Songwriters and Songwriting (English Canada) Before 1921

Songwriters and Songwriting (English Canada) Before 1921. Canadian songwriters contributed some of the most famous popular music and jazz "standards" of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Songwriters and Songwriting (English Canada) Before 1921

Songwriters and Songwriting (English Canada) Before 1921. Canadian songwriters contributed some of the most famous popular music and jazz "standards" of the 19th and 20th centuries. From the 1800s onward, talented Canadian composers and lyricists such as George Johnson, Shelton Brooks, Carmen Lombardo, Ruth Lowe, Paul Anka and Gordon Lightfoot have created timeless national and international hit songs that have been covered by hundreds of the world's top performers.

Some songwriters, such as lyricist Alfred Bryan, write for individual singers on demand or seek music publishers to "pitch" and "place" their songs with appropriate recording artists; while others, eg Joni Mitchell, are performers who record their own compositions, which are often later covered by others. Some Canadian songwriters, like Percy Faith, were formally trained in composition; others, eg Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, had some formal musical training but were largely self-taught; and many were amateurs.

Canadian Songwriting to 1920

Prior to the development of the gramophone, Canadian songwriters' works were published as sheet music, or in periodicals such as the Montreal monthly The Literary Garland (published 1838-51). Canadian music publishers issued popular ballads, many by Canadians, as a mainstay of their inventory. Parlour songs, sentimental ballads, hymns, topical songs and patriotic songs were the equivalent of today's "pop" music. Since many, if not most, homes had a piano or other musical instrument, such songs were often intended for amateurs, who performed them at home to entertain their families. Many successful songs were also written by amateurs.

The earliest publication in Canada of a song in sheet music format with piano accompaniment was "The Merry Bells of England," by J.F. Lehmann, in 1840. A. & S. Nordheimer was among the first publishers of solo songs in Canada. (Earlier, writers had their songs engraved in the US or Europe.) It became relatively commonplace for a popular song to sell tens of thousands of copies of sheet music and make its writer a household name. "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" (1866, lyrics by Ontario schoolteacher George W. Johnson) is one such example.

Many Canadian women put pen to paper to produce melodies or lyrics for popular songs, eg, Laura Lemon ("My Ain Folk," 1904) and Mrs W. (Laura) Stevenson ("Paddle Your Own Canoe," 1862).

Patriotic songs made up perhaps the largest category of sheet music in Canada before Confederation, and became even more numerous after Confederation. Songwriters who excelled in this genre included James Paton Clarke ("The Emblem of Canada," 1850); Alexander Muir ("Maple Leaf Forever," 1867); and Henry Herbert Godfrey ("Land of the Maple," 1897). Godfrey ("Johnny Canuck's the Lad") and Roberta Geddes-Harvey ("The Canadian Scout") celebrated the young nation's Boer War adventures.

Canadian contributions from this era to the Christian hymn and song repertoire included "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" (lyrics by Joseph Medlicott Scriven) and "One Sweetly Solemn Thought" (Robert S. Ambrose).

The Advent of Recorded Sound

Although most recordings purchased by Canadians in the early days of the gramophone were made by American and British singers, behind some of these international hits were Canadian songwriters, eg Tin Pan Alley lyricist Alfred Bryan ("Peg O' My Heart," "Come, Josephine in My Flying Machine"); and Shelton Brooks ("Darktown Strutters' Ball"). Some Canadian-written songs were introduced or popularized by their creators' countrymen: tenor Henry Burr recorded "Peg O' My Heart," "One Sweetly Solemn Thought," and "Come Down, Ma Evenin' Star" (the latter composed by Canadian John A. Stromberg).

Some successful songwriters left Canada in childhood, eg, Raymond Egan ("'Til We Meet Again"). Canadian songwriters who flourished in the US music industry in the early 20th century include Alfred Bryan and lyricist James O'Dea ("Hiawatha" and songs for musicals). Among others who had huge success with a mainstream popular song were Ernest Seitz and Eugene Lockhart ("The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise").

The success of the gramophone allowed Canadian songwriters to broaden their potential audiences. Following quickly on the gramophone's spread came World War I. The war was the catalyst for the writing and recording of large numbers of Canadian-written popular songs, some of which achieved lasting international commercial success.

Patriotic Songs, World War I

Patriotic songs of World War I were great favourites of the song-buying public, eg Morris Manley's "Good Luck to the Boys of the Allies" (six editions of sheet music sold a half-million copies in English Canada); Irene Humble's "We're From Canada," Florence Ballantyne's "The Call We Must Obey," and Albert MacNutt's "We'll Never Let the Old Flag Fall." Church ministers and housewives, as well as professional composers and lyricists like William Eckstein ("Good-Bye Soldier Boy"), enjoyed success with their musical patriotic efforts. Songwriters whose compositions found favour with the troops included Ivor Ayre ("Dumbell Rag") and Lieutenant Gitz Rice ("Mademoiselle from Armentières," attributed; and "Dear Old Pal of Mine"). Geoffrey O'Hara's "K-K-K-Katy" sold over 1.5 million copies of sheet music by 1921. World War I provided an unprecedented impetus to Canadian songwriting, launching or securing many a songwriting career.

The year 1918 saw the launch of the Authors and Composers Association of Canada, representing songwriters' rights. Gordon V. Thompson, a songwriter ("I Want to Kiss Daddy Good-Night") and influential music publisher, became the first president.

Throughout this period, songwriters drew on styles and techniques learned from British, European and US sources. It would take a few more decades before a distinctive Canadian sound was to emerge.

See also Songwriters and Songwriting (English Canada) 1921-54; Songwriters and Songwriting (English Canada) 1954-2000s; Folk Music, Anglo-Canadian; Patriotic Songs; Jazz; Pop Music, Anglo-Canadian; Art Song; Chanson in Quebec.


Further Reading

  • Thompson, Gordon V. "Canada's War Songs and Those Who Wrote Them," Canadian Courier, 18 Jan 1919

    Moogk, Edward. Roll Back the Years: History of Canadian Recorded Sound and Its Legacy (Ottawa 1975)

    Litchfield, Jack. Canadian Jazz Discography: 1916-1980 (Toronto 1982)

    Canadian Musical Heritage Society. Songs I to English Texts, vol 3 (Ottawa 1985)

    Canadian Musical Heritage Society. Songs IV to English Texts, vol 14 (Ottawa 1993)

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