Political Songs | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Political Songs

In contrast to patriotic songs, which are broad in appeal and generally avoid controversy, political songs usually display intense partisanship and relate to specific events or situations, such as elections, strikes, unemployment, racism or discrimination. They vent grievances and scorn, often through satire, and are meant to boost morale and rouse support.

No study of political song in Canada as a whole has come to the attention of EMC's editors. Chansons politiques du Québec (Montreal 1977 and 1979) does treat the subject, but only in relation to the one province, covering the period 1765-1858. It appears that among the folk songs collected and sheet music printed in Canada political songs have a small place. Political parties, election campaigns, and the trade union movement have inspired little original music, although new words or adaptations of existing verses to new situations have been fairly common.

In the 18th century satirical songs of a political nature were common. An early instance is mentioned in the DCB entry on Rigaud de Vaudreuil (vol 2, p 570, of English edition): '[Raudot] had been greatly offended in the spring of 1708 when satirical songs written about him by persons of Vaudreuil's entourage began to circulate in the streets of Quebec.' A 'Chanson sur les Élections' printed in the Quebec Gazette for 24 May 1792 and to be sung to the tune of 'air du haut en bas' is a typical example from an 18th-century newspaper. Such songs frequently were printed separately on broadsides. The BN du Q preserves several examples. The music is to be sung to a familiar tune, identified in each case.

Political crises, such as the unrests of the 1830s, the Fenian Raids, the Northwest Rebellion, the South African War, and the two world wars all produced songs (see Wars, rebellions, and uprisings), and so did Confederation (eg, 'The Anti-Confederation Song'). Most of this music is patriotic rather than political, but 'Un Canadien errant', 'La Mère canadienne,' and 'Le Drapeau de Carillon' combine both elements. Another such song, 'La Prise de Toronto,' presumably sung in 1837 and expressing support for William Lyon Mackenzie in his fight against the 'Family Compact' of Toronto, was published in New Frontiers, vol 3 (Summer 1954). The manuscript is preserved at the National Museum of Man in Ottawa.

In his Candid Chronicles (Toronto 1925) Hector Charlesworth mentions an election song 'Ontario, Ontario' which had an unfortunate effect on the Liberals' chances at the polls in the general election of 1882. But very little election music has been published or printed as a give-away; one example is the Civic Reform March [no words] by Cecil Birkett, issued in Ottawa in 1900 [no publisher], distributed free 'with the compliments of Alderman W.D. Morris, candidate for Mayor for 1901. Platform - Honest Civic Government.' Other examples are 'La Mairie' and 'La Mairie à Longueuil,' adapted to the tunes of 'La Fille de Mme Angot' and 'Partant pour la Syrie' respectively and written for the 1904 municipal election at Longueuil, Que.

For much of the 20th-century songwriters in Canada have remained of the persuasion that music and politics inhabit separate spheres of life. Moreover, their audience, the Canadian public, in particular the English-speaking majority, has not been prone to strong political sentiment - protest marches and political rallies have been rare. It is a pity, from a musical and historical point of view, that such significant political episodes as the Depression and the many industrial strikes have reverberated so faintly in song.

'Protest songs of English Canada' (1978), a research essay by a Carleton University student, Mary-Jane Lipkin, identifies and examines 32 songs, from the songbooks of Creighton, Fowke, Peacock, and John O'Donnell, and from other sources. Most are miners' and loggers' songs protesting economic exploitation. Characteristic titles are 'The Irish Labourer,' 'Hard, Hard Times', 'Drill Ye Tarriers,' 'The Estevan Strike Song,' 'The Loggers' Plight,' and 'Bowser Boys of Seventy Twa.'

The 'quiet revolution' in Quebec, the Acadian movement in the Maritime provinces, and the many protest and 'liberation' movements of the 1960s and 1970s brought about change. The songs of some of the urban folksingers, and of the chansonniers of Quebec (Georges Dor, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Claude Gauthier, Félix Leclerc, Sylvain Lelièvre, Claude Léveillée, Raymond Lévesque, Jacques Michel, Gilles Vigneault) and Acadia (Edith Butler and Calixte Duguay) had a political component (see Chansonniers), as had the content of the cabarets and revues of those decades. Singer-songwriters continuing in the chansonniers tradition through the 1980s include Richard Desjardins, Michel Rivard, Paul Piché and Richard Séguin.

The Quebec referendum in 1980 produced songs for both sides of the debate. The theme song for the 'non' side was 'Plus j'y pense' (The More I Think of It), which one comentator said 'it proved conclusively that the no committee has been infiltrated by the Parti Québecois' (Globe and Mail 17 May 1980), while the 'yes' side produced the jingle 'C'est parti pour le oui' (It's Taken Off for the Yes). The Parti Québecois also utilized Gilles Vigneault's 'Gens du pays'. The referendum also prompted Don Mathers' 'Quebec' and Mark Labelle's 'Do Not Leave Us if You Love Us/Ne nous quittes pas si tu nous aimes' both pleas for Quebec to remain in Canada. Earlier songs about Canadian national unity include Ian and Sylvia's 'Song for Canada' and Gordon Lightfoot's 'Nous Vivons Ensemble'.

Social commentary, including such issues as women's rights, native rights, the environment, and free trade is reflected particularly in the work of Lillian Allen, Bruce Cockburn, Luc de Larochellière, D.O.A., Micheline Goulet, HDV, Vera Johnson, James Keelaghan, Maestro Fresh-Wes, Faith Nolan, Perth County Conspiracy, Paul Piché, Spirit of the West and, Valdy. Valdy wrote 'Hey Mr. Michael Wilson,' a commentary on the GST debate in 1990 and 'Ten Little White Men: The Ballad of Meech Lake'. The free trade debate inspired Chalk Circle's 'Sons and Daughters,' Valdy's 'Living Next to a Country Store,' and Shuffle Demon's 'Dump the Deal'. The French B's 'Je m'en souviens' deals with Quebec's Bill 101 language law. Bruce Cockburn has also been actively involved in the political situation in Central America. Musical satirists include Bowser and Blue, the Brothers-in-Law, Yvon Deschamps, Marie-Lynn Hammond, Rock et belles oreilles, and Nancy White.

See also H.M.S. Parliament; Feminist music; Musical theatre; My Fur Lady; Occupational songs; Octobre; Rap; Spring Thaw; Trade union songs.


1879 Père Louison [Rémi Tremblay]. Chansonnier politique du 'Canard' (Montreal: Presses à vapeur du 'Canard'). A collection of 10 satirical songs covering 18 months of a particularly eventful period of Quebec political life between March 1878, when the elected government was dissolved by the lieutenant-governor, and October 1879, when the Conservatives took over from the Liberals. Some songs attack politicians directly. Rémi Tremblay (1847-1926) was a soldier and journalist who settled in Ottawa in 1896 as a translator. He died on Guadeloupe Island.

1893 Chants des Patriotes, 'recueil noté de chansons patriotiques canadiennes et francaises' (Montreal: Yon). The second edition (1903) has 54 songs, some 20 more than the first, including 'O Canada', 'Le Drapeau de carillon,' and 'Ô Canada! mon pays! mes amours!', as well as folk songs and French patriotic songs such as 'La Marseillaise' and 'La Chant du départ.' The book carries the tunes but no accompaniments.

1967 Dick MacDonald, compiler, ed. Singing Headlines (Montreal: self-published). 16 songs, not all political. 'News highlights from Canada's past as interpreted in song'

1970 Raoul Duguay. Manifeste de l'Infonie (Montreal: Les Éditions du Jour). Political poetry and music

1971 R. Duguay. Lapokalipsö (ibid). Political poetry and music

1973 Yvon Deschamps. Monologues (Montreal). Poems of a political and satirical nature; no music

1975 John C. O'Donnell, ed. The Men of the Deeps (Waterloo, Ont). The volume includes miners' and union songs.

1976 N. Brian Davis, ed. The Poetry of the Canadian People 1720-1920 (Toronto). No music

1977, 1979 Maurice Carrier and Monique Vachon. Chansons politiques du Québec, 2 vols (Montreal). Chronological compilation of some 230 political songs in French, all with melody, tune-reference, and pertinent publishing and background information.

1979 Philip J. Thomas. Songs of the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver). The book includes political songs and some songs of striking miners.

1982. Yves Alix, ed. Chansons de lutte et de turlutte. (Montréal) 43 Quebec labour songs with melody, lyrics, and commentary

1986. Nancy White. Topical Songs. (Agincourt, Ont). Lyrics, commentary and selected melody lines for some of White's contributions to CBC Radio's 'Sunday Morning'

1990. Bruce Cockburn. Rumours of Glory (Ottawa). Words and music including many of his political songs.

See also the Discographies for the artists and articles mentionned above

Further Reading