Few countries possess a folk music as rich and culturally varied as Canada's. Traditional folk music of European origin has been present in Canada since the arrival of the first French and British settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries (see Folk Music, Anglo-Canadian; Folk music, Franco-Canadian). They fished the coastal waters and farmed the shores of what became Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the St Lawrence River valley of Quebec. Men of the fur trade (and, later, the lumbering operations) brought much of this music further west and north into the forested areas of central Canada. The mingling of some of these men with various aboriginal tribes produced a population of non-Treaty Indians, known as Métis (eg, Pierre Falcon).

Agrarian settlement in eastern and southern Ontario and western Quebec in the early 19th century established a favorable milieu for the survival of many Anglo-Canadian folksongs and broadside ballads from Great Britain and the USA. Despite massive industrialization, folk music traditions have persisted in many areas until today. In the north of Ontario, a large Franco-Ontarian population kept folk music of French origin alive. Populous Acadian communities in the Atlantic provinces contributed their song variants to the huge corpus of folk music of French origin centred in the province of Quebec. A rich source of Anglo-Canadian folk music can be found in the Atlantic region, especially Newfoundland. Completing this mosaic of musical folklore is the Gaelic music of Scottish settlements, particularly in Cape Breton, and the hundreds of Irish songs whose presence in eastern Canada dates from the Irish famine of the 1840s which forced the large migrations of Irish to North America.

Mennonite and Icelandic settlements established 1874-5 in Manitoba heralded the new era of mass immigration to western Canada of peoples from eastern and western Europe and Asia. Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Doukhobors, English, French, and other peoples broke the prairie sod for agricultural use in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the same period in British Columbia, Chinese, Japanese, Sikhs, and, again, Doukhobors and other immigrants of European origin arrived in increasing numbers to complement the established Anglo-Canadian colonial population. A group of Okinawan-Japanese farmers settled in the Lethbridge area of Alberta, bringing with them a musical tradition quite different from that of Japan. Many European groups, especially the Finns, joined the new mining, pulp-and-paper, and agrarian communities of northern Ontario and the urban centres in the south.

After World War II a new wave of immigration to urban centres occurred, especially from southern Italy, the Baltic states, Hungary, Portugal, and the Caribbean. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the massive arrivals of refugees fleeing from certain countries of Southeast Asia and Latin America. Jewish communities, whose presence in Canada dates back to the end of the 18th century, take an active part in the cultural and economic life of both urban and rural milieux. Finally, more than a hundred or so cultures brought their unique musical traditions, thus adding immensely to Canada's long-established musical heritage of French, English, Gaelic, and Irish folk music.

Whatever its cultural origin, traditional folk music has its roots in the common people. In certain genres one can observe that cross-fertilization between art music and folksong occurred at various times in the mother countries. In Canadian fishing villages, rural hamlets, and pioneer farming communities folk music provided the principal source of entertainment and a sense of continuity with the past. Some regions and cultural environments favored the creation of songs of purely Canadian orientation. Newfoundland - the oldest European settlement in North America - has the highest percentage of indigenous folksongs. In other cultures (eg, Lithuanian and Ukrainian) links with an archaic tribal past are discernible in melodies and texts in calendric ritual songs. The features of these songs of pagan origin have hardly been obscured by the more recent Christian influences which left a very superficial imprint. Christmas carols and New Year's and Easter songs are obvious examples. Others are concerned with the elaborate wedding cycles of many European cultures. English and French songs have lost most of this archaic ritual aspect, rarely showing origins before medieval times. Gaelic tunes have preserved more of the archaic flavour of the Celtic musical past. Most cultures have narrative genres such as ballads; less commonly, epics. Ballad genres cover an immense time span from the medieval period to the 20th century. Topics are manifold: love, war, heroic exploits, revenge, murder, disasters, and so on.

Short songs are most often concerned with love in its various aspects: unrequited, betrayed, occasionally fulfilled. Often they equal or surpass the beauty of pieces from the art music repertoire in melodic and poetic beauty. A surprisingly large percentage of traditional culture, whether European or Asiatic, consists of love songs, also dating from early times to the 20th century.

A host of songs about the sea, sailors, fishermen, sea disasters, sealing, whaling, lumbering, mining, railroading, cowboys, and so on, is of predominantly Anglo-Canadian origin, but there are several examples. of Franco-Canadian origin.

Other genres include lullabies, children's game songs, drinking songs, mouth music (nonsense syllables, often used for dancing), and macaronic songs (French-English, Ukrainian-English, etc). Immigrant songs and patriotic songs are found mostly among cultures of Scandinavian and other European origin, sometimes indicating nostalgia for the old countries and adaptation to a new environment.

With the exception of fundamentalist Christian sects (Doukhobor, Mennonite, Hutterite), all cultures have musical instruments, played solo or in concert for entertainment or to accompany dancing and, occasionally, singing. In Franco-Canadian, Anglo-Canadian and Gaelic music, the fiddle is the principal instrument, and it is common in other cultures as well. The most beautifully decorated is the eight-stringed Norwegian Hardinger fiddle, made in Norway Valley, Alta, until ca 1930. The building of string instruments for popular use has many adherents everywhere in Canada and fiddle making is a widespread activity among folk musicians. Other instruments in popular use in Franco- and Anglo-Canadian folk music include the guitar, button accordion, harmonica, whistle, jew's-harp, 'bones,' and spoons. Bagpipes, long associated with the Scots and Irish, have been found in more primitive folk versions among the Poles, Czechoslovaks, and other eastern European groups.

A partial listing follows of other instruments transplanted to Canada: zithers: Finnish (kantele), Lithuanian (kankles), Latvian (kokle), Estonian (kannel), Japanese (koto), Chinese (cheng or ch'in), Icelandic (langspil); dulcimers: Ukrainian (cymbaly), Hungarian (cimbalom), Chinese (yang-ch'in); bowed instruments: Chinese (er-hu, gau-hu), Yugoslavian (gusle), Polish (gesle); lutes, etc: Chinese (p'i'pa), Ukrainian (kobza, bandura), Sikh (sitar), Japanese (biwa); unfretted instruments: Japanese (shamisen), Okinawan (shamisen, snake-skin head), Chinese (san-hsien, forerunner of shamisen); flutes: Chinese (side-blown, and end-blown), Japanese (shakuhachi), Ukrainian (sopilka), Yugoslavian (frula); bagpipes: Lithuanian (skuduciai, single-toned, several lengths); drums and other percussion: Sikh, Chinese, Japanese.

Although much Franco- and Anglo-Canadian folk music has survived in rural as much as in urban environments in many areas of Quebec, Ontario, and the Atlantic provinces, the music of the more recently settled cultural groups has become confined largely to urban centres. Here, numerous ethnic cultural associations, choirs, instrumental ensembles, and folk-dance troupes have created from simple folksong repertoire, more sophisticated versions by their musical arrangements, which then become available on commercial recordings. A similar reprocessing of traditional English and French folksong through the electronic media by professional singers began in the 1940s. In the early 1960s a new generation of composer-lyricist-singers from French and English Canada began producing a body of songs in traditional style solely for concert and electronic presentation (see Folk music, contemporary).

See also EMC articles on individual collectors, ethnomusicologists, folksingers; articles on individual countries (eg, Ireland, Lithuania, Scotland, Ukraine, etc). For a guide to articles on religious groups (eg, Doukhobors, Mennonites) see Religions and music.

See also Accordion; Bagpipe, Great Highland; Ballads; Boîtes à chansons; Canadian Society for Musical Traditions; Chanson in Quebec; Chansonniers; Children's songs, traditional; Christmas; Coffeehouses; Country music; CPR Festivals; Disaster songs; Easter, Lent, the Passion; Ethnomusicology; Fiddling; Folk festivals; Folk-music-inspired composition; Guitar; Harmonica; Klondike; Lakes; Lullabies; Native North Americans in Canada; New Year's Day songs; Occupational songs; String instrument building. Many of these articles include bibliographies and discographies.

The recordings and publications listed below represent more than one ethnic group.



Gibbon, John Murray. Canada in Song (Toronto 1941)

Barbeau, Marius et al. Come A Singing! Canadian Folk-Songs, National Museum of Canada Bulletin No. 107 (Ottawa 1947, 1973)

Fowke, Edith, and Johnston, Richard. Folk Songs of Canada (Wat 1954)

Fowke, Edith et al. Canada's Story in Song (Toronto 1960); repr as Singing Our History '(Toronto 1984)

Fowke, Edith, and Johnston, Richard. More Folk Songs of Canada (Wat 1967)

Fowke, Edith. Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs (Harmondsworth, Eng 1973)

Karp, Ellen. Many Are Strong Among the Strangers: Canadian Songs of Immigration (Ottawa, National Museum 1984)

Barron, John. Reflections of Canada, 3 vols (FH 1985, 1986, 1987)

The Best of Touch the Earth. (1981). 2-CBC LM-473

Canada's Favourite Folksongs for Kids. 1978. Ber 9031

Canada's Story in Song. A. Mills. 1960. 2-Folk FW-3000

Canadian Folk Songs. Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, vol 8. 1954. Col SL-211

Canadian Folk Songs: A Centennial Collection. Y. Albert, H. Baillargeon, L. Forestier, C. Jordan, T. Kines, J. Labrecque, A. Mills, D. Oxner, J. Price, R. Roy, J. Sullivan. 1967; 9-RCI/RCA CS-100/(with RCI 423) 5-ACM 39 (CD)

Far Canadian Fields: Companion to the Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs. 1975. Leader LEE-4057

Folk Songs of Canada/ Folklores du Canada. T. Kines, L. Forestier, C. Jordan, Y. Albert, J. Sullivan, J. Labrecque, J. Price, D. Oxner. (1976). RCI-423/5-ACM 39 (CD)

Folk Songs of Canada. J. Sullivan, C. Jordan. 1955. Hallmark CS-3/Wat CS-3

Folk Songs of Canada. T. Kines. (1965). RCA Victor PCS-1014

The Green Fields of Canada. Jon Bartlett, Rika Reubsaat. (1985). CFMS (CSMT) 5-8501 (cass)

Harbour Grace: Songs of Eastern Canada. Rick Avery, Judy Greenhill. 1981. J & R JR-001

LaRena Sings for Country Folk. LaRena Clark. Clark LCS-112

Maple Sugar: Songs of Early Canada. T. Connors, H. Hibbs, E. Moorehead, University of Guelph Folk Choir. 1973. 2-Springwater S1-S2

Orealis. Orealis. 1987. Orealis UR-5-67 (cass)/Green Linnet SIF-1106.

Shave the Bear. Tamarack. (1989). SGB-9

Songs, Fiddle Tunes and a Folk-Tale from Canada. A. Mills, J. Carignan. 1961. Folk FG-3532

Lists of Canadian folk music recordings can be found in various catalogues published by the CSMT, and in that of Festival Records of Vancouver, associated with the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Folksong Collections

Gibbon, John Murray. Canada in Song (Toronto 1941)

Barbeau, Marius et al. Come A Singing! Canadian Folk-Songs, National Museum of Canada Bulletin No. 107 (Ottawa 1947, 1973)

Fowke, Edith, and Johnston, Richard. Folk Songs of Canada (Wat 1954)

Fowke, Edith et al. Canada's Story in Song (Toronto 1960); repr as Singing Our History '(Toronto 1984)

Fowke, Edith, and Johnston, Richard. More Folk Songs of Canada (Wat 1967)

Fowke, Edith. Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs (Harmondsworth, Eng 1973)

Karp, Ellen. Many Are Strong Among the Strangers: Canadian Songs of Immigration (Ottawa, National Museum 1984)

Barron, John. Reflections of Canada, 3 vols (FH 1985, 1986, 1987)


See also Writings for Marius Barbeau; Barbara Cass-Beggs; Helen Creighton; Edith Fowke; Ernest Gagnon; John Murray Gibbon; Robert Klymasz; Conrad Laforte; Alan Mills; Kenneth Peacock.

Barbeau, Marius. 'Folk-songs,' JAF, vol 31, Apr-Jun 1918

- 'Canadian folk songs as a national asset,' Canadian Club of Toronto Addresses (1927-8)

Tait, J.A. 'In the realm of folk-song,' M Can, vol 7, Nov 1928

Barbeau, Marius. 'Folk songs,' University of Toronto Q, vol 16, Jan 1947

Sargent, Margaret. 'Folk and primitive music in Canada,' National Museum of Canada Bulletin No. 123 (Ottawa 1951); repr J of the International Folk Music Council, vol 4, Jan 1952

George, Graham. 'Seven Canadian folk-music records,' CMJ, vol 2, Winter 1958

Barbeau, Marius. 'Canadian folk songs,' J of the International Folk Music Council, vol 13, Jan 1961

Duncan, Chester. 'Folk song as history,' Canadian Literature, Spring 1961

Peacock, Kenneth. 'A Practical Guide for Folk Music Collectors,' CFMS mimeographed (Ottawa 1966)

'Centennial collection of Canadian folk songs issued,' CanComp, 23, Nov 1967

Barbeau, Marius, and Creighton, Helen. 'The rediscovery of folk music,' Canadian Geographical J, vol 84, Mar 1972

Fowke, Edith. 'Anglo-Canadian folksong: a survey,' Ethnomusicology, vol 16, Sep 1972

Kallmann, Helmut. 'Towards a bibliography of Canadian folk music,' ibid

Cass-Beggs, Barbara, and Fowke, Edith. 'A reference list on Canadian folk music,' CFMJ, vol 1, 1973; rev, enlarged, CFMJ, vol 6, 1978.; rev, enlarged, CFMJ, vol 11, 1983

Catalogue of Canadian Folk Music in the Mary Mellish Archibald Library and Other Special Collections, (Sackville, NB 1974)

'Folklore Canada,' 10th Conference of the CMCouncil: a report,' CMB, 9, Autumn-Winter 1974

Pelinski, Ramón. 'The music of Canada's ethnic minorities,' CMB, 10, Spring-Summer 1975

Hogan, Dorothy. 'Canadian folk music: a foundation for cultural identity,' Recorder, vol 18, Sep 1975

Posen, Shelley. 'Explorations in Canadian folklore,' Quill and Quire, Jul 1976

Fowke, Edith. 'In the past... earlier Canadian folk magazines,' Canada Folk Bulletin, vol 2, Mar-Apr 1979

Bartlett, Jon, and Ruebsaat, Rika. 'The state of the art: the folk revival in Canada,' Canada Folk Bulletin, vol 3, Sep-Dec 1980

Fowke, Edith and Carpenter, Carole. A Bibliography of Canadian Folklore in English (Toronto 1981)

Peacock, Kenneth. 'Folk and aboriginal music,' Aspects of Music in Canada/'La musique folklorique et aborigène,' Aspects de la musique au Canada

Barbeau, Marius. 'Folk-song,' Music in Canada


Singalong, Vancouver Feb 1957-Jul 1958

Sing and String, Toronto, 9 issues, 1959-Fall 1965

CFMS (CSMT) Newsletter/Bulletin. Jul 1965-

Hoot, Aug 1963-Feb/Mar 1967

Chansons populaires, 7 issues, ca 1970

Pourquoi chanter, ca 1977-ca 1978

Canada Folk Bulletin, Vancouver, Jan/Feb 1978-Sep/Dec 80

Canadian Folk Music Journal (/ Revue de musique folklorique canadienne from 1983), 1973- 1995, continued by Canadian Journal for Traditional Music ( / Revue de musique folklorique canadienne), annual 1996-