To understand the contributions made by Kenneth Peacock, we have to first appreciate the institutional context in which he did so much of his work. His fieldwork in Newfoundland would not have been possible were it not for the earlier interests and initiatives of Marius Barbeau. When he met Peacock, Barbeau was the head of the Folklore and Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Canada. Barbeau formally retired from the Museum in 1949, before Peacock began his fieldwork, however Barbeau continued his work and relationship with both Peacock and the Museum throughout his official retirement until his death in 1969 (1).

Before he worked at the Museum, however, Barbeau had already made a name for himself in the collection of French-Canadian, and Indigenous songs, and for his numerous contributions to the museum’s professionalization and visibility. In fact, shortly after Barbeau began working for the Museum in 1911, he became distinguished for his efforts to collect and preserve folk music as well as to reach a wide public audience with his recordings and research. For the latter, Barbeau drew heavily on personal and professional relationships with figures such as Emily Carr, Medard Bourgault, the artists of the Group of Seven, J. Murray Gibbon, and Ernest Macmillan. Starting in the 1920s, Barbeau collaborated with these musicians and artists to host public folk music concerts, art exhibitions, and historical reconstructions (2). He also did countless public lectures showcasing the work of himself and other museum staff to diverse and large audiences.

Public Lecture to Ottawa Schoolchildren, 1939                     Source: CMH/MHC, “lantern slide collection,” photo: W.S. Hutton, Ottawa, 2 October 1939, image no. 85903 LS. Image accessed at

Barbeau’s folk culture work used an approach referred to as salvage ethnography. This approach held that the “essence” of historically “old” or even “vanishing” cultures could be and needed to be saved (3). To do so, however, the ethnographer had to explore the margins of contemporary, modern life. For Barbeau, this meant the older generations of Indigenous peoples, and the descendants of early European settlers who lived in rural, isolated communities (4). The central logic was that the most rural communities were still largely untouched by technology, modernity, and historical change, and would thus be the best spaces for locating the sources and essence of “Canadian” identity.

In a 1961 article, Barbeau explained the theories that motivated his styles of researching folk cultures and traditions: “Folk songs form part of the Canadian cultural heritage. They have come down to us in two separate strands, which have never merged: the first, native or Indian, unknown to the white people except to a few ethnologist; the second, French and English, not to mention other elements introduced from Continental Europe by recent emigrants.” (5) Barbeau attributed the oldest European songs in Canada to the French, and argued that, “[t]hey have remained uncontaminated since, and are better conserved orally than with the original French provinces. This poetic legacy until recently was embodied in the people themselves, who adapted to their new-world surroundings, even adding fresh compositions in the traditional style to their vast hoard from abroad.” (6) This bio-cultural understanding of the oral culture of rural settlements motivated Barbeau’s insistence on fieldwork as fundamental for both his work and for that of the museum.

As Andrew Nurse argues, the more deeply Barbeau immersed himself in the discipline of anthropology in the early twentieth century, the more he came to see fieldwork as the basis of authority for its practices of cultural selection (7). The goal of fieldwork for Barbeau was not to establish a representative record of a traditional culture, as his colleagues had sought to do, but rather to collect as comprehensive a cultural archive as possible. The difference became important as Barbeau grew more influential within the Museum.

By the 1940s, Barbeau’s focus on salvaging traditional cultures from extinction featured a sense of urgency and importance in his work: “Indian songs and dances once were countless, as they were at the core of the rich ceremonial life of every tribe on the North American continent. But they have of late passed into oblivion, in a modern world wholly foreign to them. The present generation has failed to learn and practice them, and the elders are passing out of existence. It is fortunate that a few musicologists should have collected a substantial number, both in the United States and Canada.” (8) For Barbeau, collecting a sample of music that was representative of the culture was not enough; everything that could be recorded must be, in order to document and preserve it before the culture disappeared into oblivion.

Barbeau and the fieldwork he commissioned were fundamental to the wide-ranging folklore collection projects he initiated. Indeed, folklore research was not actually a part of the original focus of the Anthropology division of the Museum (9). While the Museum was a national institution at this point, the Canadian Government did not have an official policy governing national museums until 1967 (10). The collection policy of the museum was therefore determined by the heads of the different departments, including Barbeau himself. He advocated for the inclusion of folklore during the interwar years, and saw it emerge as the principal focus of the Museum after the Second World War (11).

Barbeau’s secure employment at the National Museum included financial stability in research funding that was not enjoyed by his predecessors nor by his contemporaries working outside the Museum. In one sense, this freed Barbeau’s work from the pressure of collecting material that was marketable. As Nurse highlights, early twentieth-century amateur folklore research was marked by the need or desire to turn the folklore that was collected into a product that could be sold back to the public (12). Barbeau did not have to do this to sustain himself or his research. Instead, Barbeau could “salvage” Canadian folk culture widely before it vanished under the threat of industrial, urban modernity, something reflected in the museum collection and in the countless public talks he gave to large, rapt audiences (see Figure 3).

Even with the support of the Museum, Barbeau’s work was still caught up in a wider politics of folk culture when it came to “ownership,” Since so many folk culture researchers in the first half of the twentieth century needed to generate profits from their collecting work, asserting proprietary control was paramount. But what was owned? Was it the content of the culture? Was it the form? Was it both? These questions were even more complicated by the very nature of folk music. While objects which were collected were owned by the institution that purchased them, ownership over oral transmission was much more difficult to establish: “[a]t least one of Barbeau’s informants did assert a proprietary right to the songs he knew, but generally, there were few barriers to one song being used or sung by another person. Moreover, the songs themselves had no commercial value. Their value lay in their use: in the singing of them.” (13)

The songs collected by Barbeau and his fellow folklorists at the Museum, including Kenneth Peacock, did not belong to them as individuals. Because they were government employees, the recordings of these songs became the property of the state and available for the public to access and consume (14). While this will be discussed in more detail later, the notion of “public” was complicated in the case of Kenneth Peacock’s fieldwork: the songs which he collected in the early 1950s now “belonged” to the Government of Canada despite the fact that, until 1949, Newfoundland was not even a province of Canada.

While Peacock was knowledgeable about traditional music and culture in his own right, his work in Newfoundland was made possible by a social network that eventually connected him to Marius Barbeau. While still attending  school at the University of Toronto’s music program, Peacock became acquainted with Margaret Sargent. The two shared an interest in what was considered at the time to be unconventional music; essentially anything which was not English and of a classical tradition (15). A 1940s music degree in Canada taught students about “folk music” primarily as a basis to learn composition, and not as something to be further studied. Instead, formal music education focused on European and British classical traditions. Both Peacock and Sargent fell outside of this disciplinary norm, with Peacock writing his final research paper on the influence of West African music on Black music in the United States, titled ‘Negro Folk Music.’ (16)

While this seemed to be an unusual choice for someone who intended to make a career as a composer, Peacock’s student research reflected his later interests in folk music, as well as his approach to his later fieldwork. As a student, he demonstrated an interest in exploring how early African music had changed over the course of its transmission in America. Essential to this research was two concepts: first, the oral transmission of the music; second, the longevity of it and its origins in history. Peacock relied on a scholarly model of ethnomusicology which found that the value of a folk song came primarily from its age and the researcher’s ability to trace the song over time to its historical roots, and then to be able to map the transmission of that song through an oral culture. His biographer argues that this early academic work was a watershed in Peacock’s intellectual formation because it marked his interest in folk music as beginning in 1943, well before his fieldwork in Newfoundland (17). This early work is also significant, however, because it demonstrates the approach to folk music that Peacock adhered to when he began his own recording work.

These interests and ways of working accompanied Peacock when he found himself, through circumstance, meeting Marius Barbeau in August of 1949. Here the key figure was his university friend and scholarly ally, Margaret Sargent. While in university with Peacock, Sargent became interested in the music of Indigenous peoples in Canada. To research this, she wrote to Marius Barbeau at the National Museum of Canada. In her studies, Sargent was using material Barbeau had collected, and when she had completed her degree, she sent him a copy of her finished essay. Her letter arrived on Barbeau’s desk at an opportune moment. Much of Barbeau’s collection of recordings still remained untranscribed owing largely to the sheer volume which he had collected, and he wanted to get this work done. After reading Sargent’s letter, he replied back to her with a job offer at the museum doing this work.

Shortly after starting work at the museum, Sargent ran into Kenneth Peacock on Metcalfe Street in downtown Ottawa, and told him about her job transcribing Barbeau’s wax cylinder recordings. She invited him to the Museum to listen to the Huron recordings that she was working on at the time, and Peacock immediately took her up on the offer. Fascinated by the music he heard, Peacock asked Barbeau for permission to use the recordings as a basis for some new compositions he was working on. This was no passing interest. Peacock began to make regular trips to the Museum to listen to the recordings and use them as inspiration in his own compositional work. While he worked, Sargent kept Barbeau informed of his progress, and Barbeau was excited by Peacock’s work, and encouraged him to continue using the museum’s holdings (18).

Sargent’s combined skills in music composition, in addition to her knowledge of traditional music, provided her with a unique and useful skill set for ethnomusicology. She also understood well Barbeau’s desire to create as fulsome a national cultural archive of folkmusic as possible. So when she found a copy of Greenleaf and Mandfield’s Ballads and Seasongs of Newfoundland (1933) while working in the museum’s library, she recognized that there was both a need and opportunity for research. Sargent proposed to Barbeau that she go to Newfoundland to conduct fieldwork there, in light of the former British colony’s recent entry into Confederation as Canada’s newest province. The two knew that no such material on Newfoundland existed in the Museum, and Barbeau agreed with Sargent’s proposal, leaving her responsible for coordinating the details of the trip. Sargent spent just over eight weeks in Newfoundland conducting her research in 1950 (19).

Despite intending to return to Newfoundland for more fieldwork, and enjoying her time on the island immensely, Sargent returned to Ottawa and soon became engaged; this event led her, as it did so many other middle-class women in this era, to resign from the Museum. Sargent encouraged Barbeau to hire Peacock as her replacement. Up to this point, Peacock had returned to the Museum many times to use Barbeau’s recordings, and had written several piano pieces inspired by what he heard. A growing relationship between Barbeau and Peacock emerged, and Barbeau was particularly encouraging of Peacock’s work because it did what he had always hoped for his recordings: re-present them in a formal and accessible way to Canadians. Barbeau asked Peacock if he would be interested in carrying on Sargent’s work in Newfoundland in the spring of 1951, and Peacock agreed, seeing the job as a summer employment opportunity which would bring him a bit of money in between composition and performance work. At the end of June of that year, Peacock left for Newfoundland to begin the first of what would be many trips to the island (20).

In the next post, we’ll dive a little deeper into what exactly Peacock’s fieldwork entailed, and the nature of his work in Newfoundland.


  1. Christy Vodden and Ian Dyck, A World Inside: A 150-History of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, (Gatineau: Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, 2006), 39.
  2. Andrew Nurse, “Tradition and Modernity: The Cultural Work of Marius Barbeau,” (PhD Thesis: Queen’s University, 1997): 15-16.
  3. Jacob W. Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 72 (1970): 1289-1299. The theory of salvage ethnography itself originates with Franz Boas, however it was first named ‘Salvage Ethnography’ by Gruber. Work by Boas which discusses his salvage ethnographic approach includes: Franz Boas, Anthropology and Modern Life (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1928).
  4. Nurse, “Cultural Work of Marius Barbeau,” 25.  Two examples of literature based in salvage ethnography published by Barbeau include: Marius Barbeau, “Canadian Folk Songs,” Journal of the International Folk Music Council 13 (1961): 28-31; Marius Barbeau, “How Folk-Songs Travelled,” Music & Letters 15 (1934): 306-323.
  5. Marius Barbeau, “Canadian Folk Songs,” Journal of the International Folk Music Council 13 (1961): 28.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Nurse, “Cultural Work of Marius Barbeau,” 150.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Barbeau, “Canadian Folk Songs,” 28.
  10. Nurse, “Cultural Work of Marius Barbeau,” 292.
  11. David W. Bartlett, “Museum Policy,” The Canadian Encylopedia, published July 2, 2006, last edited August 4, 2015. Accessed online at
  12. Nurse, “Cultural Work of Marius Barbeau,” 292.
  13. Ibid., 321.
  14. Ibid., 337.
  15. Ibid., 337.
  16. Guigné, Folksongs and Folk Revival, 69. Unless otherwise cited, the biographical information on Peacock relies heavily on Guigné’s work, being the only major publication on him to date. As such, citations will be placed, where possible, at the very end of the paragraph.
  17. Kenneth Peacock, “Negro Folk Music,” Honours Thesis: University of Toronto, 1943.
  18. Guigné, Folksongs and Folk Revival, 70.
  19. Ibid., 60-62.
  20. Ibid., 78.
  21. Ibid., 63.
  22. Ibid., 91, 94.

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