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Peter Narvaez in 1969. (Robin Hunter/Robin Hunter)
Peter Narvaez in 1969. (Robin Hunter/Robin Hunter)

Peter Narvaez, 69 Folklorist, ethnomusicologist

Newfoundland musician was a man of many talents Add to ...

When Peter Narvaez came to St. John’s in 1974, he knew almost no one. He had just come from the U.S. to an archival job at Memorial University’s Folklore Department. Also a musician, he had been playing and recording since high school, but produced no big hits. He unpacked at his hotel, and walked to the Continental Bar downtown at the foot of Bates Hill to hear a young musician named Ron Hynes. And Hynes played one of Narvaez’s songs.

This story, a legend in the St. John’s music scene, aptly illustrates the different yet complementary aspects of Narvaez’s work. He wrote a song that preceded him to his new home and introduced him to a new community. In a bar was Hynes, whom Narvaez would befriend, play music with and write about.

The folklorist, ethnomusicologist and musician died on Nov. 11, of lung cancer, which had been diagnosed in late 2008. He was 69.

Peter Narvaez was born Peter Reuben Aceves on March 16, 1942, in Brooklyn, and grew up in Boonton, N.J. His father, George Aceves, was from Mexico, a labour organizer in the furrier trade, and his mother, Borinquin Maria Narvaez, was from Puerto Rico. She ran an antique business. He had one sibling, an older brother, George.

Narvaez was always interested in music. An uncle taught him to play guitar and he formed his first band in high school, Pete & Jimmy With The Rhythm Knights. DJ Alan Freed was championing rock ‘n’ roll on New York’s WINS radio station, and they connected. Freed produced the band’s sole 45, So Wild (Castle Records, 1959) and published the song. One of the band’s gigs was opening for a group called Tom and Jerry, an Everly Brothers cover band. Tom and Jerry later became Simon & Garfunkel.

He was also influenced by Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan.

In the early 1960s Narvaez started going to nightclubs in Greenwich Village and listening to the blues. He loved the sound, and that performers sang about everything – “drinking, sex, and gambling … crop failures, welfare lines, death, God” – as he said in a 1986 interview. And that they sang for everyone. He started a jug band. Having earned a history degree from Drew University in New Jersey in 1963, he then went to the folklore department of Indiana University in Bloomington, and earned his MA in 1967. One of his fellow students, Neil Rosenberg, would later become an academic colleague and fellow musician.

In 1968 Narvaez formed Homegas, which had one release on the small but authoritative Takoma Label in 1971. “There is talk of reissuing it in vinyl,” Rosenberg said. “It was an underground favourite, but gained zero sales.”

Narvaez then moved to Maine, taught at a free school for a year, and then took a position at Bliss College in Lewiston. He was quickly promoted from associate professor to dean of students, but the institution was in financial trouble. Paycheques stopped, there were accusations of malfeasance at the highest levels, and by 1972 “the upshot was that that was the end of Bliss,” Rosenberg said.

Narvaez gigged for a year, until Rosenberg, by then with the Folklore Department at Memorial University in St. John’s, urged him to apply as an archivist with the Folklore and Language Archives.

Narvaez was hired in 1974, and was soon a lecturer and then professor, beginning a career of tremendous research and output, and connecting to a music scene that was already attuned to his style. Rosenberg was one of the few owners of the Homegas release, and it was this album that Hynes had heard and played at the Continental Bar.

As augured by this incident, Narvaez’s musical influence was huge. As one example, in 1975 he gave a young musician named Kelly Russell a tape of fiddler Rufus Guinchard. Russell was with a then-fledgling Figgy Duff, and a folk music revival followed. (Narvaez also played harmonica on the first Wonderful Grand Band album.) Along with English musician Denis Parker, he basically crafted the provincial blues scene, and he also created a website for the genre, www.rowdyblues.com. His bands included Bopular Demand, Cookstown Jukes, Rowdy Blues, and Divin’ Duck. His last group was The Superpickers, with Sandy Morris and Glenn Collins, which released a recording earlier this year.

Narvaez’s abbreviated CV of writing and research runs for five pages. His academic writing ranges from Hynes’ song Sonny’s Dream, to former premier Joseph Smallwood’s broadcasting career, to Robert Johnson and his mythic Faustian bargain, to berry picking and fairies. “He responded to popular culture, he was interested in working-class culture,” Rosenberg said. Narvaez’s PhD dissertation in 1986 was on a song booklet, Come Hell or High Water, produced during the Buchans miners’ strike in 1973.

Jazz, Newfoundland wakes, African-American folklore, Newfoundland folk custom and vernacular music from Mexican streets to life in the outports were among the topics of his hundreds of publications, journal contributions, recordings, radio and television productions and appearances, archival depositions, and professional and critical activities. So much engaged him.

“I liked how he disregarded the false dichotomy of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture,” said CBC radio host Jamie Fitzpatrick, who conducted one of Narvaez’s last interviews.

Narvaez, who retired in 2005, was past president of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada and the Association for the Study of Canadian Radio and Television. Among his awards, he received the Marius Barbeau Medal from the Folklore Studies Association of Canada (2006) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Arts Society (2010). He edited three volumes of essays, including Of Corpse: Death and Humour in Folklore and Popular Culture (Utah State University Press, 2003).

His CD of original blues, Some Good Blues, was nominated for both Music Industry Association of Newfoundland and East Coast Music Association awards in 2003. Rosenberg is currently completing an introduction to a collection of 15 of Narvaez’s essays, which is expected to be published by MUN Folklore next year.

Narvaez changed his last name soon after coming to Newfoundland. He gave two reasons: one was that he was a bit disenchanted with his father and the other was that it was easier for people to pronounce. He was married four times: first when he was in his early 20s and still in university, to Rinda Metz – they had a daughter, Jamille. They divorced in the early 1970s. In St. John’s he married Ann Anderson, then Anne Budgell, and, on Nov. 7, 1998, Holly Everett.

Narvaez was a generous, clever man, open-minded and full of genuine good humour. “As a colleague I appreciated the way he dealt with difficult subjects at meetings,” Rosenberg said. “He brought people together. And he was a lot of fun to play music with.”

Narvaez leaves his wife Holly, daughter Jamille (Rivera), granddaughter Jessie, and brother George Aceves.

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