Anglo-Canadian Folk Music

Newfoundland is particularly rich in the ancient supernatural ballads that are rare elsewhere in North America.

Edith Fowke, writer
An avid collector of folk song recordings, Fowke was also a prolific writer on Canadian folk music (courtesy McClelland & Stewart).
Rogers, Stan (Video)
(courtesy Ariel Rogers)

Folk Music, Anglo-Canadian

Folk music is the music of ordinary people: songs and tunes that are passed on from one to another by ear rather than by print and thus acquire variations. They are sung or played for pleasure rather than for profit, and usually the composer is unknown. The largest number of Anglo-Canadian folk songs came to this country with the early settlers from Britain and Ireland and were passed from generation to generation over the last 300 years. They include 77 of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads catalogued by Francis James Child and several hundred of the later broadside ballads, as well as lullabies, love songs, sea shanties and music-hall songs.

Newfoundland is particularly rich in the ancient supernatural ballads that are rare elsewhere in North America. The most popular ballad in Canada, as throughout the English-speaking world, is "The little Scotch song of Barbry Allen" which delighted Samuel Pepys in 1666: over 60 different versions of it have turned up across the country. Other popular titles include "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard," "Lord Randall," "The Cruel Mother," "The Gypsy Laddie," "The Sweet Trinity" and "The Farmer's Curst Wife."

Even more numerous than the Child ballads are the later broadside ballads (printed on single sheets known as "broadsides"). Some 240 of the 290 that G. Malcolm Laws, Jr, catalogued in American Balladry from British Broadsides were sung in Canada, and many more have turned up since his guide appeared. Most of these are romantic tales of family opposition to lovers, of lovers' disguises and tricks, or of faithful and unfaithful lovers. The most popular of all the plots was that of the broken ring or returned lover which has been told and retold in dozens of different ballads.

Fewer songs were composed in Canada than were imported from the British Isles, and nearly all the native Canadian songs borrowed their tunes from Old World sources. Most of our native Anglo-Canadian songs were inspired by the occupations of the early settlers, the 2 largest groups springing from men who earned their living on the sea or in the woods. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are noted for sea shanties, songs of whaling, sealing and fishing, and ballads about disasters at sea. In New Brunswick and Ontario most of the native songs came from the lumber camps, some telling of the winter's work, others describing tragic accidents in the woods or on the rivers, and still others relating the shanty boys' experiences when they left the camps in spring. Smaller numbers of songs came from sailors on the Great Lakes, miners in Cape Breton and BC, and homesteaders and cowboys on the Prairies.

Western Canada produced few Anglo-Canadian songs, but some American songs found their way across the border. Canadians adopted or adapted some pioneer American ditties such as "The Little Old Sod Shanty" and "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." The most widespread Prairie song, known variously as "Prairie Land," "Alberta Land" or "Saskatchewan," was a localized form of American verses based on "Beulah Land."

Other native songs reflect outstanding events in our history. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham inspired the earliest known Anglo-Canadian ballad, "Brave Wolfe" or "Bold Wolfe." The War of 1812 produced such lively songs as "Come All You Bold Canadians" and "The Chesapeake and the Shannon." Other ballads recall the Rebellions of 1837-38 and the Fenian raids of 1866, and Confederation inspired some anti-Confederation songs in Newfoundland.

Besides the occupational and historical songs, there are various accounts of local happenings: murders, disasters, celebrations or other newsworthy incidents. Ballads tell of the murderer J.R. Birchall, the Miramichi fire, the Halifax Explosion and the Springhill mine disasters, and ditties such as "The Kelligrews Soiree" and "The Feller from Fortune" immortalize the lively Newfoundland parties.

Notable Characteristics

The most notable characteristic of the native Anglo-Canadian songs is their predominantly Irish quality, which is evident not only in Newfoundland but also in the Maritimes and Ontario. Both sea ballads and lumbering songs fall into the typical "come-all-ye" pattern and nearly all are set to Irish tunes.

Traditional folksingers always sang unaccompanied until very recently, and "mouth music" or lilting was sometimes used to accompany dancing. The fiddle was by far the most popular folk instrument, followed by the accordion and tin whistle. The most common fiddle tunes were Scottish and Irish, and some were composed by local fiddlers.

Anglo-Canadian collectors have concentrated on folk songs to a far greater extent than on any other type of folklore. There are over 20 major books of folk songs and few devoted to any other single genre. The pioneer collectors were W. Roy Mackenzie in NS and Elisabeth Greenleaf in Newfoundland, followed by Helen Creighton and Kenneth Peacock. Edith Fowke has collected in Ontario and P.J. Thomas in BC. An American, Edward D. Ives, has produced 3 books dealing with Maritime singer-composers.


Further Reading

  • H. Creighton, Songs and Ballads from Nova Scotia (1932); K. Peacock, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports (3 vols, 1965); Fowke and R. Johnston, Folk Songs of Canada, I and II (1954; 1967); Canadian Folk Music Journal (1973- ); Edith Fowke, The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs (1973); Fowke and Alan Mills, Singing our History: Canada's Story in Song (1984); G. Lehr, Come and I Will Sing to You: A Newfoundland Song Book (1985); P.J. Thomas, Songs of the Pacific Northwest (1979).

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