Turning New Leaves

Folk Songs of Canada; edited by Edith Eulton Fowke and Richard Johnston; Waterloo Music Company; pp. 198; 1954.

     This is the first collection of Canadian folk songs which attempts to cover the whole country and is designed for the general public. To have produced such a book at all is a public service; to produce it with such competence is a feat that leaves a reviewer (unless he has the special knowledge of the field that the present one has not) little to say that is not better said in the two introductions.

     To come at it from the outside, the book is an attractive physical object, illustrated with drawings and end papers by Elizabeth Wilkes Hoey which are cheerful without being cute. The printing of both words and music is clear, and the editor's comments, printed in a box at the end, tell you exactly what you want to know. Mrs. Fowke's knowledge of her subject is almost as complete as the average Canadian's ignorance of it, yet her scholarship is quiet and unobtrusive. She has humour but no condescension; she is appreciative but never writes advertising copy. Dr. Johnston's settings are simple and unpretentious, partly because he has the guitar as well as the piano in mind. The piano scores nearly always contain the tune, so that the reader can try them out on a [157] piano without having to struggle with three lines of music. The French songs are given both in the French and in English translations, the latter being better than most of the translations we know, especially when Mrs. Fowke does them. The book deserves a long career in Canadian schools and homes, and future editions can improve it in the way that it can best be improved, by enlarging it.

     The term "folk song" in the title has been most hospitably interpreted. Drummond's "Wreck of the Julie Plante," Tom Moore's "Canadian Boat Song" and the "Huron Carol" are all included, quite properly, because the ordinary reader would expect to find them there. The silly and pedantic cliché that all true folk songs must be anonymous has been ignored. The cliché itself is based on a conception of ballads and folk songs as "communal" compositions which has been defunct for half a century. (One leading Canadian authority on the ballad who repudiated this view of it was Dr. John D. Robins, to whom the book is dedicated.) As Mrs. Fowke says, Canada affords an admirable opportunity to watch the folk song going through its various stages, from original composition to pure oral transmission.

     So we have in this book variants of the canon of great ballads, traditional tunes set to new words, traditional themes reshaped on a new historical event, such as a shipwreck or the death of a lumberjack, individual contributions to the folk song idiom (several songs from Newfoundland by identified authors, such as "The Squid-Jiggin' Ground," are included), broadsides and naive newspaper verse ("The Badger Drive"), commercial songs that have stuck in the popular memory, intellectuals' parodies of folk themes ("The Day Columbus Landed Here," "Unfortunate Miss Bailey") -- in short, the real unselected complex of genuine popular song. The tunes are equally various -- the tight, precise little French tunes, hardly moving out of a major third in range, the lovely modal melodies like the mixolydian "The Blooming Bright Star of Belle Isle" and the swinging dorian "Lumber Camp Song," the six-eight Irish jig tunes from Newfoundland, the Western patter songs, and the more stretchy and lugubrious nineteenth-century tunes of the Heart Songs persuasion [158]
("The Red River Valley," and "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie").

     Naturally the book is based on the systematic collections of folk songs that have already been made. It is regrettable that the three thousand transcribed Indian and Eskimo tunes are so sparsely represented here, though one can see the reason for it in a book designed for the general public. Elsewhere, the collecting of ballads has been confined to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and French Canada. "No systematic collecting of songs from any region west of Quebec has yet been undertaken," says Mrs. Fowke, but her book indicates a surprising richness in the Ontario field, chiefly in the northern lumber camps. The Western songs, as she also says, are largely American imports, though some of her specimens are still uncollected in the States ("Smoky Mountain Bill," for instance, can only have come from the Smokies in Tennessee).

     It is not easy to see any "distinctively Canadian" quality to the Canadian folk song, particularly as the most distinctive thing about the folk song is its ability to travel over all cultural, and even linguistic, barriers. (One is startled to learn that an American authority assigns "The Jam on Gerry's Rock" to Canada on the ground that it portrays lumberjacks as unwilling to break a log jam on Sunday.) Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have preserved many fine variants of the standard English ballads (see "The False Young Man" and an excellent version of the Riddle Song in this book), and occasionally an ancient ballad has survived only in Canada (three of these, "The Bonny Banks of Virgie O," "The Morning Dew" and "She's Like the Swallow" are worth the price of admission in themselves to anyone seriously interested in ballads). The whole colonial phase of Canada's history, its invasion by English and French cultures, is of course fully represented in its folk song. One wonders how many Canadians know the "Brave Wolfe" song, with its delicate romantic theme and its lovely aeolian tune that sounds almost Hebridean. The War of 1812, the Rebellion of 1837, Confederation (from an unreconstructed Newfound-land point of view), the Negro slave refugees, and various [159] tales of logging, shipping, fishing and ranching are all included. Another important aspect of our history is here too: Canadian life and climate as they appeared to disgruntled outsiders. In our poetry we have Standish O'Grady; in our prose Susanna Moodie; in our folk song (we may call it ours by reversion) we have:

          And now the winter's over, it's homeward we are bound,
          And in this cursed country we'll never more be found.
          Go back to your wives and sweethearts, tell others not to go
          To that God-forsaken country called Canaday-I-O.

     Presumably those who remained were of sterner stuff, and we are not surprised to find so much tough humour and realism. The reason for this is partly that folk song is essentially a public and dramatic genre: the most subjective emotion it admits is sexual love. Here the unpredictable genius of oral transmission occasionally turns into a breath-taking beauty, as in the last line of:

          She's like the swallow that flies so high,
          She's like the river that never runs dry,
          She's like the sunshine on the lee shore,
          I love my love and love is no more.

But this kind of felicity is very rare, and the sense of isolation and loneliness, the feeling of the waste and indifference of nature, which is so marked in the more urban poetry, is largely absent from the folk song. There is tragedy, heroism and pathos, but what loneliness there is arises simply from want of company (as in "The Little Old Sod Shanty"), or from rejected love (as in the Housman-like "The Stormy Scenes of Winter") or from premature death (as in "Peter Amberley") -- all socially-directed feelings. The most notable poetic feature is a kind of grim irony that falls just short of satire.

     This take various forms -- it is simplest, of course, in the sagas of the bucked-off Western tenderfoot and the unfortunate bumpkin José Blais (in "Le Bal Chez Boulé"). Occasionally, though not often in this deadpan northern [160] country, it turns into fantasy or riddle, and it would be interesting to know what a future historian would make of this:

          Were you ever in Quebec
          Stowing timber on the deck,
          Where there's a king with a golden crown,
          Riding on a donkey?

But the real basis of the irony is something that we rarely have in the poetry that is published in books, as books form part of a money economy. Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and French Canada are food-producing communities where money is an alien, sinister, intrusive thing, controlled by crafty foreigners with a vicious knack of making more of it for themselves and less of everything for everybody else. We meet this situation in the very first song in the book:

          "Marchand, marchand, combien ton blé?"
          "Trois francs l'avoin', six francs le blé."
          "C'est bien trop cher d'un' bonn' moitié."

We meet it again in a delightful bit that could only have come from one place in the world, south-eastern Newfoundland:

          "Oh mother dear, I wants a sack
          With beads and buttons down the back ...
          Me boot is broke, me frock is tore,
          But Georgie Snooks I do adore ...
          Oh, fish is low and flour is high,
          So Georgie Snooks he can't have I."

And hence even love is expressed in ironic terms. There is no Sehnsucht or Leidenschaft or Weltschmerz in this, but there is something much more permanent:

          Oh, had I but a flask of gin
          With sugar here for two,
          And a great big bowl for to mix it in,
          I'd pour a drink for you, my dear, Mary Ann! [161]

     Now that the logjam has been broken, so to speak, by the efforts of Mrs. Fowke and Dr. Johnston, one looks for an increase of public interest in Canadian folk song, and hence, not only for other popular collections, but for further editions of this one that will not be restricted to seventy-seven titles. There are still quantities of wonderful stuff in the Creighton, Greenleaf and Barbeau collections, as no one knows better than these editors. It is particularly in the French section that the present books shows a tendency to stick to somewhat hackneyed favorites -- though again a collection for the general public could not leave out "A la Claire Fontaine" or "En Roulant Ma Boule," to say nothing of "Alouette." Again, there is an enormous amount of work still to be done in the field, and to foster public interest is the best way of insuring that it will be done. Meanwhile, when the blurb calls this book "a major contribution to Canadian culture," one can only agree.


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