Downey's Our Member
DESCRIPTION: Chorus: "Now Downey's our member you all understand, So beware of the boar, the bull and the ram." The government does nothing. The worthless and crooked politicians are named.
AUTHOR: Leonard Hulan
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (Peacock)
KEYWORDS: moniker political
May 1922 - The Reid company temporarily shuts down the Newfoundland Railroad
1923 - Joseph W. Downey rejoins the Newfoundland legislature
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Peacock, pp. 779-780, "Downey's Our Member" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leonard Hulan, "Downey's Our Member" (on PeacockCDROM) [one verse only]
NOTES [1033 words]: Peacock gives no date for this song except to say that "the events described in this political ballad have long since ceased to be controversial." The animal symbolism, if that what it is, escapes me; one verse is "The next thing we heard of out here on the coast Some kind of a bull with a ring through its nose, And then a boar pig and a certified ram, And a spring fitted harrow to tear up your land." - BS
We can work out a few things. DictNewfLabrador, p. 87, has an entry of Joseph F. Downey (1852-1933), who was a member of the House of Assembly 1908-1919, 1923-1924, 1928-1932, and was Minister of Agriculture and Mines 1923-1924 and 1928-1932. He represented St. George's.
St. George is on the west coast of of Newfoundland, about half way between Port aux Basques and Corner Brook. It had a stop on the Newfoundland Railway (Kearley, back cover) -- indeed, other than by boat, that was just about its only connection to the outside world.
Reid, mentioned in the first verse, is Robert Gillespie Reid or one of his relatives (my guess would be one of Robert's sons, William Duff Reid, 1867-1924; Robert Gillespie Reid Jr., 1875-1947; or Harry Duff Reid, 1869-1929) whose company (mostly) built and ran the Newfoundland Railway (for the incredibly improbable deal that resulted in this situation, see "The Wreck of the Steamship Ethie"). The railroad never paid for itself, and after World War I, the machinery itself was in bad shape and the company too stretched to be willing to repair it. And snow was a terrible problem inland, especially in the Gaff Topsail area (Penney, p. 101) -- a route that was chosen because it was shorter, even though there were better alternatives to going over the high, wind-swept hills (Lingard, pp. 1-2; when the Trans-Canada Route was built in Newfoundland, it mostly followed the rail path -- but Harding, p. 67, says that the Gaff Topsail area was one of the few places where the rerouted the road). According to Harding, p. 11, "the Newfoundland line had the curviest roadbed of any railroad in North America. Of its seven hundred miles of track, almost six hundred were expended in curves.... Moreover, the builders could not afford frills like tunnels and signals. There was a bridge every four miles on average and for a time there was but one signal on the whole line. On the entire length of the Bullet's track there was not a single tunnel, though steep hills were common."
And Harding adds that, given the difficulty of building and the lack of revenue source, "it is not surprising that R. G. Reid ended up building a most rudimentary sort of railway. It was a genuine accomplishment to be building anything at all. Reid had little alternative but to build the railroad piecemeal, out of the cheapest scraps available" (Harding, p. 71). Even the engines were second-hand.
All this meant that snow often shut down the line -- occasionally for the whole winter (Lingard, p. 2). Hardly surprising, when the plows usually created walls of snow twelve to fifteen feet high (Harding, p. 71). The result was to leave places like St. George cut off from St. John's. The unfortunate decision to build a narrow gauge line, which made it harder to trans-ship freight, also made the problem worse; it had been a very bad decision made in the 1880 (Kearly, p. 56). Given how little rail was built in that first venture, Newfoundland probably should have re-laid the whole narrow gauge section -- but they didn't. Hence the second verse, "For one month last winter we got no mail, The news was reported: 'A very bad rail.' But Reid showed the truth, just what he intend, Was to starve the west coast, every darn one of them." Given, however, that there had been a time in 1903 when a passenger train was stuck for seventeen straight days (Harding, p. 12), it's hard to blame Reid & Co. for being cautious.
It probably didn't help that, starting in 1919, the eastern and western halves of the line were separately administered! (Penney/Kennedy, p. 32, which says that it was almost like two separate railways).
1922 was a particularly bad year; the rail was out for the whole winter (Lingard, p. 5; according to Harding, p. 98, "during the winter of 1922, operations over the Gaff Topsails Plateau ceased altogether), and the Reid company also deliberately shut down the rail for a week in May 1922 to try to get more financial support (Kearley, p. 60; Lingard, p. 5; Harding, p. 98, says that there was no money left to meet payroll). The Reid company, which had been trying to get out of operating the rail since 1920 (Harding, p. 97) gave up the franchise in 1923 (Lingard, p. 5). Given that Downey, after some time out of the Assembly, was re-elected shortly after the shutdown, 1922/1923 may be the most likely time for the song to have been written.
It is interesting to note that a re-routing around the Topsails areas was planned in the 1920s, and begun in 1928 -- but dropped immediately after an election in that year (CuffEtAl, p. 6)
It sort of worked, too, since the Newfoundland government bought the railroad from Reid as of Juy 1, 1923 (Penney/Kennedy, p. 1), and laid heavier, better rails starting in 1924 (Penney/Kennedy, p. 2).
So, somehow or other, this has to do with the people on the west coast of Newfoundland electing Downey to deal with the shut down railroad. This might indirectly have something to do with the line, "And a spring fitted harrow to tear up your land"; since Downey was Minister of Agriculture and Mines, he had a lot to do with digging and farming.
Why this would cause hearers to need to "beware of the boar, the bull, and the ram" I cannot explain. Unless -- could "boar" actually be "bore," as in "boring machine," and "ram" be the engine ramming through the snow (the rotary plow Reid used required a crew of three and two engines to push it; Lingard, p. 3), and the "bull" perhaps the engine driving it? I doubt it, but I've heard stranger song explanations.
For more on Leonard Hulan, see the notes to "The Ferryland Sealer." For more on the Newfoundland Railroad in general, see the notes to "The Wreck of the Steamship Ethie," "The Bonavist Line," "The Loss of the Bruce," and "Drill, Ye Heroes, Drill!" - RBW
Last updated in version 5.0
- CuffEtAl: Robert H. Cuff, Building the Railway, being #5 in Newfoundland Railway and Coastal Steamers, Railway Coastal Museum Pictorial Booklets Series #1-#6, 2003
- DictNewfLabrador: (Robert H. Cuff, managing editor), Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
- Harding: Les Harding, The Newfoundland Railway 1898-1969: A History, McFarland & Company, 2008
- Kearley: Wade Kearley, The People's Road: On the Trail of the Newfoundland Railway, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Lingard: Mont Lingard (with photos by Mike Shufelt), Next Stop: Wreckhouse; More Chats, Stats and Snaps of the Newfoundland Railway, Mont Lingard Publications, 1997
- Penney: A. R. Penney, A History of the Newfoundland Railway, Volume I (1881-1923), Harry Cuff Publications, 1988
- Penney/Kennedy: A. R. Penney with Fabian Kennedy, A History of the Newfoundland Railway, Volume II (1923-1988), Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2021 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.