by George J. Dance

Johnny burke (1851-1930)

Johnny Burke (1851-1930), from Newfoundland Quarterly 3:2 (1903). Courtesy Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage.

Johnny Burke (1851 - Aug. 9, 1930) was a songwriter, printer, and poet from Newfoundland. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography calls him the "most famous of Newfoundland's song makers."[1]


Burke was born in St. John's, the son of Sarah Theresa {Rutledge) and Captain John Burke.[1]

He was likely educated at St. Bonaventure's College in the city.[1]

In 1865 his father, a sealing captain, and his older brother William were drowned when their ship the Nautilus went down in a storm in the Atlantic Ocean.[2] Johnny had to leave school and work in the grocery store his mother opened in their home to support the family.[1]

After their mother died, he and his brother, Alexander, and sister, Annie – none of whom married – continued to live together at their home on Prescott St., the house where Burke would spend his entire life.[2]

In the 1880's, Burke began publishing "slips": broadside ballads he would write on newsworthy events and local stories, print, and sell both from his home and via boys he hired to hawk them (like newspapers) on the streets[1] for 2 to 5 cents a copy.[2]

Burke's songs, about contemporary events and personalities, revealed his sharp eye for detail and deft touch with wit and satire.[3] Burke would write original words but no musical accompaniment; his songs were meant to be sung to well-known music-hall and stage-Irish melodies of the day. (His slips, however, often do not the songs they were "sung to the tune of.")[2]

The public loved his work; as Canadian Poetry puts it, they "ate it up." The Burkes' Prescott Street home became a hub of St. John's popular culture, and Johnny Burke became known as the "Bard of Prescott Street."[2]

In 1894 he took the next step and produced his debut collection, the St. John's Advertiser and Fishermen's Guide: A racy little song and joke book.[2] He would produce at least a dozen such books, 50-90 page collections of his broadsides. He would write and include poems advertising the city merchants who sponsored his books (and sometimes verses cursing those businessmen who refused).[1]

Burke was part of a company of popular St. John's balladeers – that included James Murphy, T.M. Lannigan, Gerald S. Doyle, Michael Power, Johnny Quigley, and Johnny Quill – and song compilers (including Sir Charles Hutton, Burke's cousin, and George T. Oliver). Burke and Murphy collaborated on books at least twice, on the Duke of York Songster and Christmas Advertiser (1901) and The Burke and Murphy Songster (1904).[2]

Burke also mounted public concerts, skits, and parody musical comedies. The last 2 decades of the 19th century were the era when Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedy was taking North America by storm, and Burke, like many others, was shrewd enough to ride that trend.

His earliest show, The Battle Of Foxtrap, opened at the Total Abstinence Hall in St. John's in 1881, and was an immediate sensation.[3] He followed it up with many more; at his peak (1890-1910), at least 1 of his shows was expected every season. Each was a collection of his songs, new and old, often with a longer centerpiece. He even parodied his cousin, Charles Hutton: when Hutton produced The Geisha: A story of a tea house (an 1896 imitation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado by Owen Hall, Harry Greenbank, and Sidney Jones), in St. John's in 1896, Burke responded by writing and producing The Topsail Geisha: A story of the wash house.[1]

His stage shows, popular with all classes, gave rise to the local saying, "As funny as a Burke play."[1]

In the 1920's, Burke also operated a movie theater.[2] However, the coming of moving pictures, the gramophone, and the radio would spell the end of his career; with recorded entertainment, Burke's skills as an entertainer were no longer as much in demand. In his last decade his shows were no longer successful, and his slips were no longer hawked. He died in poverty in 1930.[1]


Canadian Poetry points out that Burke was "by no means a bard in the Shakespearean sense,"[2]. He can though be appreciated as the continuer of a different Renaissance poetic tradition (1 that Shakespeare acknowledged in his comedies), that of John Taylor, the Water Poet.


His songs have been recorded by Newfoundland singers such as Ron Hynes ("Old Brown's Daughter") and Great Big Sea ("Excursion around the Bay").[1]

In 1983 a music award was inaugurated in Burke’s name by Esso Petroleum Canada and the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council.[1]


  • St. John's Advertiser and Fishermen's Guide: A racy little song and joke book. St. John's, NL: 1894.
  • The Ballads of Johnny Burke: A short anthology. (edited by  Paul Mercer). St. John's, NL: Newfoundland Historical Society, 1974.
  • John White's Collection of the Songs of Johnny Burke (edited by William J. Kirwin). St. John's, NL: Harry Cuff, 1982.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[4]


The Celtic Connection - The Kelligrew's Soiree

The Celtic Connection - The Kelligrew's Soiree.wmv

Great Big Sea Excursion Around the Bay

Great Big Sea Excursion Around the Bay

Great Big Sea - Old Brown's Daughter

Great Big Sea - Old Brown's Daughter

Popular songs by Burke include:[5]

  • Cod Liver Oil
  • Murphy Broke The Pledge
  • Who Shipped The Moonshine To St. John's
  • The Spring Maurice Crotty Fought The Old Dog-hood
  • The Kelligrews Soiree
  • The Trinity Cake
  • Annie Doesn't Live Here Anymore
  • Never Been There Before
  • Betsy Brennan's Blue Hen
  • Excursion Around The Bay
  • Little Boneen
  • Old Brown's Daughter
  • The Flemings Of Torbay
  • The Hat My Father Wore
  • The Landfall Of Cabot
  • The Sealers Gained The Strike
  • The Valley Of Kilbride

See also Edit



Burke's papers are in the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, in the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archive and in St. John's public libraries.[2]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Philip Hiscock "Burke, John," Dictionary of Canadian Biography XV, 1921-1930, University of Toronto / Université Laval, 2000. Web, Nov. 15, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 St. Pierre.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Johnny Burke (1851-1930), Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. Web, Mar. 31, 2017.
  4. "Notes on Life and Works," Burke, Johnny (1851-1930), Representative Poetry Online, University of Toronto,, Web, Nov. 15, 2011.
  5. "Johnny Burke," Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation. Web, Nov. 15, 2011.

External linksEdit

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