Helen Creighton | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Helen Creighton

(Mary) Helen Creighton.

Helen Creighton

(Mary) Helen Creighton. Collector, folklorist, b Dartmouth, NS, 5 Sep 1899, d Halifax 12 Dec 1989; honorary LLD (Mount Allison) 1957, honorary D LITT (Laval) 1961, honorary DCL (Dalhousie) 1967, honorary D LITT (St Francis Xavier) 1975, honorary D LITT (St Mary's) 1976, honorary D, Humane Letters (Mount Saint Vincent) 1982. She received a junior diploma in music from McGill University in 1915 and graduated from the Halifax Ladies' College in 1916. During the 1920s she worked briefly as a social worker in Halifax and taught at the American School in Guadalajara, Mexico. She was "Aunt Helen" 1926-7 in a children's radio show on CHNS Halifax.

In 1928, inspired by the work of W. Roy Mackenzie (compiler of Ballads and Sea Songs of Nova Scotia, Cambridge 1928), Creighton began to collect folk songs and lore in her native province, occasionally travelling into isolated areas on foot, pushing her melodeon (a small reed organ with a single keyboard) in a wheelbarrow. Unskilled in the transcription of music, she would "pick out" on this instrument the tunes that were sung to her. During the 1930s she collaborated with Doreen H. Senior, an English musician who acted as her transcriber. Creighton was Dean of Women at University of King's College, Halifax 1939-41. In 1942 she studied at the Summer Institute of Folklore, University of Indiana. Between 1942 and 1946 she won three Rockefeller Foundation fellowships; and in 1943 the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, supplied her with a portable machine for recording on acetate discs; she began recording on tape in 1949. She collected and recorded Nova Scotia songs and folklore 1943-4 and in 1948 for the Library of Congress and 1947-67 during her years on staff at the National Museum of Canada (Canadian Museum of Civilization). The Nova Scotians Catherine Gallagher, Enos Hartlan, Ben Henneberry, William Riley, Freeman Young, and the Redden family sang for her, as did the New Brunswicker Angelo Dornan. On Prince Edward Island she recorded, among others, Ernest Sellick, Charlie Chamberlain, and Julius (Duke) Neilsen; the latter two later gained fame with Don Messer and His Islanders.

During her career Creighton gathered and recorded more than 4000 songs and their variants, in English, French, Gaelic, Mi'kmaq, and German. Among those in English were songs from the black community. Typical titles in the collection are "He's Young but He's Daily a-Growing," "I'll Give My Love an Apple," "The Cherry Tree Carol," "The Farmer's Curst Wife," "Cecilia," "Oran do Cheap Breatainn" ("Cape Breton is the Land I Love"), "Lost Jimmy Whalen," and "The Bold Pedlar," a 15th-century folk song lost in England but preserved in Canada. The oldest of her finds is the 13th-century ballad "The False Knight Upon the Road." The best-known is "The Nova Scotia Song" ("Farewell to Nova Scotia"), popularized in the 1960s by Catherine McKinnon. Several Canadian compositions have been based on the tunes Creighton collected, including the music for the ballet Sea Gallows (Michel Perrault 1958), the opera The Broken Ring (Trevor Morgan Jones and Donald Wetmore, 1953), Klaro Mizerit'sTwo Maritime Aquarelles (1970), Alex Tilley's Maritime Folk Song Medley (1977), and Scott Macmillan's Tribute to Helen Creighton (1987) and Homage to Helen (1991). In addition, many of the songs have been recorded commercially, including two discs devoted to Creighton's material: Diane Oxner'sTraditional Folksongs of Nova Scotia and Clary Croft's False Knight Upon the Road: Songs from the Helen Creighton Collection. Creighton was heard frequently on CBC radio and appeared on CBC TV programs such as "Open House" (1960), "Land of the Old Songs" (1960), "The Lady of the Legends" (ca 1966), "The Helen Creighton Story" ("Take 30," 1968), the mini-series "Gary Karr and His Friends" (1973), and "The Legacy of Helen Creighton" (1988), and also in The Nova Scotia Song, a film by Glen Walton (1986). In 1958 she was shown at work in the National Film Board of Canada's film Songs of Nova Scotia.

Creighton's interest extended to the performance of folk music as well as to the music itself. In 1956 she "discovered" Finvola Redden-Bower, and in 1957 the Redden family sang on an episode of the CBC TV's "Graphic," which dealt with Creighton's work as a collector. She was an organizer 1967-73 of the seven-voice Nova Scotia Folk Singers, conducted by Kaye Pottie. She lectured widely in Canada and the US and in 1959 she addressed the International Folk Music Council in Romania. She was an authority on Nova Scotia ghost stories. Creighton was the recipient of many honours, including a Canadian Music Council Medal (1974), and she was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1976. The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame honoured Creighton with the Frank Davies Legacy Award in 2011. In March 1980 "The Collector," a musical tribute to her life's work, written and directed by John Brown, was presented by Mount Saint Vincent University. She was a fellow of the American Folklore Society and the American Anthropological Association, a correspondent of the International Folk Music Council, and vice-president 1957-67 of the Canadian Folk Music Society (now Canadian Society for Traditional Music). She was made honorary president of the society in 1974. She was a member of the board and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

The Helen Creighton Folklore Festival of Dartmouth was established with funds from the City of Dartmouth to honour Creighton on her 90th birthday. The festival was held annually 1989-94 and promoted the presentation and preservation of folklore in Maritime Canada. The Helen Creighton Folklore Society (HCFS) was founded under the auspices of this festival. In 1990 the Province of Nova Scotia established The Helen Creighton Foundation to perpetuate her memory through lectures, library acquisitions, and the awarding of a Citation of Merit for publications on subjects related to her work. The Foundation merged with the HCFS in 1997. Creighton's collection is housed at the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management (NSARM) in Halifax.


Songs and Ballads from Nova Scotia (Dent 1932, repr Dover 1966)

- and Senior, Doreen. Twelve Folksongs from Nova Scotia (Novello 1940)

Folklore of Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia (Ottawa 1950, repr Toronto 1976)

- and Senior, Doreen. Traditional Songs from Nova Scotia (Ryerson 1950)

Bluenose Ghosts (Toronto 1957)

Maritime Folk Songs (Ryerson 1962, 1972)

- and MacLeod, Calum. Gaelic Songs in Nova Scotia, National Museum of Man Bulletin, 198 (Ottawa 1964)

Bluenose Magic (Toronto 1968)

Folksongs from Southern New Brunswick, National Museum of Man Publications in Folk Culture 1 (Ottawa 1971)

A Life in Folklore (Toronto 1975)

- and Sircom, Eunice. Eight Ethnic Songs for Young Children (GVT 1977)

- and Sircom, Eunice. Nine Ethnic Songs for Older Children (GVT 1977)

- and Labelle, Ronald. La Fleur du Rosier (University College of Cape Breton Press and Canadian Museum of Civilization 1988)

A Folk Tale Journey through the Maritimes (Breton Books, 1994)


"Song singers," Maclean's, 15 Dec 1937

"Recording folk songs 'before it's too late'," CBC Times, 14-20 Dec 1952

"Fiddles, folk-songs and fishermen's yarns," Canadian Geographical Journal, vol 51, Dec 1955

"Songs for Christmas," Atlantic Advocate, vol 50, Dec 1959

"Collecting folk songs," Music across Canada, vol 1, Apr 1963

"W. Roy Mackenzie, pioneer," Canadian Folk Music Society Newsletter, vol 2, Jul 1967

"Carols and other songs for Christmas," The Canadian Composer, 45, Dec 1969

"Capturing folklore on tape," Canadian Author and Bookman, 46, Spring 1971

"Canada's Maritime provinces - an ethnomusicological survey," Ethnomusicology, vol 16, Sep 1973

"Looking back on a satisfying career," The Canadian Composer, 120, Apr 1977

Also articles on folklore, folk dancing, in Journal of American Folklore, Encyclopedia Canadiana, etc

See also Bibliography for Folk music, Anglo-Canadian: Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.


Bluenose Ghosts. (Nova Scotia Film Bureau, 1973)

A Sigh and a Wish: Helen Creighton's Maritimes. Donna Davies, director. (2001, National Film Board of Canada)

Further Reading

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