First transcribed by folklorist Kenneth Peacock in St. John’s in 1951, two years after Newfoundland entered Confederation, I’s the B’y was likely originally a favourite at local kitchen parties, being transmitted orally for several decades before the first transcriptions and recordings were made.
Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Edith Fowke and composer Richard Johnston were first to publish I’s the B’y, in their songbook “Folk Songs of Canada,” which was made available nationally. Newfoundland businessman Gerald Doyle followed by publishing the rollicking song in his book “Old-Time Songs and Poetry of Newfoundland,” distributing it free across Newfoundland. The song was later included in a 1965 publication of the National Museums of Canada.
Although no one knows for certain who composed the song that has become synonymous with Newfoundland culture, some scholars think it may have been created by Pearce’s Harbour resident Joseph Deering around the 1880s. Whoever the composer was, he (or she) captured both the hardships and pleasures of life in a small community on The Rock.
I’s the B’y is a bouncy, fast, raucous jig replete with colourful local references and dialect. The lyrics paint the picture of a simple, but very full, life. The singer brags of his all-round skills as a fisherman: he not only builds his own boat, but sails it and brings home his codfish catch to boot. “Fish,” of course, means that Newfoundland staple, codfish; “rinds” and “flakes” were low-tech items employed in the fish-drying process. The singer looks forward to his simple sailor’s supper of “cake” (basic hardtack biscuit). When the day’s work is done, everyone heads to the local dance for entertainment, with a caller giving the instructions “hip your partner” (bump your hip against your partner) and “all around the circle.”
Local place names on The Rock create further local colour – Bonavista, Fogo, Twillingate, and Moreton’s Harbour.
I’s the B’y has been recorded by many Newfoundland musicians, among them Great Big Sea, country singer Dick Nolan, Harry Hibbs, Ray Walsh, Wilf Doyle, Shanneyganock, and actor Gordon Pinsent. In the mid-1900s it was picked up by nationally-known folk singers Alan Mills, The Travellers, and Omar Blondahl, and soon became essential repertoire for countless choirs in every province, as well as a favourite choice for Canadian folk song recordings.
Folk artists from farther afield in Ireland (Ryan’s Fancy), the U.S. (Gordon Bok), and Scotland (Ian Benzie) have also paid tribute to I’s the B’y.
The fun ditty is now widely thought of as a children’s song, being learned in school and organizations such as the Girl Guides and through recordings and performances by children’s entertainers like Sharon, Lois and Bram; Andrew Queen; and CBC television character Captain Claw.
In 1993, Canada Post issued an I’s the B’y postage stamp honouring the song.