Newfoundland is particularly rich in the ancient supernatural ballads that are rare elsewhere in North America. The most popular ballad in Canada, as throughout the English-speaking world, is "The little Scotch song of Barbry Allen" which delighted Samuel Pepys in 1666: over 60 different versions of it have turned up across the country. Other popular titles include "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard," "Lord Randall," "The Cruel Mother," "The Gypsy Laddie," "The Sweet Trinity" and "The Farmer's Curst Wife."
Even more numerous than the Child ballads are the later broadside ballads (printed on single sheets known as "broadsides"). Some 240 of the 290 that G. Malcolm Laws, Jr, catalogued in American Balladry from British Broadsides were sung in Canada, and many more have turned up since his guide appeared. Most of these are romantic tales of family opposition to lovers, of lovers' disguises and tricks, or of faithful and unfaithful lovers. The most popular of all the plots was that of the broken ring or returned lover which has been told and retold in dozens of different ballads.
Fewer songs were composed in Canada than were imported from the British Isles, and nearly all the native Canadian songs borrowed their tunes from Old World sources. Most of our native Anglo-Canadian songs were inspired by the occupations of the early settlers, the 2 largest groups springing from men who earned their living on the sea or in the woods. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are noted for sea shanties, songs of whaling, sealing and fishing, and ballads about disasters at sea. In New Brunswick and Ontario most of the native songs came from the lumber camps, some telling of the winter's work, others describing tragic accidents in the woods or on the rivers, and still others relating the shanty boys' experiences when they left the camps in spring. Smaller numbers of songs came from sailors on the Great Lakes, miners in Cape Breton and BC, and homesteaders and cowboys on the Prairies.
Western Canada produced few Anglo-Canadian songs, but some American songs found their way across the border. Canadians adopted or adapted some pioneer American ditties such as "The Little Old Sod Shanty" and "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." The most widespread Prairie song, known variously as "Prairie Land," "Alberta Land" or "Saskatchewan," was a localized form of American verses based on "Beulah Land."
Other native songs reflect outstanding events in our history. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham inspired the earliest known Anglo-Canadian ballad, "Brave Wolfe" or "Bold Wolfe." The War of 1812 produced such lively songs as "Come All You Bold Canadians" and "The Chesapeake and the Shannon." Other ballads recall the Rebellions of 1837-38 and the Fenian raids of 1866, and Confederation inspired some anti-Confederation songs in Newfoundland.
Besides the occupational and historical songs, there are various accounts of local happenings: murders, disasters, celebrations or other newsworthy incidents. Ballads tell of the murderer J.R. BIRCHALL, the Miramichi fire, the Halifax Explosion and the Springhill mine disasters, and ditties such as "The Kelligrews Soiree" and "The Feller from Fortune" immortalize the lively Newfoundland parties.
The most notable characteristic of the native Anglo-Canadian songs is their predominantly Irish quality, which is evident not only in Newfoundland but also in the Maritimes and Ontario. Both sea ballads and lumbering songs fall into the typical "come-all-ye" pattern and nearly all are set to Irish tunes.
Traditional folksingers always sang unaccompanied until very recently, and "mouth music" or lilting was sometimes used to accompany dancing. The fiddle was by far the most popular folk instrument, followed by the accordion and tin whistle. The most common fiddle tunes were Scottish and Irish, and some were composed by local fiddlers.
Anglo-Canadian collectors have concentrated on folk songs to a far greater extent than on any other type of FOLKLORE. There are over 20 major books of folk songs and few devoted to any other single genre. The pioneer collectors were W. Roy Mackenzie in NS and Elisabeth Greenleaf in Newfoundland, followed by Helen CREIGHTON and Kenneth Peacock. Edith FOWKE has collected in Ontario and P.J. Thomas in BC. An American, Edward D. Ives, has produced 3 books dealing with Maritime singer-composers.
Author EDITH FOWKE
H. Creighton, Songs and Ballads from Nova Scotia (1932); K. Peacock, Songs of the Newfoundland Outports (3 vols, 1965); Fowke and R. Johnston, Folk Songs of Canada, I and II (1954; 1967); Canadian Folk Music Journal (1973- ); Edith Fowke, The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs (1973); Fowke and Alan Mills, Singing our History: Canada's Story in Song (1984); G. Lehr, Come and I Will Sing to You: A Newfoundland Song Book (1985); P.J. Thomas, Songs of the Pacific Northwest (1979).
Links to Other Sites
MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada
This site features transcriptions and audio clips of traditonal Cape Breton and Newfoundland folk songs in the Leach collection. Click on the menu items on the home page for a biography of MacEdward Leach, profiles of singers, commentary about the historical significance of local tunes and music genres, and more. From the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive.
The Virtual Gramophone
An extensive multimedia database that covers the history of recorded music in Canada. Search the site for musician biographies and notes about the early years of sound recording, online audio clips of recordings, podcasts on specific themes, videos, and more. From Library and Archives Canada.
Ontario Council of Folk Festivals
A directory of folk and roots music festivals in Ontario. Also features the society’s newsletter "Folk Prints." From the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals.
CJTM: Canadian Journal for Traditional Music
Access a vast archive of full text articles from previous issues of the CJTM. A great information source about traditional music in Canada.
Helen Creighton, folklorist and folksong collector, is profiled at this Library and Archives Canada website. Includes a sound clip of a folk song she collected.
Check out Penguin Eggs magazine for current news about Canada’s folk scene. Features sample articles and music reviews.
Canadian Folk Music Awards
The website for the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
A brief profile of the master fiddler Ned Landry from The Nova Scotia Country Music Hall Of Fame. Scroll down to middle of page.
I's the B'y
Trace the history of "I's the B'y" and other traditional Newfoundland songs at this Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website.
The website for James Keelaghan, an internationally acclaimed Canadian folk singer-songwriter with a “passion for history.” Features his biography, discography, tour itinerary, audio clips and music videos.
North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance
Check out the profiles of leading folk music performers in the Lifetime Achievement Awards section of this website from the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance.
The website for Gary Fjellgaard, award winning western roots singer-songwriter.
The website for folkwaysAlive! Check out the latest news about their collections and educational programs. From the University of Alberta’s Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology in collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Click on the album covers to access audio clips from recordings featuring Gordon Lightfoot. From Rhino Entertainment.
A History of Folk Music in English Canada
A historical overview of Anglo-Canadian folk music written by Gary Cristall, former director of the Vancouver Folk Festival.
The AtlanticArtists.Com website features numerous audio clips of some of Atlantic Canada’s finest musicians. Traditional folk and Celtic songs and much more.
Celtophile Artists, “The Celts Rise Again”
Listen to eighteen tracks of Celtic music that celebrate the diversity of artists and repertoire from the Green Linnet recording label.
A virtual exhibit dedicated to one of Canada's best-known folklorists – a pioneer researcher, collector, and author. From Nova Scotia Archives & Records Management.
Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame
The website for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, an organization dedicated to promoting Canadian popular music songwriters. Check out the annual list of inductees and click on a name to read an inductee’s biography. Also offers video highlights of previous award ceremonies.
Ottawa Folklore Centre
The website for the Ottawa Folklore Centre offers news and information about Ottawa's lively folk music scene, musical instruments, educational programs, and more.
Listen to recordings by your favourite musicians at the website for CBC Music.
In Memory of Sam Gesser, 1930–2008
A tribute to the legendary Canadian music producer and promoter Sam Gesser. Click on the link “Classic Canadian Songs from Smithsonian Folkways” to listen to music clips from this recording. From the website “folkwaysAlive!”
Classic Canadian Songs from Smithsonian Folkways
Listen to audio clips at this website about Canadian Folkways albums. This site features a mixture of field and studio recordings, representing Aboriginal and immigrant, vocal and instrumental, and traditional and contemporary folk music. From the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta.
Music to the Ear
This site documents the history of New Brunswick folk music. From the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Miramichi Folksong Festival
The website for the popular Miramichi Folksong Festival, which focuses on authentic, traditional, and contemporary folk music.
Canadian Society for Traditional Music
Features a substantial online catalogue of Canadian folk and traditional music recordings and full text articles from the quarterly magazine "Canadian Folk Music."
New book captures early days of Canada's music biz
See a CTV interview with music icon Bernie Finkelstein, founder of of True North Records, Canada's oldest and longest running indie record label.
A visitors' guide to Inverness County, located on the western shore of Cape Breton Island. See their listing of Celtic and Acadian music festivals.
The Enright Files - The Power of Folk Music
Listen to a CBC Radio audio clip featuring Michael Enright (The Sunday Edition) in conversation with folk music legend Oscar Brand and country star Ian Tyson.