Pages Navigation Menu

Joey Smallwood

by Aislin

To this day, mention of his name can evoke both great admiration and great anger – sometimes from the same person!


JOEY SMALLWOOD (words and music Mike Ford 2007)


When depression hit Newfoundland - Knocked it flat upon its back

Folks lived on 6 cents a day – Came a’walkin’ down the track

A little man from Gambo - Walked across all Newfoundland

Sayin’ Hello Friend - I’m Joey Smallwood


He called himself The Barrelman - Had Newspapers, Radio Shows

And from high up on the mast - He spoke at length like one who knows

He sought what was best for workers - Not just the 20 Millionaires

He never slept - Joey Smallwood


He studied what would happen if they joined with Canada

Came back and told the people of the island what he saw

Flew a float-plane to each harbour with a microphone in hand

He had eyes on the back of his head - Joey Smallwood


It’s a good thing they invented radio

So he’d have something to talk on

A good thing they invented water

So he’d have something to walk on


Well folks gathered in their kitchens - ‘Round the wireless, no-one stirred

And they followed the debating - Every single word

And some called him a sell-out - And every name in the book

He’d say it’s my way or the highway - Joey Smallwood


And so to conclude and finish - Premier Joey made the calls

For Pulp and Paper, Oil Refineries and of course big Churchill Falls

And when deals fell through he’d just laugh and look for other bets

And say “ I rule over an empire on which the concrete never sets”

Joey Smallwood


It’s a good thing they invented radio

So he’d have something to talk on

A good thing they invented water

So he’d have something to walk on


Historical Context

Smallwood grew up in St. John's as part of a middle-class family. Although he had no formal education after finishing high school, he read very widely and was self-educated. During the 1920s and 1930s he worked as a newspaper journalist and a radio broadcaster and was the author of several books. His experience going out on nearly fatal seal-hunt voyages, and then writing about it to a fascinated public, inspired him to create the newspaper character “The Barrelman”, named for the sailor who would climb to the top of the ship’s mast (crow’s nest) and keep distant lookout. The inference of course was that that was what Joey was doing for his society, seeing the future coming and sharing the info. He was also involved in the labour movement, helping to organize unions – famously walking across the entire province to sign up isolated railroad workers. Before being elected a member of the National Convention, he operated a pig farm on the air base at Gander.

Smallwood was intensely nationalistic, and he devoted most of his writing to giving Newfoundlanders the self-confidence he felt they would need if they were to overcome the obstacles in their lives. For a while he had a famous radio show that celebrated the lore and individuals of the colony. Smallwood was then politically left of centre. He had become familiar with socialist writings from friends in the Newfoundland labour movement and during the brief periods that he lived in England and New York. He hoped to create a better life for working-class Newfoundlanders.

He is most known outside Newfoundland as the person who ‘brought Canada its 10th province. Fighting for confederation offered him a good chance at a political career, and Smallwood was ambitious. He also hoped that confederation would provide a social safety net that would ease the worst of Newfoundland's poverty and provide the support necessary for industrialization. He stopped at nothing in his quest to sell the idea to a majority of Newfoundlanders – flying from one tiny port town to another, landing in each harbour, standing on the plane’s wings and addressing the whole settlement with a microphone and P.A. system. He also used the media of radio to great effect, and insisted upon the principle that every citizen should be able to hear every word of the Confederation Debates if they were to make a reasoned decision.

After confederation, Smallwood served as premier of the new province from 1949 to 1972. He used the government to build roads and schools to create a more employable workforce, and encouraged new industries.

Smallwood, during his career as Premier, would be accused of being autocratic and self-aggrandizing. He relied heavily on the expertise of German industry in his repeated attempts to industrialize Newfoundland in the post-Confederation period. Although he saw himself as a socialist, Smallwood was willing to side with corporations in his drive to industrialize the province. Not only did he grant foreign companies concessions to encourage development, but he intervened in a labour dispute in 1959. The International Woodworkers of America had struck to get higher wages and better working conditions in the logging camps. In a controversial move, Smallwood decertified and effectively made illegal the union, replacing it with a government sponsored union.

He served as premier until defeated at the polls in 1972. His ways grew increasingly hard to take for many of his supporters. To this day, mention of his name can evoke both great admiration and great anger – sometimes from the same person!


Composer Notes

I grew up in Ontario with nary a friend from The Rock (Newfoundland), so beyond being aware that we still at the time had a living Father of Confederation among us, I knew nothing else of Joey Smallwood. It wasn’t till I read the priceless “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (Wayne Johnston, Vintage Canada 1999) that I was captivated by the man and the myth. Although the book is full of invented people and conversations, it hews quite close to the timeline and milestones of both Smallwood and Newfoundland, as I found when I followed that reading with Smallwood: the Unlikely Revolutionary (Richard Gwyn, McClelland & Stewart 1999). I was stunned to find that many of the wild events and chapters of Smallwood’s life that I thought were unbelievable creations of the novelist Johnston were in fact, fact, from Joey’s incredible life. I challenge anyone to find a life history more out of the ordinary than Smallwood’s – from his death-defying seal hunt reporting to his radical penniless Manhattan days hanging with the likes of Marcus Garvey to his union-building walks across the colony to his scheme after scheme after scheme (including practically single-handedly dragging Newfoundland into Confederation…and that only takes us to 1949! (He passed away in ’91).

In Smallwood’s life story, we also see the classic populist arc, from young idealist champion of the downtrodden to stumbling megalomaniac (Huey Long, Deifenbaker, etc). Opinion in Newfoundland is very divided about Smallwood – often along pro- and anti- Confederation lines, sometimes grateful for the dire poverty he helped erase, sometimes bitter for the less than democratic manner he adopted. I wanted the song to follow that arc and to reflect the ambiguous feelings he arouses. Once again, I’m mostly just having fun, and attempting to create an invitation so that listeners are inspired to further study the man and the province.

Smallwood as well is one of the strongest example of a not uncommon phenomenon in Canada – that of the journalist turned politician (Rene Levesque, Ralph Klein, Claude Ryan, etc).


I’ve always loved the early nineteen sixties ‘gunslinger’ style ballads, like Lorne Greene’s “Ringo” or Jimmie Dean’s “Big Bad John”. I wanted to recapture the spirit of this kind of ‘story song’ for my Joey Smallwood piece. This style of song is almost always a hero legend of some kind, and I thought that would be appropriate for Joey, both in a straightforward honest sense and as a parody, sending up his own perhaps inflated self-importance, and the nature of hero worship itself.

Lyrically, the song follows the same story-building pattern of the gun-slinger ballads mentioned above. The reference to ‘The Barrelman” is the moniker Smallwood assumed for a nightly 15 minute radio program he had on Newfoundland radio from 1937 to 1944, promoting pride in the colony’s history and culture. The Barrelman’s avowed raison d’être was to “make Newfoundland better known to Newfoundlanders”. The name is taken from the job title of a ship’s lookout – a sailor who would sit in a barrel high up on the mast, letting the crew know what lay far ahead.



Activities & Lesson Ideas


1.What is meant by the song’s bridge lyrics:

“It’s a good thing they invented water so he’d have something to walk on”?

Do you think the songwriter being complimentary or sarcastic? What else in the song supports your opinion?


2.It is possible that no other individual is as associated with their province as is Joey Smallwood with Newfoundland and Labrador.

a.Why is this association so strong?

b.Can you think of any historical or present-day Canadian personalities who can be seen as being emblematic of their province, territory, city or region?

c.Do you think this is a useful way to look at places or times (through ‘emblematic’ individuals), or is it too generalizing.

d.Joey Smallwood utilized the mass communications of his time to help build his considerable influence, most notable newspaper and radio. Do today’s more modern media options (including multi-channel TV, twitter, etc) make it more easy or more difficult for one person to have such a strong influence on society?



Joey Smallwood is often referred to as a ‘Father of Confederation’ for his immense influence on Newfoundland’s entry into Canada. Throughout Canada’s history, suggestions have been made for the creation of other unheard-of provinces (e.g. Réal Caouette’s vision of a province made from Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec; proposals for an amalgamation of Maritime provinces; calls for Toronto province-hood).

As a group or individually, present an area as an imagined New Province. You may choose a region within a province (or across existing boundaries), a territory, metropolitan area, or even somewhere outside of Canada.

In your presentation, show:

◦why you feel that area deserves full inclusion into Confederation

◦how the new province-hood would impact upon its residents

◦how it would impact upon the rest of Canada

◦what would be its capital city

◦what would its main industries or resources be

◦what mega-projects it might propose

◦what would be its Flag; provincial plant or animal; motto

◦what specifically unique laws might it adopt


Your new province presentation could take the form of:

◦a tourism brochure

◦a television, radio or youtubed speech

◦an anthem





References / Suggested Readings

Smallwood, Joseph R. I Chose Canada: The Memoires of The Honourable Joseph R. Smallwood – MacMillan of Canada, 1973


Film: A Little Fellow From Gambo (Julian Biggs – NFB)