Slightly edited, April 2021.
I have been singing Canadian folk songs for many years. My partner, Ranald Thurgood, and I have prepared and delivered several workshops and performances on the topic in which we not only taught songs for participatory singing but also explained some of the historical context implied in the lyrics. I have also prepared and delivered a six-week participatory course on Canadian folk songs for Abbotsford House (recreational programming for older adults).
I have found that learning and singing more Canadian folk songs has deepened my understanding of Canadian history, making the past come alive with personal experiences, whether it be the struggles of adapting to the Canadian winter, the homesickness of an immigrant for the land she left behind or a community grieving over the loss of a ship and the men working on it.
Some will say that these old songs reflect only a small part of our Canadian heritage, because so many cultural influences have entered Canada in the past hundred years. When working in the school system as a teacher I was often encouraged to avoid any material that would not be relevant to the contemporary urban Canadian, who could come from anywhere in the world. As a result of this injunction to be inclusive, the schools often resort to using only modern materials, that could come from anywhere, and give no sense of the cultural traditions that have developed in Canada over many centuries. Yes, this heritage is primarily from France and the British Isles. But it is also homegrown, with countless songs written by people here in Canada, dealing with conditions they met here. To me, this is another way to be inclusive to the immigrant experience. If I sing about the frustrations of dealing with a new environment, even if the song sounds like many that may come from the British Isles, the song recognizes and validates the reality of immigrant experience more generally, even if the specific complaints are sometimes of another era, such as difficulties with chopping wood and clearing land. However, one topic of complaint is as timely now as then: the Canadian weather!
I would like to propose that Canadian folk music traditions can provide a base to which may be added the musical contributions of people who have come later, and those of modern Canadians who are influenced by the music we hear from all over the place. Americans seem to have no trouble acknowledging various historical niche musics (Appalachian, Cajun, Blues, etc.) as American folk music. Why do Canadians become so skittish at the idea that we have some historical traditions that we can claim as Canadian?
Every culture adds to the mosaic of who we are as Canadians, and I love the way young people are mixing up those traditions in the Canadian folk festival scene (Bhangra, hip hop and aboriginal drumming, for example). But we do the newcomers no favours by erasing our own past. We can give our young people a much more rich base by keeping our own traditional music alive. I wish the children were exposed to more folk music in general, but particularly to more Canadian folk music.
If three young travellers from Vancouver, Saskatoon and Halifax happen to be in a hostel in Australia and they are asked by folks from Germany, Greece and Singapore to sing a Canadian song, are there any songs they are all likely to know by heart and be able to share with an international group? I wonder.