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Folk Music and Folk Life in Canada
A Musical Essay by Michael Mitchell

More music of Canada appears on our Canadian Social Studies page.

What is folk music?


Stories put to music. It¹s that simple really, although some people try to make it more complicated than that. There are those who think that all country music is folk music, or that pop music can't be folk. Neither of these groups are right, and a little knowledge about the history of folk music will show you why.

Where did folk music come from?

     Centuries ago, unless you were a priest, an aristocrat, or perhaps a wealthy merchant, you probably couldn¹t read or write. Unless you fit into one of these three groups, there was nothing for you to read anyway, as there were no newspapers. And books, which were all copied and made by hand, could only be afforded by the very wealthy.
     However, the common people wanted to make sure that their family trees, local history, stories of great battles, and other important events didn¹t just fade away with the memories of those who experienced them.
      So, groups of people (tribes, villages, families, etc.) would appoint someone to memorize all of their important facts, stories and events. These appointed people often had titles like Bard, Shaman or Elder. These people were held in high regard in their community. Part of their job was to constantly recite their knowledge to the people in the form of stories, to educate them in their own heritage. Often this was the only schooling that the villagers had.
     As time went on, some of these Bards would travel around the countryside telling their stories. When they added simple musical accompaniment to their stories, they were sometimes referred to as Minstrels or Troubadours.
     These Minstrels and Troubadours were always popular, not only because they provided entertainment to the villages that they visited, but also because they made up songs about the news and events that they learned about in their travels around the country. In effect, they were walking, singing "newspapers." For many villagers, this was their only contact with the outside world. In later years, these songs became known as "folk music" because they told stories about "folks" -- like you and me. From these simple beginnings, it then grew extremely popular in the courts of the aristocracy around the world.
     Even opera is a sophisticated form of folk music, because it begins with a simple musical tale, to which is added orchestration, theatrical sets and costumes.

Early folk music in Canada

                                                       Just like other people around the world, the First Nations people of Canada had their own forms of folk music and folk dance, long before Europeans landed here. These songs and dances served the same purpose as they did in other lands.
      When early explorers and settlers began arriving, they brought some of their folk songs from their homelands, and used them in their daily life:
     Voyageurs, who paddled the canoes for the merchants and explorers, would sing songs to keep their paddles working in rhythm, and to take their mind off the boredom of paddling for up to 16 hours a day. Sailors would sing songs called shanteys from the French verb chanter -- "to sing," to help them work as a rhythmic team when it was time to haul up sails or do other work around the ship. Settlers would make up songs about life in their new land, which they would sing at special parties such as barn dances or harvest fairs.
     As time went on in Canada, folk music developed and spread, even after people had learned to read and write. The original need for speaking or singing our heritage was no longer there, but people enjoyed the entertainment and the social values it gave them.
     Generally, folk music has remained simple enough that just about anyone with a guitar, a violin, or some other basic musical accompaniment can easily learn and present a wide variety of songs. To this day, it remains music to be played, and enjoyed, by "folks" everywhere.
     There are many folk music clubs throughout Canada. Some specialize in traditional folk music, which usually means music written before electric guitars and synthesizers were invented. Others feature such a wide variety of folk styles that it is hard to distinguish them from rock, rap, blues or just about any other musical category you can think of.

Now for the music!


The following songs (recordings of which can be found on Canada Is For Kids -- Volume 1) representing different kinds of Canadian folk music, were all written and used for different purposes. Each one gives a unique insight into a different part of Canada¹s heritage. I will explain the significance of each one.


     This song is more than 300 years old and has more than 100 known verses. It was sung by the French-Canadian voyageurs as they paddled their canoes across Canada

V'la l'bon vent, v'la l'joli vent
V'la l'bon vent m'amie m'appelle
V'la l'bon vent, v'la l'joli vent
V'la l'bon vent m'amie m'attend

Derrier chez nous y'a t'un etang (2x)
Trois beaux canards s'en vont baignant

Trois beaux canards s'en vont baignant
Le fils du roi s'en va chassant

Le fils du roi s'en va chassant
Avec son grand fusil d'argent

Avec son grand fusil d'argent
Visa le noir, tua le blanc

Visa le noir, tua le blanc
Oh fils du roi, tu est mechant

Oh fils du roi, tu est mechant
D'avoir tuer mon canard blanc



     In the 1940¹s the Bluenose made Canadian sailors and shipbuilders famous with her exploits, not only by winning schooner races, but by catching more fish in a season than any other schooner in history.

Well I've got a story to tell
Of a proud ship that served her people well
Well the Bluenose was her name
And she never lost a race
And she won herself a place in the history of Canada
Blow winds blow for the Bluenose is sailing once again

So beat to the windward once more
And it's up jib and fores'l as before
For your country will be proud once again
Of the ship and the men
Who sailed her smartly into history
Blow winds blow for the Bluenose is sailing once again

She was born in a Nova Scotia town
Where the shipwrights had gained world renown
Down in Lunenburg
They built a living legend out of skill, sweat and pride
And sailed her masterfully till she died
Blow winds blow for the Bluenose is sailing once again


     Most Newfoundland music, like the people who right it, is characterized by witty use of unique phrases which you¹ll only find on the rock¹ as they call their island.

I'se the b'y that builds the boat
And I'se the b'y that sails her
I'se the b'y that catches the fish
And takes them home to Liza

Hip your partner Sally Tiboo, hip your partner Sally Brown
Fogo, Twillingate, Morton's Harbour, all around the circle

Sods and rinds to cover the flake
Cake and tea for supper
Codfish in the spring of the year
Fried in maggoty butter

I don't want your maggoty fish
They're no good for winter
I can buy as good as that
Way down in Bonavista

I took Liza to a dance
Faith but she could travel
And every step that she did take
Was up to her knees in gravel



     Many songs have been written about the people who worked the land: lumberjacks, miners, farmers, etc. Sometimes legends were created around some of their particular skills, which stretched the imagination, but were good fun anyway.

If you ask any girl from the parish around
What amuses her most from her head to her toes
She'll say, "I'm nor sure that it's business of yours
"But I do love to waltz with my log driver"

For he goes burling down, down the white water
That's where a log driver learns to step lightly
Burling down, down the white water
A log driver's waltz pleases girls completely

When the drive's nearly over she loves to go down
And watch all the lads as they work on the river
She knows that come evening they'll be in the town
And she does love to waltz with her log driver

Now to please both her parents she had to give way
And dance with the doctors and merchants and lawyers
Their manners were fine but their feet made of clay
There's none with the style of her log driver



     Now the official song of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It tells of where they came from, how tough it is to work the coal mines which are almost their only industry, and how sad they are to often have to leave their beloved island to find work elsewhere.

Over an ocean and over a sea
Beyond these great waters what do I see
I see the great mountains rise up from the coastline
The hills of Cape Breton, this new home of mine
Oh and we come from the countries all over the world
To hack at the forests, to plow the land down
Fishermen, farmers, and sailors all come
To clear for the future this pioneer ground

We are an island a rock in the stream
We are a people as proud as there's been
In soft summer breeze or in wild winter wind
The home of our hearts, Cape Breton

Over the rooftops and over the trees
Within these new townships, what do I see
I see the black pit head the coal wheels a-turning
Smoke stacks a-belching, and the blast fires burning
And the sweat on the back is no joy to behold
In the heat of the steel plant or mining the coal
And the foreign-owned companies force us to fight
For our survival and for our rights

Over the highway and over the road
Over the causeway stories are told
They tell of the coming and the going away
The cities of America draw me away
And though companies come and companies go
And the ways of the world we may never know
We'll follow the footsteps of those on their way
And we'll fight for the right to leave or to stay



      Originally an American song, written by Woody Guthrie who traveled across his country during the Depression in the 1930¹s, it tells of his admiration for his country. Years later, Canadians, as well as people from other countries, changed the places in the chorus to suit their own nations.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From Bonavista to Vancouver Island
From the Arctic Circle, to the great lake waters
This land was made for you and me


About Michael Mitchell

     Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Michael Mitchell has lived a fascinating life that included a 24-year stint in the Canadian military, from which he retired in the rank of Major. Much of that time was spent as a reserve or full-time member of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, perhaps the most famous Scottish regiment in the world. His career was so distinguished that the Governor General of Canada awarded him the Order of Military Merit in the class of Officer. This award merits a ranking one level higher than Member of the Order of Canada. When he wasn't working full-time in the armed forces, Michael pursued a career in banking, sales and marketing, and personnel consulting before pursuing his true calling, in the early 1980's : music.
     Michael has become such a fixture on the Canadian music scene that his Canada is for Kids concerts have become one of the most popular school performing arts programs in Canada, with more than 250 shows booked every year. His repertoire is distinctly Canadian, and includes Something to Sing About, Canada Is, The Log Driver's Waltz, Alberta Bound, and the Canuck version of This Land is Your Land, as well as his own popular compositions such as Canada in My Pocket, Little Trees, and Fly High.

Learn more about Michael and his music at Michael-Mitchell.ca


See more of our Canadian Song Lyrics

Many thanks to Michael Mitchell for permission to publish these lyrics.
© Michael Mitchell. All rights reserved.


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