Anglo-Canadian Occupational Songs | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Anglo-Canadian Occupational Songs

By far the largest part of that body of folksongs of which the words originated in Canada. The tunes for practically all of them are borrowed from old Irish folksongs.

Occupational songs, Anglo-Canadian

By far the largest part of that body of folksongs of which the words originated in Canada. The tunes for practically all of them are borrowed from old Irish folksongs. Whereas old-world songs featured tales of the supernatural, domestic tragedy, wars, and romance, most of the songs composed in Canada were inspired by the work of men, particularly those who earned their living on the sea or in the woods. One very popular pattern was 'The Alphabet Song,' in which each letter was related to something familiar in a particular occupation. There is a 'Sailor's Alphabet,' a 'Fisherman's Alphabet,' a 'Shantyboy's Alphabet,' and a 'Miner's Alphabet,' each of which is a vivid reflection of the work of the particular group.

The Sea

Maritime songs naturally predominate along Canada's east coast, particularly in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. In the 19th century sailors sang many sea shanties, but these died out when sails gave way to steam. However, W. Roy Mackenzie, the first to publish Anglo-Canadian songs, found some old Nova Scotia seamen who remembered the work songs they sang in the great days of sail. In his introduction to Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia he discusses 'the obsolete ritual of shanty-singing,' citing information he gathered from several retired sailors. He gives such capstan shanties as 'Santy Anna,' 'We're All Away to Sea,' 'We're Homeward Bound,' 'Rio Grande,' 'Rolling River,' 'Sally Brown,' and 'Lowlands,' and halyard shanties like 'Whisky Johnny,' 'Blow the Man Down,' 'Reuben Ranzo,' 'Blow, Boys, Blow,' and 'The Wild Goose'. Much later Helen Creighton still was able to get some shanties from singers who had sailed from the Nova Scotia ports of Lunenburg and Liverpool, and five of these may be heard on her record Folk Music from Nova Scotia. The largest group of shanties noted in Canada came from William H. Smith, an old-time sailor of Liverpool, NS. His son typed out the text, which is in the Dalhousie University library, and Edith Fowke published the collection in Sea Songs and Ballads from Nineteenth Century Nova Scotia. Fewer shanties were noted in Newfoundland: Elisabeth Greenleaf, who made the first major collection, found only four fragments - 'Homeward Bound,' 'Haul on the Bo'line,' 'Jolly Poker,' and 'Sally Brown' - and Kenneth Peacock's vast Songs of the Newfoundland Outports includes only one - 'Blow the Wind Westerly' - which came not from a sailor but from a woman.

The sailors sang shanties only while working, but they sang many other kinds of sea song in their leisure hours. For example, 'Wadham's Song,' composed in 1765, is a detailed guide to the landmarks and hazards around the coast of Newfoundland, and 'The Ryans and the Pittmans,' descended from the old British sea song 'Spanish Ladies,' describes the life and loves of a Newfoundland fisherman. From other songs we get a very clear picture of the experiences of fishermen, sailors, and whalers. Most of these others fall into two groups: those that describe a particular voyage, and those that tell of tragedy at sea. 'The Old Polina' tells how the whaling ships raced from Dundee in Scotland to St John's each spring, and 'The Greenland Whale Fishery' describes a whale hunt that ended in tragedy when the thrashing of the whale overturned the small boat containing the harpooners.

'The Ferryland Sealer,' which Kenneth Peacock calls 'one of the best native ballads to come out of Newfoundland,' is a graphic account of a 19th-century expedition when 'some were killing, some were scalping, some were hauling on board,' until in the evening 'they counted nine hundred fine scalps in the hold'. Similarly 'The Sealing Cruise of the Lone Flier' gives a detailed description of a 1929 voyage in which the crew got its catch but suffered a number of minor mishaps. Two different ballads describe 'The Greenland Disaster' when 48 sealers were frozen to death on the ice in 1898, and another tells how 'The Southern Cross,' a famous sealing vessel, disappeared in a storm in 1914 with 170 men on board.

Fishing songs fall into the same patterns. 'A Crowd of Bold Sharemen' describes a trip to the Labrador coast to fish for cod, and 'High Times in Our Ship' is a lively account of a fishing expedition on the French shore. 'The Petty Harbour Bait Skiff' tells of the loss of a small fishing boat in a sudden storm, and 'The Loss of the Regalus' tells of another sunk near Cape Race.

One unusual ballad, 'The Ghostly Seamen,' incorporates the superstition that drowned sailors board the ships that pass the site of their disaster. The text was composed by Harry L. Marcy in 1874. See also Disaster songs.

Besides the ballads describing particular voyages and disasters there were many more light-hearted songs inspired by the Maritimers' work. 'A Noble Fleet of Sealers,' 'The Sealers' Song,' and 'The Sealers' Ball' all tell of the celebrations when the fleet reached port, and even the dance songs reflect the Maritimers' dependence on the sea, as in 'I'se the B'y That Builds the Boat,' 'The Feller from Fortune,' 'Lukey's Boat', and 'Harbour Grace.' Some emphasize the sailors' fondness for rum: F.W. Wallace wrote a lively ditty telling how drunken seamen survived a dangerous trip on 'The Mary L. MacKay,' and 'In Canso Strait' tells how a crew triumphed over its drunken captain.

The maritime song tradition continues in the work of such singers as Stan Rogers ('Fogarty's Cove,' 'Barrett's Privateers,' 'The Mary Ellen Carter,' and many more); Ryan's Fancy; Tom Lewis; and many others.

A smaller number of songs came from the sailors of the Great Lakes. Like those from the east coast, most describe particular voyages or shipwrecks. The two most popular were 'The Bigler's Crew,' a humorous account of a flat-bottomed scow hauling timber from Buffalo to Milwaukee, and 'Red Iron Ore,' telling of the hardships suffered by the crew of the E.C. Roberts in hauling ore from Escanaba to Cleveland. Most of the other Great Lakes songs tell dismal tales of ships lost in storms. 'The Persian's Crew' is the best-known; others chronicle the loss of the Asia, the Maggie Hunter, the Belle Sheridan, the Antelope, and a dozen more. Dr Ivan H. Walton of Ann Arbor, Mich, made the largest collection of Great Lakes songs, and some of the Canadian songs were published in Fowke's Folklore of Canada (Toronto 1976). C.H.J. Snider researched and published a few in his Toronto Evening Telegram column 'Schooner Days,' and he and his friend Stanley Bâby sang some of them on the recording Songs of the Great Lakes. Stan Rogers wrote many songs concerning life on the Great Lakes for his album From Fresh Water. In 1989 'Song of Sail,' a festival of nautical music, was held at Penetanguishene's Historic Naval and Military Establishments.


Work in the lumberwoods inspired the greatest number of native songs in New Brunswick and Ontario, and some lumbering songs have been sung all across Canada. They fall into three groups. First come those that describe life and work in the woods, often taking the form of an account of a winter spent in a particular camp. One pattern is so common that it sometimes is called simply 'The Lumbercamp Song,' and some version of it was known by nearly every man who worked in the woods. Patterned on an English music-hall ditty about 'Jim the Carter Lad,' it sometimes is called 'A Jolly Shanty Lad' or 'Jack the Shanty Lad,' and describes all the activities in a camp from daybreak until evening. Mrs Greenleaf, who collected it in Newfoundland as 'The Lumbercamp Song,' described the tune as 'the best, most robust, and most finished air in the Dorian mode that I have ever heard'. The same tune was used for two other Newfoundland songs, 'The Sealing Cruise of the Lone Flier' and 'The Herring Gibbers,' and one from the Great Lakes, 'The Bigler's Crew'. Other songs are more localized, like 'Turner's Camp,' 'Anstruther Camp,' 'The New Limit Line,' 'Hogan's Lake,' 'The Banks of Mullen Stream,' or 'The Winter of '73'. Some are moniker songs, naming all the men in the camp, as in 'Hauling Logs on the Maniwaki,' 'The Squire Boys,' and 'MacDonald's Camp.' In Newfoundland 'Twin Lakes' and 'The Badger Drive' are the best-known local lumbering songs.

While these are fairly straightforward accounts of work in the woods, other songs emphasize the hardships endured by the shantyboys. An early one told of a bitter winter spent in 'Canaday-I-O'; this was later adapted to tell of similar hardships in 'Michigan-I-O,' and gave the pattern for a famous Texas song, 'The Buffalo Skinners'. Another widespread ditty told of a man who worked for a tough boss on 'The Rock Island Line,' and the same pattern was localized in the Maritimes as 'The Fox River Line' and 'The Scantaling Line'.

Almost as numerous are the ballads that describe death in the woods or on the rivers. The most widespread is 'The Jam on Gerry's Rocks,' which tells how 'the foreman young Munroe' was swept away when the jam broke. In the Maritimes the favourite is 'Peter Amberley' ('Peter Emberley'), about a lad from Prince Edward Island who was crushed when a log rolled on him in the Miramichi woods. Less widely known Miramichi ballads tell of similar accidents that killed 'Guy Reed' and 'John Ladner'. In Ontario they sing of 'Jimmy Whelan,' 'Jimmy Judge,' 'The Haggertys and Young Mulvanny,' and 'Johnny Doyle,' all of whom were drowned on river drives, and 'Harry Dunn,' who was killed by a falling limb down in 'the woods of Michigan.'

More unusual are two other ballads about woods tragedies. In 'Lost Jimmy Whelan' the drowned shantyboy rises from his grave to ask his sweetheart to stop mourning for him: a counterpart of the old British ballad 'The Unquiet Grave'. A New Brunswick ballad, 'The Dungarvon Whooper,' tells how the ghost of a camp cook, who had been killed, returned to fill the forest with 'fearful whoops and yells.'

A somewhat smaller group of songs tell of the shantyboys and their girls, and the lively times the boys had when they came out of the woods in the spring with their winter's pay in their pockets. Widely popular was a debate between two girls who loved 'The Farmer's Son and the Shantyboy'. 'Ye Maidens of Ontario' or 'The Maids of Simcoe' also emphasize the contrast between the sober farmers and the adventurous raftsmen, and several other songs stress the girls' preference for 'The Roving Shantyboy'. The sailors' ditty 'Jack Tar Ashore' provided the pattern for 'The Lumberman in Town,' also known as 'When the Shantyboy Comes Down,' and 'Duffy's Hotel' and 'The Grand Hotel' tell of riotous times on the east and west coasts respectively. 'How We Got Up to the Woods Last Year,' also called 'Drunk on the Way,' 'Conroy's Camp,' and 'Holmes Camp,' all emphasize the loggers' fondness for liquor, and 'Save Your Money While You're Young' points the moral: 'You'll need it when you're old'. A song tremendously popular in the Ottawa Valley is 'The Chapeau Boys,' which Sheldon Posen has thoroughly documented in For Singing and Dancing and All Sorts of Fun. The main sources for lumbering songs are Louise Manny'sSongs of Miramichi, Edith Fowke's Lumbering Songs from the Northern Woods, and Rusty Leach's Upper Ottawa Valley Shanty Songs and Recollections, although every major folksong collection contains some. Old-time shantyboys may be heard singing on the recordings Lumbering Songs from the Ontario Shanties and Folksongs of the Miramichi. Edward D. Ives describes the most famous of the logger songmakers in Larry Gorman: The Man Who Made the Songs.

Farmers, Cowboys, and Homesteaders

Other occupations have inspired fewer songs. The solitary work of farming did not stimulate singing as fishing and lumbering did, but a few verses circulated. In 'The Scarborough Settler's Lament' a Scot compared 'Canada's fields of pine' unfavourably with 'Auld Scotia's glens'; and 'The Backwoodsman,' a tale of a lively country spree, was sung from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan. Edward Ives has described Lawrence Doyle: The Farmer Poet of Prince Edward Island, who wrote many ditties about local events, including a description of 'When Johnny Went Ploughing for Kearon'; and another Island poet, Dan Somers, wrote 'The Harvest Excursion,' about taking the train to Saskatchewan for the grain harvest. This song has been recorded by his descendent, Joan MacIsaac. Contemporary songs are often tributes to farming life and sometimes nostalgic in tone including Murray McLauchlan's 'Farmer's Song,' 'I Work the Land' (produced by Seacoast Sound as part of their syndicated radio show The Canadian Farmer), Stan Rogers' 'The Field Behind the Plow,' and Stompin' Tom Connors' 'Tillsonburg'.

In the West both homesteaders and cowboys borrowed songs from the USA. In the 1870s, when the first ranches were established in the region that was to become Alberta, most of the cattle were driven up from Texas, nearly 2000 miles to the south, and the ranchers hired US cowboys who brought with them the songs that were being sung at home in the southwest. Popular Texas songs like 'The Old Chisholm Trail,' 'The Streets of Laredo,' 'Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,' and 'The Tenderfoot' were sung on Alberta ranches, but the Canadian cowboys do not seem to have composed many songs of their own. Similarly, when homesteaders began to break the prairie sod, they adopted and adapted US songs: 'The Little Old Sod Shanty' was popular in Saskatchewan, and 'The Greer County Bachelor' was transformed into 'The Alberta Homesteader'. 'Dakota Land' and other US parodies of the old hymn 'Beulah Land' were rewritten in Canada as 'Prairie Land,' 'Alberta Land,' and 'Saskatchewan,' 'where winds are always on the blow'. However, it is probable that 'The Red River Valley', originally thought to be a US cowboy song, was composed about the Red River in Manitoba. The cowboy tradition has been kept alive, particularly in country music, as can be heard in the work of Wilf Carter, Ian Tyson, Ivan Daines, and other singers.


Mining songs also are comparatively rare in Canada. Few songs about the Cariboo or Klondike gold rushes have survived (see Klondike), although northern prospectors like to sing 'When the Ice-Worms Nest Again', which may have been derived from a Robert W. Service composition of 1910. A 'Cobalt Song' which L.F. Steenman wrote in 1910 became popular with the silver miners of northern Ontario, and they also sang an adaptation of the US railroading ditty 'Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill.'

George Korson noted a few union songs from Cape Breton in Coal Dust on the Fiddle, as well as a Nova Scotia version of an English love song about 'The Jolly Wee Miner Men'. Helen Creighton collected another version of the love song 'The Jolly Miner,' and includes two songs (see Disaster songs) about the 1791 Springhill disaster in Maritime Folk Songs. In 1966 a song competition in Cape Breton stimulated some compositions, and the miners' choral group Men of the Deeps was organized to popularize mining songs through concerts. The director of the Men of the Deeps, John C. O'Donnell, has published songs from their repertoire and they have made several records. Non traditional mining songs include Allister MacGillivray's 'Coaltown Road' (recorded by the Barra MacNeils and Ryan's Fancy), Tom Connors' 'Sudbury Saturday Night,' James Keelaghan's 'Hillcrest Mine,' James Gordon's 'Mining for Gold' (recorded by Tamarack and the Cowboy Junkies) and Gordon Lightfoot's 'Mother of a Miner's Child'.

Until the publication in 1979 of Philip J. Thomas's Songs of the Pacific Northwest, which includes examples of songs of logging, mining, fishing, and ranching, there was no record of the occupational songs indigenous to British Columbia.


Railroading has inspired a few songs, notably several Canadian parodies of the US railroad songs 'Drill, Ye Tarriers Drill,' and 'The Railroad Boy,' and an adaptation of 'The Irish Journeyman.' A number of railroad songs were published in the CFMB, and recorded on Songs of the Iron Trail. See also Transportation.


John Murray Gibbon wrote lyrics set to traditional melodies for his collection Nursing Songs of Canada. Contemporary urban oriented occupations often seem to inspire songs in a more satirical vein. Examples include The Wonderful Grand Band's 'U.I.C.,' Jane Siberry's 'Waitress,' Nigel Russell's 'The White Collar Holler' (recorded by Stan Rogers), and the songs of Nancy White.

See also Trade union songs; Folk music, Franco-Canadian.

Further Reading

External Links