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  • The Legacy of "Aunt Martha's Sheep":Political and Social Satire in the Newfoundland Recordings of Ellis and Wince Coles
  • Cory W. Thorne

Ellis and Wince Coles are a country ballad duo from Carmanville, Newfoundland. The brothers are part-time musicians who have gained widespread popularity among "outport" Newfoundlanders (those from small coastal communities) and among the numerous expatriate Newfoundlanders of southern Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. In many ways their hometown is a typical Newfoundland community. Having a population of approximately eight hundred, Carmanville is located in Hamilton Sound, on the central north coast of the island. Its homes are stretched along the shore, facing the traditional fishing grounds on which the economy has been based. Given the lack of industry or employment outside of the fishery, and because of the northern cod moratorium (ongoing since 1992), it is a community awaiting revival. Ellis and Wince's version of the Newfoundland country ballad has developed through their intimate relation with this milieu, the present recession, and the consequent depopulation of the region.

Ellis (b. 1939) and Wince (b. 1945) both began playing the guitar and composing songs while in their youth. As adults, however, they each followed separate paths toward local stardom. Ellis worked primarily as a heavy equipment operator, traveling regularly throughout Newfoundland. While driving alone during the day, he would often compose songs in his mind and then perform them at night for his fellow workers. When asked about this compositional process, Ellis explained, "It is just stories, funny things that happened. Sometimes you get it from the old fella next door, they doing something foolish out around the bay. It's not until the later years that we started picking up on the news, on the moratorium and such. There was always a lot of imagination. When I was young, I could take a story, pick up a guitar, and sing it. I could write the song while I sang it" (Ellis Coles, 1998). Ellis's formal public debut as a songwriter came in 1972, when popular Newfoundland singer Dick Nolan recorded "Aunt Martha's Sheep," a song cowritten with Ellis.

Wince notes that he and Ellis both began writing songs as a pastime when they were teenagers. But, "after a year or two [we] threw them in the garbage." Eventually, however, they began to record their songs: "[O]ne day we bought a little 4-track. I had a few songs. Ellis had a few songs down there. After about a year we went down and did a bunch of songs on the four track, just for our own use. Then one day we thought maybe some of the folks, our friends in Carmanville might like to hear this stuff. So we put a couple out in the store. It started to catch on and everybody was coming in . . . asking for more" (Wince Coles, 1998).

The brothers have continued to use the technique of recording each track separately. Wince records the first track(s) in his home studio in Topsail and then brings his equipment out to Carmanville so that Ellis can add his own track(s) at leisure. They both contribute to lyrics and melody, but Wince usually composes and sings the more serious tunes while Ellis writes and performs the humorous ones. When asked to describe their differences in style, Wince stated, "A lot of it is what I call Newfoundland country ballad. They all tell a story. Ellis is a very funny guy. He really is. So he writes quite a bit of comedy, but he's also good at more tear jerk. People like one or the other. They won't be fussy about in between. You gotta cry or they gotta laugh. We try to do one or the other. So I usually pick up some of the more sadder type things. Ellis goes with the funny. In between we pop in a scattered country one because a lot of Newfoundlanders in [End Page 362] my generation . . . grew up on the country music" (Wince Coles, 1998).

All of their recordings have guitar and bass, but sometimes there is an additional singer, such as Nancy Squires on "A Mother's Prayer...


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