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Newfoundland and Labrador musician Jim Payne released ‘Empty Nets’ 25 years ago. The song’s reflection on the then current state of the province’s fishery, which was followed by the moratorium, is still requested to this day.
Newfoundland and Labrador musician Jim Payne released ‘Empty Nets’ 25 years ago. The song’s reflection on the then current state of the province’s fishery, which was followed by the moratorium, is still requested to this day.

PROVINCIAL — As the fate of rural Newfoundland and Labrador was being decided prior to 1992’s cod moratorium announcement, musician Jim Payne was getting a first hand glimpse of the devastation that was about to fall upon the province. 

Empty nets

In 1990, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador (MUN) and the Coalition for Fisheries Survival had embarked on a province-wide tour called Empty Nets: Finding Solutions to the Crisis in the Industry.

With fish sizes and catches diminishing, the aim was to talk to residents in fishing communities throughout the province about what was happening in the industry. These sessions are available for viewing on YouTube page NFLD Archive.

Leading up to the tour, Payne had been invited to attend the province-wide sessions as a performer, doing a half-hour show before discussions got underway and was asked to write a song about the then current state of the fishery.
Even then, “The writing was on the wall, people could see it coming,” recalled Payne. 

Payne had been hired to preform on the inaugural run of the MV Joseph and Clara Smallwood, when he penned ‘Empty Nets’.


Empty Nets: The Cod Moratorium 25 years later
 

“I wrote the song, basically, on the deck of the Joseph and Clara one afternoon going along the south coast. I got off the ferry in Port aux Basques and joined the group, I think that’s where the first forum was held,” said Payne. “That was the impetus for the song, in the sense of having it ready for a certain point.”

The Norte Dame Bay native grew up close to the fishery, and in hearing what the people of the province were saying, Payne tapped into the raw emotion of the frustration in scraping by and the need for answers. Which is clearly evident in the song’s second verse.

“You can blame it on the foreigners, blame it on feds,
You can cast all the blame on each other instead;
But when all's said and done, it's still something I dread,
To have Newfoundland give up the fishery.
What of our communities, will they just die?
Pack up your duds, give the mainland a try?
But I'm staying here till someone tells me why,
I should put up with this misery.”

 

In reflection, he said, it turned out to be a fitting theme for the sessions, which are still vivid in his memory.

“There was some pretty hot and heavy discussions, but for me personally, it was a great experience just to get the perspectives of all the people who spoke,” he said. “There were a lot of highly personal stories of how people were being affected by the downturn of the fishery and a great deal of fear expressed about what the future held for them.”

“For a lot of Newfoundlanders who aren’t directly involved with the fishery, you get a lot of your information through the news, but when you’re in a situation where you’re listening to the personal stories of those affected by it, it had a much more immediate impact,” he continued. “So for me it was an education and a very moving experience.

“You come to realize how much bigger this issue was than what you got in a clip on the news.”

The song would be released in 1992, the same year the devastating blow that ended the employment of approximately 28,000 people was announced.

As a result, the song has stood the test of 25 years, with Payne getting requests for it to this day.

“When you put a song out there you don’t really know what kind of an impact that it’s going to have, but that was one of the songs, certainly at the time it had a big impact, it was kind of an anthemic song and people were really able to relate to it,” said Payne, who also noted that it became a song of choice when he played shows in the Atlantic Provinces, and in later in the U.K.

 

Musical influence

Empty Nets, along with Wayne Bartlett’s ‘She’s Gone B’ys She’s Gone’, are listed with MUN Libraries Cod Moratorium songs released in 1992. The list also contains Stuffed Squids ‘Package Song’ and ‘Moratorium Blues’ attributed to 1992, but the release date has a question mark next to it.

The songs were reflective of the time, but in the years to follow musicians drew upon the moratorium for inspiration. Acts such as “Great Big Sea”, “The Irish Descendants” and numerous others would release moratorium themed songs.

“It’s not unlike other events, we are a people who write and sing songs, folk music has been with us since the early settlers came here, it’s a common way for people to be able to express themselves.

“Newfoundlander’s and Labradorians are very fortunate that it’s such a part of the social fabric that we are able to express ourselves through music,” said Payne.

“But there is no question that the moratorium spawned a large number of songs from a variety of perspectives… Even to the point of where a number of people became musicians, look at ‘Folk of the Sea’, they had a really big impact and went a long way towards bringing the message of how it has affected people to a large (audience).”

The influence of the moratorium is something that can still be found in Newfoundland and Labrador artists to this day.

Payne thinks the long-term affect of the repercussions play a factor in that longevity.

“We’re still feeling it in society, so it stands to reason that it would still show up in cultural expression, other than music a lot of books have been written about this as well,” he said. 

“Because of the way society has changed, the number of people who basically packed up and moved to Alberta really took off after the fishery — some communities practically emptied out of working age people.

“I think that something that had such a tremendous impact on the society at the time, the affects of that can’t help but be felt forever, really, in a sense."

Get up in the morning at a quarter to four,
Try not to make much noise as you go through the door;
Jump in the boat, you can hear the gulls roar,
At the start of a brand new day.
Fire up the engine, you're ready to go,
Head out the harbour, you don't want to be slow;
What's out there today? Well, you never know,
Just hope that it turns out okay.

But it's empty nets, 'cause that's what he gets,
When you're out on the water no time for regrets;
Those empty nets that's what he gets,
How's a poor fisherman to pay off his debts,
When he goes out each morning to haul empty nets?

You can blame it on the foreigners, blame it on feds,
You can cast all the blame on each other instead;
But when all's said and done, it's still something I dread,
To have Newfoundland give up the fishery.
What of our communities, will they just die?
Pack up your duds, give the mainland a try?
But I'm staying here till someone tells me why,
I should put up with this misery.

Of those empty nets, 'cause that's what he gets,
When you're out on the water no time for regrets;
Those empty nets that's what he gets,
How's a poor fisherman to pay off his debts,
When he goes out each morning to haul empty nets?

Here's to the plant worker, toils on shore,
And waits for the fishermen to catch a few more;
And then pack it up for the grocery store,
Till it ends up on somebody's table.
How can they feed multitudes with fishes so small?
How can they feed families with no fish at all?
Get down on your knees for a miracle call,
But we'll stick to it for as long as we're able.

Those empty nets, 'cause that's what he gets,
When you're out on the water no time for regrets;
Those empty nets that's what he gets,
How's a poor fisherman to pay off his debts,
When he goes out each morning to haul empty nets?

Here's luck to the fisherman, he'll need it I know,
As he bobs on the ocean, God bless his poor soul;
May good fortune follow wherever he goes,
To keep him from debt load and danger.
And wherever you live, no matter which bay,
May bankers and loan boards not stand in your way;
May you bring home a boatload each single day,
And to poverty ever be a stranger.

No more empty nets, 'cause that's what he gets,
When you're out on the water no time for regrets;
Those empty nets that's what he gets,
How's a poor fisherman to pay off his debts,
When he goes out each morning to haul empty nets?

Those empty nets, 'cause that's what he gets,
When you're out on the water no time for regrets;
Those empty nets that's what he gets,
How's a poor fisherman to pay off his debts,
When he goes out each morning to haul empty nets?

Source: Gest Songs of Newfoundland and Labrador

 

Adam.randell@ganderbeacon.ca

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