An icon of Canadian folk music, Newfoundland’s Ron Hynes is best known for his classic song “Sonny’s Dream,” the story of a young man caring for his ageing mother, whose sailor husband never comes home. The song has become a true folk standard since being released in 1981 on the album Living in a Fog by Hynes’ Wonderful Grand Band. Hynes, who recently returned to performing after recovering from throat cancer, explains how this consummate East Coast song was actually written out West – and why the Irish believe it belongs to them.
Who is the Sonny in “Sonny’s Dream”?
He was my mother’s youngest brother, Thomas O’Neil. In a true Irish fashion, instead saying “buddy” or “junior” we say “sonny,” so that’s what we called him. They lived out in Long Beach, out by Cape Breton, about 300 miles in from the Atlantic graveyard where the Titanic went down. He was a big influence on me when I was about eight. He was huge fan of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, and people like that, and he really instilled a love of song in me. He taught me guitar. I still have his first guitar that he bought, in 1952, from O’Brien’s Music Store in St. John’s.
Is it true that you wrote this song in 10 minutes?
Yes. I wasn’t aware that I had been internalizing him in any way. The song just found its way out on a piece of Scribner paper while I was on a bus through Western Canada in 1976. I wrote it really, really fast, then put it away, and for some reason or other I never presented it to an audience for an entire year. I just pulled it out of the hat one night at a show and it went over really well. And the next night when we came in, everyone was just chanting for it. So it took off right out of the gate, and it’s been running ever since.
“I pulled it out of the hat one night at a show and it went over really well. It took off right out of the gate, and it’s been running ever since.”
How did the song become an international standard?
When Hamish Imlach heard it in Newfoundland and took it to Germany, then to Ireland. Christy Moore produced it for him, but they wrote in an additional verse. He wrote that the mother dies but comes back to haunt Sonny, so that’s why he never leaves home. They had killed the mother off! When that happened I got in touch with the A&R guy because the woman in the song – Sonny’s actual mother – she was still very much alive! The label guy said, “We just sold 400,000 units. Do you want to go to court, or to the bank?” I thought about it for a moment and decided I wanted to go the bank.
Do you have a favourite cover version?
My favourite is by Emmylou Harris, which is how it took off in Nashville. There is also a version in Portuguese that made a literal translation of “Sonny” as “sunshine.” But that’s the very definition of the folk process, that you can translate a song into another language and not lose its intent. There have been innumerable copies. I think in Ireland it’s in the Top Five most popular songs in Irish music, alongside “Danny Boy” and the national anthem. Or maybe that’s just legend. But I’m pretty sure most Irish believe the song was written in Ireland.
What lesson did you learn from “Sonny’s Dream” that you could share with other songwriters?
Step outside of yourself. When you’re younger you internalize everything, it’s always “I, I, I” and how you feel and how the world affects you. You have to be able to look around and write about others. That’s the secret, write about something else.