The accordion is a beloved component of much traditional Newfoundland music, and accordionist Ray Walsh was a master of the genre. He performed for more than 55 years, his fingers dancing over the keys, starting with kitchen parties as a teenager, then a mainstay band member and co-leader on landmark provincial and nationally broadcast radio, and CBC TV programs such as All Around the Circle; releasing solo, duo, and group albums and playing on stages all over Newfoundland for more than 20 years with the Walsh Family Band.
On Jan. 27 in St. John’s, the legendary musician attended mass, ate brunch with his son’s family and worked on a new tune, then had a heart attack and died in his wife’s arms at home. He was 75. He leaves his wife, Evelyn (née Noonan); daughters, Karen and Michelle; son, Greg; and seven grandchildren. His death inspired an editorial cartoon in The St. John’s Telegram, and prompted a statement of condolence from the province’s Minister of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation.
Raymond Patrick Walsh was born in Bay de Verde, Nfld., on St. Patrick’s Day, 1943, the oldest of six boys and one girl of Bridget (née Keyes) and Edward Walsh. His father and grandfather played the fiddle, as did he before picking up the two-row button accordion, mandolin and guitar. “Like everyone growing up at that time,” he told the Newfoundland Herald in 1979, “during the fifties everyone had to play the guitar like Johnny Cash.”
At St. Mary’s high school he formed a group that played parish concerts, still mostly on guitar then. After graduating, he played reels on the button accordion for dances in his hometown and near Grates Cove and Redhead. Those “used to go from 9 o’clock in the evening till daylight,” he told The Herald. One time, he earned $8.
In 1960 he enrolled at Memorial University of Newfoundland to become a teacher, and got a training post in Marystown where he joined a local band. Mr. Walsh started on drums, then switched to guitar and then to the piano accordion, teaching himself on an instrument he borrowed from the mother of Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle. He preferred the piano accordion because it can be played in any key, which is convenient for vocalists and bands. Back at university, he bought an instrument for himself.
One day, singer John White, a Newfoundland music pioneer, called the boarding house where Mr. Walsh was staying to ask him to accompany him at a gig at The Porthole, a downtown club. It was the first time Mr. Walsh played in St. John’s.
Mr. White also helped him find work with the CBC, first on the program Saturday Nite Jamboree, which Mr. Walsh joined in 1960, and then on All Around the Circle where he was a musician and co-band leader (1964-75). The show eventually went national, featuring guests such as famed songstress Joan Morrissey. It was extremely popular, but hard work.
“Believe it or not, everyone on that show except for John had another full-time job,” he told The Newfoundland Herald. “It was all night work.” Later he was in the house band with Come All Ye, an episodic series with Anna McGoldrick, which was “the one I’ve enjoyed the most. On Circle I had too many responsibilities, but on this one all I have to do is play.”
Mr. Walsh recorded his first of three albums in 1966, including Newfoundland tunes such as Banks of Newfoundland, on which he played the piano and button accordion, then two albums on the piano accordion.
In 1967 he toured the province with Mr. White (with whom he had just recorded the album The Voice of Newfoundland), sponsored by Bennett Brewery. But he wanted to be at home with his family, and told The Herald: “I like the music, but as far as the life is concerned, I’d never do it.”
Both loves merged in 1995 when he formed the Walsh Family Band with his brothers Gerard and Ron, his son Greg and daughter Michelle. Their gigs ranged from opening night at Mile One Centre to the Brigus Blueberry Festival (before the pie-eating contest). They also gave hands-on workshops. The band released five albums, most recently Years May Come, Years May Go (2016).
Meanwhile, he was working as a teacher and school administrator in Marystown until 1983. At that point he moved back to Bay de Verde, where he was a principal, retiring in 1993. He was also a municipal councillor and served as mayor from 1997 to 1999. For recreation he was a senior hockey player, partridge hunter and salmon fisher.
Mr. Walsh received the Stompin’ Tom Award at the East Coast Music Awards in 2009, and in 2013 he was honoured with the Newfoundland Folk Arts Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Meticulous in his art, he was humble in his person and humorous in his outlook.
“It would be a nice thing not to let [traditional music] die out,” Mr. Walsh told The Herald. “Something that has died out though is traditional Newfoundland dances. I don’t mean someone getting up and going cracked for five minutes. Maybe it’s a good thing. They were too hard to play for!”