B.J. Snowden: The New Brunswick Whistleblower
by Andrew McGilligan
How an African American woman from Massachusetts taught millions of Americans about the joys of New Brunswick, using only a keyboard.
She hated ballet.
That’s how one of the oddest pop cultural curios involving New Brunswick began.
Every year, on New Brunswick Day, a clip of musician B. J. Snowden performing her song “New Brunswick” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! makes its way around social media and gets liked and shared. “New Brunswick” has become a sort of unofficial cult theme song for the province.
Without any context, the clip from September 3, 2005 is a mixture of oddity, delight, fun and confusion.
Snowden, an African American woman from Massachusetts, stands behind a keyboard and, as she plays, a video montage is shown of what one can only assume is the New Brunswick coastline, a moose and a Mountie standing next to a horse. Occasionally Snowden is shown inside a star on top of the images.
Her smile is infectious. She clearly loves the song, and when she finishes she gets a loud round of applause and a hug from Kimmel. Sarah Silverman, another guest of the show that evening, applauds Snowden’s performance as well.
Countless musical acts have performed on the latenight television show. For some it has vaulted them to fame, others not so much. Snowden is in the latter category.
“A lot of family and friends congratulated me, but my life didn’t really change,” Snowden says of her time on the Kimmel show. “I thought it might, but it really didn’t.”
What it did, however, is endear her to the countless New Brunswickers who come across the clip every year. Who is this woman? Why is she singing about New Brunswick to an American television audience that counts in the millions? In order to understand how she ended up in Los Angeles singing about a province most Americans don’t know exists, you must start in a town about 50 kilometres from Boston. From that vantage point, you must travel through New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and see how some of the best stereotypes about the East Coast ring true.
But it all starts in Billerica, Massachusetts, with a young girl not wanting to wear ballet shoes. “I hated it,” she says of ballet classes she took as a child.
What she really loved was listening to her mother, Ruth Virginia Finnigan-Snowden, play piano. She would watch and marvel how the music made her feel, at how family and friends would gather round as Ruth played.
Her passion for music and performing was born in those moments. She began lessons at 12 and hasn’t stopped playing since. Her path led her to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music where she earned a degree. From there she began performing, teaching music in schools and giving private lessons.
During this time, the mid to late 1980s, two pivotal things happened in Snowden’s life: she started to gain a following through her music, and her travels to Atlantic Canada began.
Her music is often categorized as part of the outsider genre — artists who are self-taught and outside of the music establishment. The term was popularized by journalist and WFMU disc jockey, Irwin Chusid. Some of the artists referred to as outsiders are Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston.
Not exactly U2 or the Rolling Stones, but among a certain set of music fans they are well known, and Snowden is a household name in this context. Despite the designation, Snowden doesn’t see herself in this genre for one simple reason: she’s a well-trained musician with a degree from Berklee.
“I studied classical and jazz piano, as well as arranging and composition,” she says, “so my music covers many styles.” What she does share with musicians in the outsider genre is sincerity.
Saint John music promoter, manager and television presenter Jeff Liberty numbers himself among the fans of Snowden and others in the genre.
“Artists in general, you can feel if they’re sincere or not,” Liberty says. “A lot of people under that label don’t seek out fame and attention. They just do it for the love of it and are compelled to play.
“For me, outsider music is one of the purest forms of a sonic art. B. J. is as real as it gets in terms of where her music comes from.”
Canada, specifically the East Coast, is a common theme in Snowden’s music. It stems from her experiences travelling across the country. Her first foray was in 1984 when she crossed into New Brunswick from Maine.
“I still remember the date because it was August 1, New Brunswick Day,” she says.
While she would travel to the Maritimes on several occasions, a pattern emerged on the first trip and has continued every time she crosses into Canada. She falls in love with the scenery and the people and tends to stay longer than she planned.
“That first time in New Brunswick, there was a big party at the campsite, and we met so many great people we decided to stay for a few extra days before moving on to Nova Scotia.”
Nova Scotia was the original destination for the trip, specifically the town of Tracadie. Snowden’s grandmother, Bertha Mae Parris, was originally from the area, and B. J. wanted to get better acquainted with her family roots.
“We ended up in Halifax, and I had always thought Tracadie was like a suburb,” she says. After getting some directions and driving a few hours, she reached her destination. She walked into a small convenience store and asked if they knew if a Daye or Parris — the surnames of her grandmother’s family — lived in the area.
“He told me all the coloured people lived up the hill,” Snowden says.
She knocked on the door of Hattie Skinner Daye-Ashe and told her she was a distant relative.
“She asked immediately if we wanted to come in for lunch,” Snowden says. “She fed us cookies and tea, and we talked for hours.
It was getting dark, and we told her we were headed out to find a place to camp. She said we were staying overnight because there was plenty of room.”
The two exchanged contact information the next day and continued to keep in touch.
Snowden eventually returned to Tracadie a few years later with her mother and, once again, stayed at the Daye-Ashe house.
While the seeds of her love for the region were planted in 1984, her songs about the area started to take shape on an extended trip across the U.S. and Canada in 1989, when she travelled from one coast to the other.
This time it was Prince Edward Island that caught her eye. She recalls the melody for the song “In Canada” came to her on the ferry. As for the island itself, once again, the beauty around her changed her travel plans.
“We were only going to spend one night, but it was just so pretty, we had to stay longer,” she says. “We passed by some cottages, and we stopped in and they had a vacancy. We stayed for five days.”
When she returned home, she started writing songs that would make up her debut album, Life in the USA and Canada. It was her next album, In Memory of My Father & My Life in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces, that showcased her affinity for the East Coast and its people. Among the album’s 15 tracks, four are dedicated to Atlantic Canada: “New Brunswick,” “Nova Scotia (Oh Novie),” “Prince Edward Island” and “Newfoundland (Oh Nuffy).”
Released in 2001, the album piqued the interest of Jimmy Kimmel Live! A producer called and said they were interested in having her on, but there was no firm commitment.
“I didn’t take it seriously, I thought it was B.S.”
A couple of years passed, which would have confirmed her suspicions had it not been for another call, this time asking her to send them a CD.
“So I did. They didn’t charge me for postage,” Snowden says.
Again, there was a lengthy pause between conversations, but interest renewed again in 2005. Another producer called, but this time there was a specific date to be on the show. Shortly after the call she was flown to Los Angeles to tape the episode that would air on September 3, 2005.
She was greeted by a driver at the airport holding a sign with her name. He took her to the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. Not long after her arrival she was welcomed by a member of the show’s staff, complete with a keyboard and a request that she play “New Brunswick” on the show.
“They brought the keyboard over and it was awful, so they went back and got me a better one,” Snowden says. She had a rehearsal prior to taping episode 115 of season three of Jimmy Kimmel Live! Along with Snowden, comedians and actors Sarah Silverman, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain were guests.
Snowden says she met them all but singled out Silverman and Kimmel as being particularly nice.
It was a whirlwind of a trip as she was escorted back to her hotel after the taping and then was off to the airport the next day for her return flight to Boston.
While the moment didn’t launch her career to a new level, it would eventually lead to the online love affair between New Brunswickers and Snowden’s song about the province.
Things would come full circle in 2010, when Liberty booked her to perform at the Sackville, New Brunswick– based music festival, Sappyfest. Snowden performed “New Brunswick,” in New Brunswick, for a crowd made up of a lot of New Brunswick music fans.
The gig was uplifting for Snowden as her mother — her initial musical inspiration — had passed away prior to the festival, leaving Snowden depressed. “Jeff was so nice to me and I met so many great people,” she says. “When I performed, people seriously listened, and I think they really liked that I performed songs about the provinces. People were up dancing and it was really a great time.”
Liberty was happy to see her smiling, sharing her passion for a people and place she holds dear.
“I knew it would be special for her to see people who knew who she was and appreciated her as an artist,” he says. “She really holds Canada close to her heart.”