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Ryan's Fancy: 30 Years of East Coast Music

By Russell Bowers, The Measure Online

For Lyle Drake, discovering a tape with unreleased Ryan's Fancy music must have been an El Dorodan (my phrase) experience. He was already thinking a compilation of the group's material was long overdue when he inquired for archive material at CBC Radio in St. John's.

Fergus O'Byrne was the first of the group to hear the tape, and it must have been a shock to hear his past come back so concretely to the present.

"When he came to my office," recalls Lyle Drake of Avalon Music, "for a few seconds, and it seemed like minutes, he did not or could not speak. When he finally did, he asked me where I got the material and then we listened to the music."

Fergus went to former bandmate Dermot O'Reilly and they decided that it would be a good idea to release some of this material and together with Drake, they began looking for other archival tapes. The result is a CD called Songs From The Shows, fifteen tracks, thirteen of which had never seen the light of day from Ryan's Fancy in any form. The recordings came from the group's CBC Television appearances during the 1970's.

"We wanted to make sure that the overall sound was representative of what the band was like back in the '70s," says Fergus O'Byrne. "The inclusion of mostly new material is exciting for me."

It's been nearly 20 years since Ryan's Fancy toured or released any new material, but it's that distance which makes this release all the more important.

It was during the late sixties that Fergus, Dermot, and Denis Ryan came to Canada from Ireland seeking the promise of the new world. After playing in a variety of groups, it was during Christmas 1970 that they formed Ryan's Fancy. The name was taken from a Denis Ryan tune recorded by Sullivan's Gypsies, an earlier incarnation with which the three musicians had been involved.

Over the next 12 years, the group would play throughout Canada, Ireland and the U.S. and along the way, change the face of Atlantic Canadian music. Ryan's Fancy was a bridge leading to many places.

Being young and playing the music in a very traditional, yet new and robust manner, they bridged the generation gap that separated young people from the traditional music of their parents and grandparents. It was done in a way other shows and entertainers of the time hadn't before.

Ryan's Fancy was a bridge to the homeland of East Coast music. They could have easily relied on a set of tried and true Irish material, but Ryan's Fancy took the time and effort to learn about the music of Atlantic Canada and incorporate it into their show. As Irishmen themselves, by choosing to play "our" music, it gave a sense of legitimacy that East Coast music had trouble finding, even amongst ourselves.

When the national television shows and specials came, Ryan's Fancy bridged the Past to the Future. They took traditional music out of Antigonish and Fogo Island and re-invented it for the new mass media.

As Fergus remembers, "The Ryan's Fancy series gave the rest of Canada, and ourselves on the East Coast, a good, honest look at the wonderful talent and culture that abounded in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Maritime provinces. The guests were in their home settings, in kitchens, parish halls and local clubs - hard working people, enjoying their music and culture."

And for the young people of Atlantic Canada who as children, watched those shows, they grew up to be The Punters, The Rankins, Great Big Sea and The Barra MacNeils. Ryan's Fancy was the bridge between the old generation of East Coast musicians and today's group.

Finally, Ryan's Fancy proved you could make a living here in Atlantic Canada and that you didn't have to move to Toronto to be a professional musician. They were a bridge back home.

For Dermot O'Reilly. the release of Songs From The Shows brings back memories of being with a very special group.

"There are so many memories but overall, meeting the people we met and seeing the places we saw while filming the television series. One fond memory was when Ryan's Fancy traveled to Northern Canada and we sang "The Rocky Road To Dublin" in an igloo we helped build in Arctic Bay. Another was touring Ireland for the first time and subsequently filming a Ryan's Fancy TV special there.

"On reflection, I think we helped in continuity of folk music of this region and I believe our effort was sincere and worthwhile."

Worthwhile indeed.

Interview conducted by Russell Bowers, a freelance writer and broadcaster based in St. John's.

Read the article on The Newfoundland and Labrador Music Industry Association website

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