Songs and Songwriting | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Songs and Songwriting

Song may be described as a tonal vocalization of words and emotions. It can be fragmentary or extended and can range from a simple, unaffected statement to a highly complex linear and harmonic structure.

Songs and Songwriting

Song may be described as a tonal vocalization of words and emotions. It can be fragmentary or extended and can range from a simple, unaffected statement to a highly complex linear and harmonic structure. What determines its character is the situation that elicits the music, the text being treated (or the emotion being expressed) and the vocal and instrumental resources used. Song is usually thought of as text set to music, and it is frequently the nature and purpose of the words that form the basis for categorizing song types; thus, there are such familiar divisions as folksong, religious song, patriotic song, children's song and art song. Music can heighten the meaning of words, and the combination of text and tone can enhance the emotional statement. The presence of peoples from many lands and cultural backgrounds has contributed to the growth of Canadian songwriting. In addition, technology now makes available music from around the world. Artistic influences are no longer simply those from native traditions, from patterns of privileged travel or from immigration. Influences are as varied as international touring, broadcasting and recording allow.

Indigenous Music

Predating and contemporary with immigration of people from western Europe were the songs of the native people, conveyed by oral tradition and often associated with dance. In this century indigenous music has been the subject of extensive study as well as a source of material for composers working within the Western tradition. The early French Canadian settlers brought with them their own melodic and stylistic material, dependent on oral tradition, and subsequently evolved forms, such as rhythmical paddling songs, that were often related to the occupation of the singer. The Anglo-Canadian folksong tradition was equally vigorous, and examples of both musical streams have been collected and preserved and have formed the basis of new works. Every national group of any size represented in Canada's population has brought its own tradition with it.

Shanties and Sea Songs

Like the paddling songs of the voyageurs and fur traders, the shanties were sailors' work songs and served to provide not only a lifting of the spirit but a measured pulse for the task. Most of the shanties and sea songs of Canadian heritage or adoption come from the East Coast, mainly from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and to a lesser degree from the Great Lakes region. W. Roy Mackenzie, the first to collect Anglo-Canadian songs, gathered work songs from old Nova Scotia seamen, including shanties such as "Santy Anna," "Sally Brown" and "We're Homeward Bound." There were other sea songs with texts describing activities, events and superstitions; the vocal narratives of such ballads tell of sealing and fishing trips and voyages ("The Ferryland Sealer," "The Greenland Disaster"). Even the dance songs reflect the Maritimers' dependence on the sea, as in "I'se the B'y That Builds the Boat" and "The Feller from Fortune."

The land itself also offered opportunities for work-related song. The lumber camps of New Brunswick and Ontario, agricultural areas from the Maritimes to the Prairies and, to a lesser degree, the mining regions of both coasts and Ontario have contributed songs ("Cobalt Song," "The Scarborough Settler's Lament"). Though tunes were at times shared between regions or even occupations, texts often possessed a local focus; thus the tune of "The Lumbercamp Song," patterned after an English ditty, is found, with various texts, among East Coast fishermen as well as loggers. Hardships endured by the workers are recounted in songs such as "Canaday-I-O" and "The Rock Island Line." Ballads describing death in the woods or on the rivers are numerous ("Peter Amberley," "The Haggertys and Young Mulvanny").

Cowboy Songs

In the West both homesteaders and cowboys borrowed songs from the US. Cowboys were often hired from the US and brought with them popular songs like "The Streets of Laredo" and "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." "Dakota Land" and other parodies of the old hymn "Beulah Land" were rewritten in Canada as "Prairie Land," "Alberta Land" and "Saskatchewan." It is easy to dismiss such material as unsophisticated and unimportant, but the texts provide insight into Canada's history. The nature and use of melody can reveal much about taste and about the transmission of artistic ideas and the movement of people across the country and across borders.

Political Songs

Together with occupational songs may be categorized the limited number of trade-union and political songs. The body of material is small and some of it is adaptive in nature, making use of existing tunes, and much of it is related to specific events. Political or labour songs have sometimes suffered the same fate as many clever political cartoons - the particular relevance is lost, though the principle involved may be taken up at another time. A similar fate might have overtaken the shanties after the demise of sail, but the larger body of material and the effects of nostalgia and romantic notions have served to sustain their popularity. Examples of political songs survive in the form of 18th-century satirical material from Québec ("Chanson sur les élections") and songs stemming from 19th-century crises and elections. In this century, world wars and other events and issues such as working conditions in mining and lumbering ("Hard, Hard Times," "The Loggers' Plight") and the aspirations of the Acadians and the Québecois have given rise to protest songs.

The distinction between songs that are political and those that are patriotic often depends on the views and emotions of one group or another. Nevertheless, Canada has a considerable list of songs that display national sentiment. These works often owe their creation and popularity to an event (eg, Confederation) or to an idea such as the preservation of the entity and spirit of a region, culture and language. Hence, in Québec we find "Canada, terre d'espérance," "O Canada! beau pays, ma patrie," along with "À la claire fontaine" and "Vive la Canadienne"; in NB and NS, "Un Acadien errant"; and in English Canada, works like "The Maple Leaf For Ever," "Canada For Ever," and "O Canada, Dear Canada." LAVALLÉE's "O Canada, terre de nos aïeux" (original text by A.B. Routhier) is the country's national anthem.

Children's Songs

Here, again, pieces are handed down from one generation to another and, like occupational songs, are often associated with particular activities such as bridge games ("Trois fois passera"), ring games ("The Farmer in the Dell") or skipping ("On Yonder Mountain Stands a Lady"). Camp and campfire songs are popular with some adults, and children frequently share these; for example, rounds like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," parodies like "Found a Peanut" (sung to the "Clementine" melody) and others. Once more, there is a universality to such material; we can hear many of these songs in Nova Scotia or BC; some of them have their origin outside Canada or outside our range of history ("Three Blind Mice" was printed by Thomas Ravenscroft in Deuteromelia, 1609). Among Canadian composers, Lionel Daunais has written at least 30 chansons, popular pieces and songs for children.

Modern Trends

There is a considerable wealth of Canadian songs, though most are relatively neglected and unknown beyond circles of devotees and concert and recital goers. The chansons of Québec have an interesting history and again reflect the merging of imported cultural influences and, more recently, folksong and modern trends in popular music and developments in audio electronics. English Canadian popular music has lately followed the same path, though it is not as concerned with the stimulation and preservation of a linguistic and cultural heritage. The works of Ernest Whyte, Clarence Lucas and W.O. Forsyth rested, until the mid-1980s, in undeserved shade, along with those of Achille Fortier and Calixa Lavallée.

Some mid-20th-century composers who have contributed to Canadian song are Violet ARCHER, Michael BAKER, John BECKWITH, Lorne Betts, Keith Bissell, Alexander BROTT, Jean Coulthard, Lionel Daunais, Chester Duncan, Robert Fleming, Harry FREEDMAN, Derek Holman, Kelsey Jones, Alfred Kunz, Ernest MACMILLAN, Bruce MATHER, Oskar MORAWETZ, Jean PAPINEAU-COUTURE, Barbara PENTLAND, Clermont PÉPIN, André Prévost, Leo Smith, Healey WILLAN and Charles Wilson.

Notable is the extent to which vocal music has attracted Canadian composers over the years (see CHORAL MUSIC). The output often reflects broad trends in technique and style in serious music, but also bears the mark of individual character and taste. Composers have frequently found inspiration in words by Canadian writers, a tendency that is likely to continue as both arts flourish. Further, many Canadian composers (MacMillan and Willan, for example) have written some remarkable and unique arrangements of existing songs, some of which have origins in other lands. Such arrangements, like original works, form a proper part of Canadian music.

If there is a problem for the Canadian writer of serious songs, it lies not in a lack of something to say but in the difficulty of getting the musical statement to its potential audience in Canada. Recitals are still too few, and though radio, especially the CBC, used to offer many opportunities to composers, television has not used the wealth of available material. Both radio and television have assisted popular song, but though Canadian-content requirements offer a measure of comfort, more must be done. In evaluating songs and songwriting, it is not enough to reflect on melody and harmony; the texts will tell us about our lives and our land as well. Any art must also be considered in a larger context - against trends and styles in other arts, and against political and social movements, economic conditions, geography, climate and other factors, both within the country and internationally.


Further Reading