Wednesday, June 12, 2024
Wednesday June 12, 2024
Wednesday June 12, 2024

Newfoundland grandmothers shine on accordion, historian advocates for stage performances



Historian Heidi Coombs highlights the rich tradition of Newfoundland’s female accordion players and calls for greater recognition

In Newfoundland, the sound of an accordion often emanates from kitchen gatherings in fishing communities like Flatrock. At the centre of these gatherings, you’ll likely find someone like Madonna Wilkinson, a 79-year-old accordionist who has played since she was 15. Despite her talent, Wilkinson and other women like her rarely perform on local stages.

Historian and musician Heidi Coombs has taken note of this discrepancy. Inspired by the stories of women like Wilkinson, Coombs, along with two friends, launched “I’se Not the B’y,” a monthly performance session at a downtown St. John’s pub. This initiative aims to spotlight women, non-binary, and gender-diverse musicians playing traditional Newfoundland music.

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“Every time I mentioned the word ‘accordion,’ people would say, ‘My nan played the accordion!'” Coombs said. This recurring comment, combined with the lack of female performers at local music sessions, prompted Coombs to investigate why women, despite a rich tradition of playing the accordion, rarely appeared on stage.

Both Coombs and Wilkinson grew up in musical families in rural Newfoundland. Wilkinson recalls her father playing the harmonica while her mother cooked Sunday dinner. She purchased her own accordion at 19 with her first paycheck from a teaching career that spanned 32 years. 

Coombs also comes from a musical lineage, with her grandmother playing the accordion and her father being a drummer. Her childhood was filled with the sounds of Newfoundland music on the radio every Saturday morning. It was only after moving to New Brunswick that Coombs fully appreciated the integral role of Newfoundland music in the island’s culture.

However, upon returning to St. John’s, Coombs found the local music sessions intimidating. The sessions were often male-dominated, which deterred her from participating despite her extensive experience in New Brunswick. Wilkinson, although an accomplished player, primarily focused on family responsibilities, with only a few performances with the successful Newfoundland trad rock band, Shanneyganock.

Wilkinson’s story resonates with many Newfoundland women who played significant roles in their communities while balancing family responsibilities. She now teaches seniors to play the accordion and finds joy in discovering other female players through platforms like TikTok. 

Coombs began researching the history of Newfoundland’s female accordionists, finding many stories similar to Wilkinson’s. One prominent figure is Minnie White, known as Newfoundland’s “first lady of the accordion,” who began recording and touring after raising her children. 

The “I’se Not the B’y” sessions, held on the first Sunday of every month at the Ship pub in St. John’s, aim to create an inclusive space for women, non-binary, and gender-diverse musicians. Coombs, alongside event co-creators Than Brown and Heather Patey, strives to build a supportive community for these musicians.

Wilkinson, enthusiastic about the initiative, expressed her desire to participate if she could find transportation to the events. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “I’d love that.”

The initiative not only honours the rich musical heritage of Newfoundland’s women but also seeks to inspire a new generation of musicians. By creating a welcoming space, Coombs and her team hope to ensure that the tradition of female accordion players continues to thrive.


The story of Newfoundland’s female accordion players highlights several critical aspects from various perspectives.

From a cultural perspective, the tradition of women playing the accordion in Newfoundland underscores the island’s rich musical heritage. These women have historically been the backbone of musical gatherings, yet their contributions have often been overlooked. Initiatives like “I’se Not the B’y” serve to acknowledge and celebrate this cultural heritage, ensuring it is preserved for future generations.

Sociologically, the story reflects the broader issue of gender representation in the arts. Despite their talent and contributions, women have been underrepresented on stages in Newfoundland’s music scene. This disparity is not unique to Newfoundland but is a common issue in many artistic communities. The initiative by Coombs and her team addresses this imbalance by providing a platform specifically for women, non-binary, and gender-diverse musicians.

Economically, the initiative could have a positive impact on the local music scene by attracting more participants and audiences. Inclusive events like these can foster a more vibrant and diverse cultural landscape, potentially leading to increased economic activity in the arts sector. Moreover, they provide opportunities for musicians who may not have had access to such platforms before, potentially leading to new career prospects.

From a gender perspective, the initiative challenges traditional gender roles and stereotypes within the music community. It encourages women to take center stage and showcases their talents, thereby promoting gender equality in the arts. This empowerment can inspire other women and non-binary individuals to pursue their musical passions and seek public recognition for their skills.

The story also touches on the importance of community and social connections. Music has always been a social glue in Newfoundland, bringing people together for celebrations and communal activities. By creating a space for female and gender-diverse musicians, Coombs and her team are fostering a sense of community and belonging, which is essential for social well-being.

In conclusion, the initiative to bring Newfoundland’s female accordion players to the stage is a multifaceted endeavour with significant cultural, sociological, economic, and gender implications. It honours the past while paving the way for a more inclusive and diverse future in the Newfoundland music scene.


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