The anthems, hymns, folk songs and popular songs that have become ingrained in our national psyche. The nation’s songbook, I suppose.
Canada is a big country, with vastly different geographies and histories. So songs may reflect its whole or, more likely, its parts. But the great songs, the memorable songs, can resonate with the whole even while speaking about a part.
“O Canada” is obvious: “the true North strong and free”. I leave to others the revived dispute about the words “In all thy sons command” but recommend Robert Harris’ wonderful piece on the anthem’s history on The Sunday Edition June 25th.
“The Maple Leaf Forever” is the older anthem, written in 1867 by Alexander Muir. But I don’t think it’s well known. I needed help to find out what it sounded like. On YouTube, you can see Anne Murray singing it at the closing of the Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999. A lovely and singable tune, but it has not survived as a well-known national song.
I can’t think of any other national hymns or unofficial anthems that exist in Canada and are played, along with the national anthem, at official events. “God Save The Queen” is played at Royal and Vice-Regal events. And, Lord spare us, maybe the Centennial “Ca-na-da” song is still played somewhere. But for regular national events, our roster of music is much thinner than in the USA. There, many national hymns, marches and unofficial anthems are still played regularly and are in the nation’s corporate memory. (See my A Nation’s Songs.)
Provincial anthems? There’s the “Ode to Newfoundland”, a national anthem until 1949. Thankfully, changing it to Ode to Newfoundland and Labrador, to my knowledge, isn’t under discussion. My favourite rendition is by Vonnie Barron and Esther Squires, although its release in the 1980s caused controversy due to its unorthodox arrangement. (Click Vonnie and Esther’s names to listen.)
Quebec has loads of national anthems. “O Canada” was originally one of them. “Gens du pays” is an unofficial anthem from 1975 by Gilles Vigneault. Another is “Mon pays” written in 1964 by Gilles Vigneault for an NFB film. A decade later, the tune became a big part of the disco era. “From New York to LA” puts English words, and an American story, to the tune. It was a huge hit for Acadian singer Patsy Gallant, from Campbellton NB. Something quintessentially Canadian here – international fame derived from going to the US. But also quintessentially New Brunswick where, at least in the Acadian parts, people switch without effort or accent between French and English. (Hear both – click video boxes below names.)
Ontario’s unofficial anthem is “A Place to Stand” aka Ontari-ari-ari-o. Again, please Lord, spare us. PEI has an official anthem, “The Island Hymn”. Having such strong musical traditions, I have no idea why PEI would choose this other than it was written by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Alberta and British Columbia apparently had provincial anthems commissioned. The people of both provinces firmly rejected them. I couldn’t even find the BC one online. I did find the commissioned Alberta anthem on YouTube. It’s fine in the tourism ad it features in. But singing it at state events or around a bonfire? Not imaginable.
My Canadian Songs
I made my own list of songs that speak to me about Canada and its parts.
- “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s”. Easy choice for Newfoundland, it paints a picture of a place and way of life. (See my Mr. Otto Kelland about its author.)
- “Farewell to Nova Scotia”. The unofficial anthem and a favourite of late night singsongs everywhere a Nova Scotian may be. Many beautiful songs about places are about leaving them, as is this one.
- “Sudbury Saturday Night” by Stompin’ Tom Connor. Perfectly encapsulates small-town Ontario, all of small-town Canada. (See my Stompin’ Tom Revisited.)
- “Qu’appelle Valley Saskatchewan”. Buffy Ste. Marie’s 1976 evocation of her home and people with a voice that sends shivers through you.
- “Four Strong Winds” by Ian and Sylvia, Alberta’s unofficial anthem. As I’ve written, I think it’s the perfect Canadian song. It could be the flip side of “Farewell to Nova Scotia”, musically and demographically. It’s about going to rather than leaving. A little scared – it’s cold – but hopeful – there’s work.
The throat singing of Tanya Tagaq viscerally conjures the land and peoples of the far north. Stan Rogers’ “North West Passage” tells the flip side of her story. It is about newcomers who explore the northern lands and sea. Men determined to overcome the rigours of the land and the climate, but who fail in their attempt.
For New Brunswick, I couldn’t think of any song even though I live here. Then I remembered hearing a song on the radio by David Myles. It’s “Don’t Drive Through” (see it here). It extols the beauty of the province, but with a bit of tongue in cheek about those who see NB as only a highway to somewhere else. According to CBC, there has been discussion about adopting “St. Anne’s Reel” as a provincial anthem. No, fiddle reels are great but you have to be able to sing an anthem.
For the remaining provinces, I couldn’t come up with anything. Songs about Canada or that make a little bit of Canadian pride when you hear them? Gordon Lightfoot’s “Railroad Trilogy”. Stompin’ Tom’s “Hockey Song” and, of course, the Hockey Night in Canada theme music. I’m not a hockey fan but, yes, I’ve watched minor league games in small-town arenas and NHL games on television.
An American’s Canadian Songs
I asked my US-born husband what he thought of as Canadian songs, rather than just songs by Canadian singers. Neil Young’s “Helpless” because of “There is a town in north Ontario.” For many Americans, he says, it was the first realization that Neil Young was Canadian. And I remember thinking wow, he said Ontario!
Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with its map of Canada and “I could drink a case of you”. In “River”, she wishes she had “a river I could skate away on.” Both songs (on the Blue album) reference Canada, by name or imagery. But they are about absence, of and from Canada. Despite the evident longing, they hold Canada at a distance.
“Acadian Driftwood”, the Band’s song about the Deportation of the Acadians. A powerful history of a people thrown out of their homeland. All but one of the band members were Canadian, and they wrote just as insightfully about American history. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, for example. In both songs, geopolitics intertwine with individuals to tell the story.
From driftwood to rocks – and trees – and water
My mind back in the Maritimes, I thought of Rita McNeil’s “Workin’ Man”. This strong and angry tribute to Nova Scotia coal miners is a great example of the universality of a specific place. Wherever there are miners, you’ll find musicians who have covered her song with as much personal feeling and intensity as do she and the Men of the Deep.
All while thinking about this, a couple words and a tune kept popping into my head. Rocks and trees and trees and rocks — and water. The Arrogant Worms’ “Rocks and Trees” can hardly be counted among the reverent Canadian songs, but it’s spot on.