By ROSALYN ROY
PORT AUX BASQUES – Viola Parsons is proof that it really is never too late to learn. Although she came to play music later in life, her love for it began during childhood.
Although neither of her parents played, Viola remembers that there was a lot of music coming from her father’s side of the family. She used to particularly enjoy a cousin who used to visit during Christmas and play music for the family.
Viola admits she’s a bit fuzzy on the details, but seems to recall that it was actually her sister who was gifted a harmonica by their mother one Christmas.
“I would find this harmonica, and I really felt like I was really stealing something that didn’t belong to me, which of course I was,” she chuckles softly.
Viola would retreat to her mother’s closet, settle in behind the clothes to muffle the music, and practice on her sister’s harmonica.
“That’s my memory of it, because if it was my mouth organ, I wouldn’t have hidden away with it. I don’t think I would have,” says Viola.
It was in the back of the closet that Viola, around 10 or 11 years old, practiced until she could learn to play ‘Oh Susannah’. Her mother must have figured out what she was up to, because the next Christmas she gifted Viola with her own harmonica.
She enjoyed playing, but as she grew into adulthood and got married, had her children and moved into the workforce, music seemed to slip by the wayside.
“I must have planted a seed for it later in life and it did grow a little tiny bit,” says Viola.
She kept a harmonica anyway, and perhaps on occasion she would pull it out to play every now and again. Her husband wasn’t always so keen at first.
“Albert, he thought, that was not very cool.”
She chuckles a wee bit at the memory, and couldn’t really say if it was the harmonica music or Viola’s playing that he wasn’t particularly enamoured with initially. Most of the time the harmonica waited patiently in a drawer. Viola and Albert had three children, and it wasn’t until they were adults before they learned that their mother could play the harmonica.
“I thought once I finished work, that will be one thing that I will take out and enjoy,” shares Viola.
After retirement back in 1997, she pulled the harmonica out of the drawer and began playing once again. At some point, Albert got a bit more used to it says Viola.
“Now he’s my biggest supporter!”
It was her church that prompted Viola to really begin playing outside the home. Around 10 years ago, the ladies of the church wanted to form a little band, and a couple of them shared they could play the guitar or another instrument. She was a bit uncertain, but Viola offered to play too.
“The harmonica doesn’t get played much,” she says, “not on this end of the island anyway.”
She was welcomed into the Little Band, and as a regular churchgoer she was familiar enough with the hymns to be comfortable playing them.
“We play for funerals, and we’ll play in a church service, but that’s the extent of that,” says Viola.
Naturally, her favourite music to play is Newfoundland music.
Around the time she began playing at the church, Viola visited her mother, who was doing some house clearing. She spotted a small accordion, with only one row of buttons.
“Where in the world did you ever get that?” Viola recalls asking her mother. “It was a gift that she had given her father back when she came off the island – down in Pass Island – and came to North Sydney to work. She had given that to her father for Christmas one year. I never ever knew it existed. I never knew her Dad played, because he was dead by the time I came along.”
Viola received permission to take the accordion home, ‘just to see’. She confesses that she had always wanted to learn the accordion, and this seemed like a good time to start.
“Now there wasn’t much life left to that accordion,” admits Viola. “But I would say that, in less than a couple of hours, I was able to play Oh Susannah.”
Viola’s ear for music is evident. She doesn’t read or write music, and has had no formal training, but she can learn a tune by listening to it and picking away it on an instrument. She says learning to play by ear is an advantage.
“Like anything, it’s just a matter of practice,” observes Viola. “When they tell me we’re going to do this in C, all I know is that on my accordion or on my harmonica, there is a C, so I look for my C.”
She’s a bit of a late bloomer as a musical performer, but in her heart and mind Viola wouldn’t mind learning to play the mandolin.
“I might not have the fingers for it now,” she laughs.
Not long after she started playing with the church, and much to her surprise, she and Ray Bown discovered they had music in common. Bown was a former work colleague but the two hadn’t socialized much before retirement.
“I didn’t know he could play and he didn’t know I could play,” recalls Viola. “That was funny.”
Bown became somewhat of a mentor to Viola, and the duo were joined by Leo Coffin. They began performing here and there around the town, and during the summer would play at Scott’s Cove for the tourists and locals who liked to gather.
“Ray and Company I think the town put on us,” offers Viola about the trio’s band name. “I don’t know. We don’t have a name per se.”
Viola describes playing with Ray and Leo as a pure joy. Their happy trio have ventured to Eastport for a number of years to play in its accordion festival, but thanks to COVID-19 that got cancelled.
She misses playing on the harbourfront for the tourists, and hopes that with the vaccinations underway they will at least be able to resume playing for their own little bubbles. Perhaps in the near future she might perform at a Come Home Year festival.
“If there’s anywhere I could (play), I surely would,” promises Viola.