Let’s Sing Canadian, Eh?

I have been singing Canadian folk songs for many years, but I have been delving more deeply into this material in the past couple of years. My partner, Ranald Thurgood, and I have prepared and delivered several workshops on the topic in which we not only taught songs for participatory singing but also explained some of the historical context implied in the lyrics. We also prepared an eight-week course on the topic but have not yet had the opportunity to deliver it. I have found that learning and singing more Canadian folk songs has deepened my understanding of Canadian history, making the past come alive with personal experiences, whether it be the struggles of adapting to the Canadian winter, the homesickness of an immigrant for the land she left behind or a community grieving over the loss of a ship and the men working on it.

Some will say that these old songs reflect only a small part of our Canadian heritage, because so many cultural influences have entered Canada in the past hundred years. When working in the school system as a teacher I was often encouraged to avoid any material that would not be relevant to the contemporary urban Canadian, who could come from anywhere in the world. As a result of this injunction to be inclusive, the schools often resort to using only modern materials, that could come from anywhere, and give no sense of the cultural traditions that have developed in Canada over many centuries. Yes, this heritage is primarily from France and the British Isles. But it is also homegrown, with countless songs written by people here in Canada, dealing with conditions they met here. To me, this is another way to be inclusive to the immigrant experience. If I sing about the frustrations of dealing with a new environment, even if the song sounds like many that may come from the British Isles, the song recognizes and validates the reality of immigrant experience more generally, even if the specific complaints are sometimes of another era, such as difficulties with chopping wood and clearing land. One compaint topic, however, is as timely now as then: the Canadian weather!

I would like to propose that Canadian folk music traditions provide a base to which may be added the musical contributions of people who have come later, and those of modern Canadians who are influenced by the music we hear from all over the place. Americans seem to have no trouble acknowledging various historical niche musics (Appalachian, Cajun, Blues, etc.) as American folk music. Why do Canadians become so skittish at the idea that we have some historical traditions that we can claim as Canadian?

Every culture adds to the mosaic of who we are as Canadians, and I love the way young people are mixing up those traditions in the Canadian folk festival scene (Bhangra, hip hop and aboriginal drumming, for example). But we do the newcomers no favours by erasing our own past. We can give our young people a much more rich base by keeping our own traditional music alive. I wish the children were exposed to more folk music in general, but particularly to more Canadian folk music.

If three young travellers from Vancouver, Saskatoon and Halifax happen to be in a hostel in Australia and they are asked by folks from Germany, Greece and Singapore to sing a Canadian song, are there any songs they are all likely to know by heart and be able to share with an international group? I wonder.


About Maura Volante

Maura Volante is a talented and experienced performer. Although she has written many songs over the years, her main focus these days is traditional folk songs. These are songs that have stood the test of time and have an enduring quality that speaks directly and clearly to the human experience. They also tell us about our history. Because these songs are not commonly sung in these post-folk-revival times in which folk music generally means singer-songwriter material, Maura has taken on the project of helping to keep this valuable material alive. Her specialty is Canadian folk songs, but she knows many songs from the British Isles and the USA as well. All her concerts and other programs are designed with group singing in mind. Whether in a concert, a tour, a social gathering, a classroom, a festival or a conference hall, Maura creates an encouraging atmosphere, relaxed and inclusive. She uses her strong voice and facilitation techniques to bring out the best possible music with these voices in this moment. Maura firmly believes that everyone can sing and, moreover, that everyone has a right to sing and be part of group singing activities, without judgement or criticism. No matter what the various skill levels of participants may be in any group singing activity, it always sounds good in a group, because the voices naturally attune with each other. Maura also teaches and calls contra dancing and simpler forms of traditional dancing suitable for all ages, often incorporating group singing into the dancing through the use of play party songs, which are sung by the whole group as they dance.
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2 Responses to Let’s Sing Canadian, Eh?

  1. Will says:

    In my experience the only songs that young people typically sing when traveling are their native drinking songs – I wonder if there is a typical Canadian beer-swilling pub song?

  2. Lots of Canadian folk songs have historically been drinking songs, but many are pretty regional, such as “I’s the B’y”. These days the young people are more likely to sing along with whatever is on their ipods, I suspect, which is probably mostly American, though there are some pretty popular Canadian pop groups that are probably sung with from time to time. The trouble is that these songs are pretty lame without the instrumentation, as becomes evident when someone sings along with their ipod when the rest of us can’t hear the recording. I propose we all learn more Canadian folk songs that sound good without accompaniment, and are also good when drinking. Perhaps Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers” is a good candidate. I heard a duo do it in a bar recently, but they did it so fast it was hard to sing along, and then they stopped after only a few of the verses, which doesn’t really work because it tells a story. For the sad part of the evening, you can’t go wrong with “Farewell to Nova Scotia.” It will make you cry even if you have never been to Nova Scotia.
    I am certainly open to ideas on good Canadian beer-swilling songs to promote.

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