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University Oration
The Degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa)
Pamela Morgan

In the year 2007, it is still something of a wonder to cast our eyes around this auditorium and realize that we are sheltered today in a house that Joey built. Of course, like everything else associated with our first post-confederation premier, this statement is a slight exaggeration. The five temples to arts and culture that were constructed across the province in the dying years of the Smallwood regime were funded mainly through public money, federal and provincial, although this particular structure was supported as well by the beneficence of Bowater Newfoundland and Lundrigans Ltd. of Corner Brook. Visitors from other parts of Canada marvelled either at the farsightedness or at the quixotic nature of such a project – undertaken by the poorest province in Canada. Meanwhile, within the province, appreciation was anything but unanimous. In those days, the words “arts” and “culture” reflected a strong sense of social hierarchy, and it was not long before Ray Guy memorably re-christened  the buildings “tarts and vulture” centres. In 1974, when the popular theatrical troupe, CODCO, and the Newfoundland music group, Figgy Duff, took the stage at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, it was considered by some almost akin to a gang of teenaged vandals desecrating a church. We have come a long way since 1974.

So too has the woman we are to honour here this morning. Pamela Morgan grew up in a house full of music. Classically trained, she came to traditional music as a teenager, at the age of eighteen joining Figgy Duff, the ground-breaking Newfoundland celtic rock band founded by Noel Dinn. Inspired by the revival of Newfoundland culture then underway, the band became leaders in the struggle to manage cultural change with integrity and respect for the past. With Figgy Duff, Pamela Morgan was much more than lead singer. Although her dark and haunting contralto voice became one of the signature features of Figgy Duff’s sound, she also was Noel Dinn’s chief collaborator in the production of their four albums, contributing beautiful original arrangements to songs that had usually been sung a capella, and providing instrumental accompaniment on piano, synthesizer, organ, guitar and tin whistle. A thorough professional, she is accomplished on all of these instruments but her tin whistle is like Orpheus’ flute – magical, seductive and life-restoring. And like Orpheus, she would have gone to the Underworld to rescue her friend and colleague when Noel Dinn died prematurely in 1993. That was not possible, even for her, but she secured the rights to Figgy Duff’s music, started her own record company, Amber Music, and she has maintained the legacy of the group ever since.

Pamela Morgan continues to develop as a singer, musician, producer, song-writer, composer and arranger. Three superb solo CDs and two collaborations with Anita Best have followed the retrospective she did of Figgy Duff’s best work. She has produced solo CDs of Anita Best and Emile Benoit, and most recently an album to celebrate the twentieth edition of the annual March Hare Literary Festival. After an early initiation into Newfoundland theatre as a performer with the Mummer’s Troupe in The I.W.A. Story, she has returned several times to the stage – to provide music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Trinity Festival and Frank McGuiness’s Mutability at the Grenfell Fine Arts Theatre (where she was also guest artist); to perform in the Al Pittman West Moon to Ireland tour; and currently to write and arrange a folk opera entitled The Nobleman’s Wedding. All of her endeavours are defined by a commitment to the highest performance standards, and by generosity and grace in her dealings with others. I present to you for the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) one of our province’s finest, most enduring and most endearing artists, Pamela Morgan of Grand Falls.

                                                                          Adrian Fowler
                                                                          University Orator

 

Ladies and Gentlemen:

A few months ago, when I received a letter from Memorial University, I
inwardly groaned. Darn- I forgot to pay the bill for the recording session at Petro Can Hall! I was therefore somewhat shocked at the contents of the letter, and still am as I stand before you today.

However, I am also very proud that our provincial University has repeatedly bestowed honorary degrees upon artists, and I am thrilled to be recognized by such an enlightened institution.

I am delighted to be here at the Grenfell Campus, in a city whose arts community has embraced me fully over the years - Rex Brown, Randy Maggs, and the late Al Pittman with the March Hare, and Ken Livingstone with Grenfell's own Theater Department.

I don't know if I'll ever be comfortable being addressed as “Dr. Morgan,” but I guess it's similar to “Captain Morgan”, and that works for me!

I know precious little of the world of academia, and to be among you, who have worked so hard for this moment, is humbling indeed. I offer heartfelt congratulations to you all.

My late father, Ray Morgan, always wanted me to go to Memorial University. I had other ideas, and the sight of a Chevy van full of long-haired hippie musicians dragging his youngest daughter off to play in bars obscured his vision of what I was really trying to do. But he would love this.

I am pleased and honored to have here, sharing his memory, his schoolmate and lifelong close friend, Judge Lloyd Soper. I would also like to acknowledge my family and friends, many of whom have traveled a long way to be here today.

My late mother, Jean (who always understood, and from whom I inherited my love of music) is represented by two of her sisters, Muriel and Phyllis Bent, and by her brother Gerald and sister-in-law Ruth Bent. My own sister Elinor Morgan, her husband Don Bragg, and my brother George Morgan and his fiancee Julia Halfyard are also here, as well as my treasured husband and mother-in-law, Andre and Grace Wall.

My extended family has enabled me to follow the path that led me here, with continuing financial and moral support. I would also like to acknowledge my absent friends, too numerous to name individually, but in particular Noel Dinn, from whose hands the proverbial torch was thrown, and whose passion and dedication inspires me still.

It is difficult to express fully the significance of the riches bestowed upon me by the generous, wise, and benevolent people of Newfoundland and Labrador who shared their wealth of songs and stories with me, even as they watched their own way of life melt and fade into memory. Those years were bittersweet, as these were the elders of a vanishing breed, who watched as their songs and stories were drowned out by TV and radio, and their gardens ran to ruin in abandoned outports. In honoring me, you are honoring them. We thank you.

I have been traveling most of my life, and would like to share a few of my observations with you. I graduated from Grand Falls Academy in 1974, and was swept up in a movement to rebel against the stereotypical image of Newfoundland and Labrador as being backward and inane, and re define our identity. This has become a lifelong project for me, with much work still to be done.

I think about the "modernization" of our province, and lament the fact that we were just 50 years or so away from being true leaders in what, out of necessity, has become a world-wide crusade. Before people were forced out of their homes, we were recyclers and organic gardeners, growing vegetables nourished by seaweed and caplin. We heated our homes with wood, and lived in harmony with the environment. I have a treasured memory of the late great master fiddler Emile Benoit, also an honorary graduate of MUN, helping on our house renovations by taking nails out of used lumber and straightening them for re-use.

We still have at our fingertips some of the most unspoiled country in the world, with fresh water, berries, fish, game, clean air, and wild spaces. It is little wonder that many people from away are discovering this paradise and buying property here.

My father was fond of saying that without the winter, we would not appreciate the summer. I believe this holds true in many aspects of life. We in Newfoundland and Labrador are known for our fun-loving ways, our ditties, jokes, and good humor. I believe that this humor has survived because we also sang the tragedies, we lived them, we knew hardship, and we needed the relief that the joyous music gave.

However, if our dark spirit dies, we become a shell - a caricature of ourselves, the tragic clown. Artists are often the ones who attempt to establish a balance by espousing the dark side, and we are frequently ignored by an increasingly shallow society with an ever-decreasing attention span.

It is a mistake to think that any government policy will look after artists by pledging money. We are repeatedly expected to justify our cause, and are obliged to stand at the mercy of juries who have their own contexts and agendas. The only real way for art and artists to survive in this society is for the general population to take a real interest in and to support art forms that go beyond mere entertainment.

How often have I heard people say that they want mindless escapism after a hard day, that they don't want to be forced to concentrate or think. I understand this, and I read my share of murder mysteries, but we must be aware that escapism can become its own prison, and much of what is offered in this day and age is voyeurism in the extreme, preying upon the basest of human emotions.

While people are glued to their TVs watching the latest Idol hopeful humiliated, or the weakest link voted off, senior artists are struggling to pay their bills at a time in their life when they should be realizing their finest work.

We in Newfoundland and Labrador come from a tradition of storytellers, of strong community spirit, and close families. We need to nurture and respect this legacy, to read poetry, to listen to music, to seek out fringe theater and films, to buy original paintings by unknown artists, to talk with one another. Does Martha Stewart know more about the art of gracious living than our own mothers and grandmothers? Is Dr. Phil better equipped to advise us on relationships and matters of the heart than our own community elders?

Our own lives, our hopes, our dreams, our families, and our traditions should not be permitted to languish while we live vicariously through American television.

To the graduates from foreign parts, please bear with my strong Newfoundland and Labrador sentiment. You have the excellent judgment to be here, and I include you among us. To all of you, once again I offer heartfelt congratulations, and every good wish for success in whatever it is you choose to pursue.

And if I may presume to offer a suggestion, it is this - go, see the world. It will help you see Newfoundland and Labrador more clearly, and in a global context. But please remember; this place is your birthright, and we need our best and brightest to help re-build rural Newfoundland and Labrador. We need visionaries who realize that the truly important things in life cannot be bought or sold - young people who are willing to teach, practice medicine, or start small businesses and families in relative isolation with relatively little pay.

When communities lie empty, it is only a matter of time before what little is left of our pride and our culture will be lost forever. It is only when a culture is whole and strong that it can embrace tourism and immigration, and withstand domination by foreign powers.

I leave you with a few lines from a traditional song from Cuslett on the Cape shore:

There is one thing that do grieve me, to be called a runaway
To leave where I was borned in, may kind heaven pity me
And Gold is the root of all evil, it do shine like the glittering dew
It's the cause of a lad and a lass for to part though their hearts be ever so true.