seniors to play the accordion.

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She discovered through TikTok that many Newfoundland women play the accordion, and many younger people are picking it up as well.

Recognizing Accordion-Playing Grandmothers

Newfoundland grandmothers playing the accordion is a recognized phenomenon, Coombs said. She started a research project on this topic, finding many women who, despite focusing on their families, were celebrated musicians in their communities.

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Minnie White, Newfoundland’s “first lady of the accordion,” is a notable example. White recorded several albums and toured the province after raising her children. Coombs’ “I’se Not the B’y” sessions aim to create an inclusive space for women, non-binary, and gender-diverse traditional musicians.

Conclusion

Wilkinson was thrilled by the idea and expressed interest in attending if she could get a ride into town. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “I’d love that.”

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FAQs

  • What is “I’se Not the B’y”? – It’s a monthly performance session for women, non-binary, and gender-diverse musicians playing traditional Newfoundland music.
  • Who is Madonna Wilkinson? – A 79-year-old accordion player from Flatrock who started playing at 15.
  • How did Madonna Wilkinson start playing the accordion? – She found an accordion left behind at one of her parents’ parties.
  • Who is Heidi Coombs? – A historian and musician who co-launched “I’se Not the B’y”.
  • Where are the “I’se Not the B’y” sessions held? – At a downtown St. John’s pub.
  • What instruments does Heidi Coombs play? – Piano, guitar, and bodhran.
  • Who was Minnie White? – Newfoundland’s “first lady of the accordion” known for recording albums and touring the province.
  • What is the goal of “I’se Not the B’y”? – To create a welcoming, inclusive space for women, non-binary, and gender-diverse traditional musicians.

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