Folk music has a deep and rich history in Canada dating back to the native people of Canada, and then to the Europeans who began their lives here in the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of the first folk songs were about work and daily life: anything from fishing and hunting, to lullabies and special occasions. Folk songs, by definition, are based in each culture’s traditions and customs. Often over time they pass between and across nationalities and areas, as the travels of individuals increase and marrying across different cultures becomes more common.
There are many articles online that discuss the over-arching history of folk music in Canada, but we’d like to instead look at what each set of people brought to the area. Whether it is a new instrument or songs about stories from far-away lands, many different cultures have impacted what we now hear in today’s Canadian folk music.
French and British settlers who first came to Canada arrived in the eastern parts of the country and often sang about their work, which mainly involved being on the water. Fishing, whaling, sealing and such were their main source of income and food, and as such an important part of their culture and traditions. They lived near the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Lawrence River and so sustaining on the water was a way of life.
As settlers moved west into more remote areas of Canada, they began to subsist on the land, and many became loggers and hunters. This of course changed the things they sang and played music about at home. Their European heritage endured, but more songs became based on stories about the Canadian wilderness and a woodsmen way of life.
In the 19th century, many farmers began to settle in Ontario and Quebec. Once again the songs of the people changed. What was once music based on sea life, changed to logging and hunting, then to farming. As in the popular country music we listen to today, much of the folk music of that time was about open spaces, wishing for rain, or singing about a bountiful harvest.
During this time a large French population in the same area kept the music and stories of European descent alive and thriving. In the 1840s, during the potato famine in Ireland, many Irish natives made their way to North America for a new start on life. As with the other newcomers, they brought with them a new set of music and stories. Like the farmers who migrated to the west and south, the Irish were farmers who had similar ways of life, but very different pasts.
As has happened in the United States, in the 20th and 21st centuries, people from all over the world have migrated to Canada, bringing with them their own heritage and ways of life. This melting pot has created a folk music set that now covers a wider range of work, traditions, religions and hobbies.
Today Canadian folk music also has a tradition in its own history and culture. Families who date back hundreds of years in Canada have a way of life and musical roots that are unique and lasting. From the weather and land, to politics and the struggle of people, its music is now distinct to Canada itself. The basis of folk music is set in the common people.
Today we often think of folk as similar to blue grass or anything with a fiddle, but in many instances folk and classical music are entwined. The best example; a fiddle is nothing more than a violin played to a different type of music, i.e. folk music. Like southern rock, a blend between country and rock, the violin is a key instrument in the making of folk music, and yet has its roots in European classical tradition. To think of folk, or any genre of music, as black and white and having dark, solid lines of demarcation would do music as a whole an injustice. Over time the music of different cultures, the instruments of different areas and the work of migrating people all influenced folk and classical music as the two types of music influenced one another.
Like the fiddle, harmonica and even bagpipes, dancing is also common with folk music. Sometimes people dance together, sometimes apart. Often certain steps are put to music, while in other instances people are free to move about as they please. As with the music they danced to, the dancing tradition of the people changed over time, and was influenced by new cultures and ways of life.
Even if you’re not a listener of folk music, it is hard not to appreciate its rich history and foundation in the common man. Songs about work, struggle, simple joys and traditions are often near and dear to everyone. If you are interested in learning more about today’s Canadian folk music, you can check out a few good websites: http://folkmusiccanada.ca/, and http://folkawards.ca/.