Helen Creighton was a prominent Canadian folklorist who was regarded as among the most significant collectors in North America. She developed an early interest in folklore and the supernatural.
Over the course of Helen Creighton’s career, she collected 4000 songs and ballads. She authored thirteen books of traditional songs, ballads and stories, of which her ‘Bluenose Ghosts’ is the most widely known. She wrote an autobiography and numerous articles. She received many awards, including Distinguished Folklorist of 1981, six honorary doctorates, Fellow of the American Folklore Society, a Canadian Music Council Medal, Honorary Life President of the Canadian Authors’ Association, Honourary President of the Canadian Society for Musical Traditions and The Order of Canada.
Helen Creighton originally started a career in writing but was introduced to folk songs when Henry Munroe, Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia, showed her a copy of W. Roy MacKenzie’s book, ‘Ballads and Sea Songs of Nova Scotia’. In 1928, she began to travel around Nova Scotia collecting songs, tales and customs of Gaelic, English, German, Mi’kmaq, African and Acadian origin. Although she used a variety of recording devices, from wax cylinders, acetate disc and tape recorders, she is most often associated with using a melodeon to help her pick out melodies from the tradition bearers. During her early collecting years in the 1930s on Devil’s Island at the mouth of Halifax Harbour, she frequently transported the melodeon in a wheel barrow. That image remains an icon in folk song collecting to this day. In 1942, she received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to attend the summer session of the Indiana University Institute of Folklore. She had rudimentary musical training and some basic instruction in the field of folklore but, given the newness of the subject when she entered the field, she is often considered a pioneer in developing her own successful methodology. Modern critics have mentioned her lack of bawdy or politically charged songs but, given the times in which she collected, such material was rarely offered by the singers nor would have been appropriate for a single woman to collect.s.
One of Creighton’s many contributions was the discovery of the traditional Nova Scotia Song, widely called Farewell to Nova Scotia, which has become a sort of provincial anthem. In March 1980 ‘The Collector’, a musical tribute to her life’s work, written and directed by John Brown, was presented by Mount Saint Vincent University. In 1990, with start-up funds from her native city of Dartmouth, The Helen Creighton Folklore Festival Society was formed. After a series of annual festivals the Society changed direction and merged with The Dr. Helen Creighton Foundation (formed with initial funds from the Province of Nova Scotia to supply small grants to further folklore research) and The Helen Creighton Folklore Society was formed. Dr. Creighton’s collection is housed at the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management, Halifax. Creighton spent most of her life in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where her family home, Evergreen, is part of the Dartmouth Heritage Museum.