The Music of the People

The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 31 Oct 1929, p. 278-288
Gibbon, J. Murray, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The speaker was assisted by Miss Mary Frances James, Soprano; Mr. Herbert Hewitson, Tenor; and Mr. Harold Eustace Key, Pianist. Mr. Hewitson begins with a solo. A discussion of folksong. Folk music in Toronto, with examples. Folktunes which familiar to the audience. Hymns that are folktunes, with illustrative examples. The current great revival of interest in folkmusic in England, and of English country dances. French Canadian folkmusic. The recognition of folkmusic which will do much to assimilate and create mutual confidence between the various racial groups composing the Canadian people, with illustration. Folkmusic brought to Canada by various peoples. The benefits of welcoming and fostering the artistic instincts of New Canadians. The address concludes with the performance of several folksongs.
Date of Original
31 Oct 1929
Language of Item
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Full Text
31st October, 1929

PRESIDENT EAYRS introduced the speaker, who called on Mr. Hewitson for a solo, after which he said: Before I talk to my subject, I would like to tell you a little thing. The song which Mr. Herbert Hewitson has just sung to you- "The Twelve Days of Christmas"-is a song particularly popular in English country gatherings for a reason which may interest you, namely, that it is looked upon as a test of sobriety. In my young days in Scotland, when the police ran in any suspect on the charge of "drunk and disorderly", his condition was tested by the distinctiveness with which he could pronounce the words "British Constitution". Now, among English folksingers at gatherings where beer and cider flowed freely, the test by which the sobriety of any singer was decided was that he should be able to sing through "The Twelve Days of Christmas" without making any mistakes, and I think on that test we may say that Mr. Hewitson is perfectly sober. (Laughter.)

The title of this address is "The Music of the People". Now, under the title I mean to deal with folksong, but I find that if you speak of folksong to some people in Canada, they look as if they wanted to run away, just as happens when you pass round the hat in Aberdeen, so I thought it wise to get my audience first in such a position that running away would not be so easy. I find that many people here in Canada think of folksong as something remote and crude, tunes which are sung only by very elderly people on farms over in Europe, and if they are sung in Canada at all, it is only by the habitants in French Canada. As a matter of fact, there is quite a lot of folkmusic here in Toronto, although we don't call it that. The song "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" is a folksong, Christmas Carols such as "The, First Nowell" are folksongs, dances such as the Highland Fling, the Irish Jig and the Sailor's hornpipe, are folkdances, and the tune of The British Grenadiers is a good old English folktune. The singing games that Toronto children play are folkgames--games such as "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" and "London Bridge is Falling Down". At any Scotch concert more than half the programme is folksong--Robert Burns, for instance, considered it his great life work to take traditional tunes, folktunes, that might have been forgotten, as the words were poor or were written in Gaelic, and rewrote the words so that they could be generally sung. "John Anderson, My Jo-John", is a typical instance of a folksong reconstructed by Burns. To-night is Hallowe'en, and at every Scottish gathering Scottish folksongs will be sung. What Burns did for Scottish folktunes Tom Moore did for Irish, and in the last thirty years we have had an army of collectors and musicians recording, preserving and re-arranging the traditional folksongs of the British peoples-who represent more than half of the stock of the Canadian people.

There are other folktunes which are familiar to you, although you don't think of them as folktunes--and these you hear in church. Toronto is said to be inhabited by more men who go to church on Sunday in proportion to the population than any other city in Canada, and that in spite of the fact that Toronto has more golf courses than any other city in Canada. (Laughter.) The other day I happened to look over an account of the tunes in a hymn book called the Church Hymnary--used extensively by the Presbyterian Church-and there I found that thirty-three of the tunes were definitely stated to be folktunes: 20 English, 9 Irish, 2 Gaelic and 2 Welsh.

Hymn Number 70, for instance, which begins with the words

Come praise your Lord and Saviour

In strains of holy mirth

is sung to a tune called "Gosterwood", which is really the tune of an old English folksong, "The Brisk Young Lively Lad".

It's of a brisk young lively lad Came out of Gloucestershire And all his full intention Was to court a lady fair.

The last half of this tune also appears in the old song "In The Bay of Biscay, O". Then Hymn No. 174, which begins

Rest of the weary, joy of the sad

is given as sung to the tune "Fortune". Now this tune is a folktune sung in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and known then as "the hanging tune", for at any public execution the crowd used to join in singing a ballad to this tune with the words

Fortune, my foe, why dost thou frown on me?

In addition to these British folktunes, the Church Hymnary, and indeed any hymnbook, contains a great many folktunes associated with hymns taken over from the Lutheran, Moravian and Hugenot psalters and hymnbooks-for Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Huss, Clement Marot and Theodore de Beza all believed in adapting sacred words to popular melodies. It was through the use of this music of the people that the Protestant Reformation was popularized in Europethe Reformed religion floated into the hearts of the people on the wings of folkmusic. Without these popular hymn and psalm tunes, Protestant doctrines could never have captured the fancy of the people; Great Britain might still have remained Catholic; and without its Protestant churches where would Toronto be?

Now, Martin Luther who was perhaps the greatest of the Reformers, used folktunes not only because they were popular, but also because they were good tunes. He was a musician himself, and a good singer. The very essence of a folksong is that it should be traditional, handed down from generation to generation. In that process of handing down from generation to generation, there is the survival of the fittest-the poor tunes pass out and are forgotten. The good tunes are kept alive--sometimes indeed improving as they go, as they are passed from one singer to another. They survive because their melodies have a wide appeal and satisfy many listeners. As Cecil Sharp, a great English folksong collector, has said: "Folksongs are the true classics of the people, and their survival, often by tradition alone, proves that their appeal is direct and lasting."

At this very time there is a great revival of interest in folkmusic in England, due not only to the singing of folksong on the concert platform and to the introduction of folksong into the music taught in schools, but also to the revival of country and Morris dances through the influence of the English Dance Society. This Society was started only eighteen years ago, but in spite of the interruption of the War, it has already 15,000 subscribing members, with branches all over the country. It has captured the imagination of all classes of society, so that today there are several hundred thousand English people who engage in these country dances, while the United States is dancing to the appalling cacophony of jazz.

The English dances are in many cases identified with very beautiful tunes dating from the seventeenth century or even earlier, at a time when England was one of the most musical countries in Europe. If we are going to keep open the doors of Canada to British immigration and to British ideas and British civilization, we are going to have a revival of these old English country dances here, because the immigrants that are destined to come here are dancing these dances to those folktunes, learning them in their schools and keeping on dancing when they grow up.

I find there are many Canadians who think that the only folkmusic we have here in Canada is that of the French Canadians. Now there is no question that the French Canadians have preserved a rich body of very lovely folkmusic, but as a matter of fact every racial group coming from Europe to Canada is bringing with it a wealth of folkmusic in song and dance, and this should be preserved as a most precious asset instead of being allowed to disappear through neglect, indifference or hostility. For in addition to its value to Canadian culture, the recognition of this folkmusic will do more to assimilate and create mutual confidence between the various racial groups composing the Canadian people than anything else. (Hear, hear.)

To illustrate this, let me tell you a story about a group of German settlers near Winnipeg. Eighteen months ago I was helping to organize a New Canadian Folk-music Festival at Winnipeg, the object of which was to demonstrate to Anglo-Canadians in the West the wealth and charm of the folk-music brought to Canada by the Continental Europeans. In the preliminary organization no place had been kept for the Germans, but I found that about a year before a Colony of German immigrants from the Black Forest had settled about thirty miles from Winnipeg at a place appropriately called "Little Britain". The leader of this Colony was a Dr. Schneider, formerly a lawyer, assisted by his wife, a doctor of medicine. When I suggested that they should present a group of German folksongs, they hesitated. "We were fighting you ten years ago," said Dr. Schneider, "we might not be welcome." When I assured him that we would not invite them if we did not want them, he consulted Frau Doctor Schneider, who said, "what do you mean by folksong? I don't think we have any." Now, I happened to have lived at one time in the Black Forest, and hadlearned there some of their songs, so I hummed over one called "Jetzt geh' i ans Brunnele", and asked her if she knew that. "Sure I do," she answered. Then I hummed over another called "Muss i' denn, muss i' denn". At that she laughed and said, "that's the song we sang at Freiburg when we got on the train to come to Canada." Now this song, "Muss i' denn", is a parting song-it tells the story of a young fellow leaving the village for the town. The girl he leaves behind him is afraid that he will lose his heart to the girls in town and forget her, but he assures her that he will come back again safe and sound in heart and will not forget her. You can see why these simple Black Forest people sang this song as they got on the train for Canada.

To make a long story short, they came to our Festival, fifteen of them, driving in in their farm truck, and with their simple songs, sung with such evident sincerity, and with their quaint country dances, they completely captivated their audience. (Applause.)

But that is not the end of the story. Mr. Harold Eustace Key, our musical director, had planned for our last concert a grand ensemble of the various racial groups -there were eighteen of them-who were singing in this Festival. Each group, after doing its song and dance, went to the back of the stage in turn, so that at the close there was to be a massed group of about 400 people in picturesque European peasant costumes, all of whom were to close the concert by singing "O Canada" and "God Save the King". Now, these Germans had been only a year in the country, and it was thought that it would be rather rubbing it in if we were to ask them to sing these patriotic songs so soon. But when these Germans heard of this, they came and asked if they might not be allowed also to join in. They had been so delighted with their reception at their first appearance that they felt they belonged; and so for this final concert they drove in again on their farm truck, and with the other seventeen racial groups of New Canadians, the Germans sang "O Canada" and "God Save the King". (Loud applause.) They were, so to speak, like the mother who has shown you her baby, and to whom you have said that the baby is the most beautiful baby you have ever seen. For folksong is the most intimate thing in the life of a people. It is bound up with their most cherished memories and traditions. So if you take an interest in it, say you find it beautiful, you gain their confidence in a way that is surprising.

Talking of babies in connection with folksong brings me to think of one of the reasons why some of the folksongs brought to Canada three hundred years ago by the early French Canadian settlers are still sung in the Province of Quebec, and indeed in the Province of Ontario, for in the Census of 1921 I find that Ontario had nearly 250,000 French Canadians listed--that is to say, one out of twelve of the population. Now, the French Canadian mother always sings as she rocks her baby to sleep, and as a rule she sings one of these old folksongs-sometimes just a lullaby with the refrain "do--do", but as often as not a folksong that is sung just because it is rhythmic. Now, as you know, there is no race suicide among the French Canadians, and so the mother who has in her lifetime to sing seventeen babies to sleep is not likely to forget the songs she sings beside the cradle. (Laughter); and that, I think, is a Madein-Canada movement. (Laughter.)

To come back to the Germans, you may say: "Well, that was in Winnipeg, and Winnipeg is a long way off from Toronto." And to that I reply once more with statistics. In the census for 1921 I find that the Ontario population listed as of German stock is numbered as 130,345, representing about one in fifteen of your population. And in one of your newspapers last week I read

"In the last five months Ontario got more than any other Province of the 100,257 immigrants who came to Canada. The distribution among the Provinces is as follows

Ontario 38,080; Manitoba 30,553; Quebec 14,494; Alberta 10,262; Saskatchewan 7,193," etc. And then follows the statement that of the 100,000 immigrants, 9,642, or almost one-tenth, were Germans. Now, what is being done to assimilate these Germans? Are they being brought in merely to provide labour, or are they being welcomed as human beings? What effort is being made to win their confidence, so that they may be quickly assimilated? In this matter of assimilation, I venture to think that the story of our experience with folk-music at Winnipeg has some value.

From the Germans let us pass to the Poles. Some years ago Ralph Connor (Dr. Charles W. Gordon) wrote a book called "The Foreigner", in which he gave a realistic and not very flattering picture of the Slav quarter in Winnipeg. We had at our New Canadian Folksong Festival a group of Polish dancers who did eight out of the sixty or more figures in the Polish National Dance-the Mazur. They were beautiful dancers, superbly costumed, and I thought it would do Dr. Gordon good if he were to see them. At the end of the concert he came to me and said, "I want to take off my hat to these Poles-it was one of the most beautiful sights I ever saw. I had always thought of Poles as husky coalheaver people-and now here I find them dainty, cultured and refined. They have completely changed my conception of them." The result was that he came to every concert we held, and became the warmest advocate of our whole folksong festival movement in the West, which is to demonstrate to the Anglo-Canadians of the West the beauty and charm of the folk-music brought to this country by Continental Europeans. Ralph Connor was not the only one to be impressed. Premier Gardiner, of Saskatchewan, wrote to say he had heard so much of the effect of the Winnipeg Festival in creating good feeling between the different racial groups that he asked us to organize a similar Festival for Saskatchewan at Regina. The Regina Festival has been followed by a similar request from Premier Brownlee of Alberta, and we are at present organizing a Folksong and Dance Festival for next March, to be held at Calgary.

In the brief time allotted to me I cannot tell you one-tenth of what I could tell you about the folk music presented by these eighteen racial groups of non-British and British stock in Western Canada,-but I wish you could have heard the Icelandic Choir with their soft, mellow voices in folksongs from their little northern island--an island, by the way, which set up a Parliament a thousand years ago, and which will celebrate the millennium of that Parliament next year. I wish you could have seen the grace and charm of the Swedish dancers, who had one dance that was a students' dance dating from the time of Gustavus Adolphus, three hundred years ago. I wish that your Mendelssohn Choir could have heard the two Ukrainian Choirs from Winnipeg and Saskatoon, singing the most difficult choruses from memory, without a sheet of music in front of them. I wish you could have seen and heard the Gaelic folk play produced by Hebrideans of Vancouver.

What these Festivals have demonstrated is the immense wealth of natural culture brought to Canada by immigrants who in most cases were originally European peasants. And what we ought to realise is that the folk music and the taste for music these people have brought with them can play a priceless part in making richer the culture of the Canadian people. Now, the advantage that Canada has is that it has all the wealth of traditional music of all these races right within its own borders, with immigrants of naturally musical taste whose children are bringing their natural taste for good music into the schools. If we are to think of Canada merely as a wheat-producing country, of course that does not count; but if we think of Canada as a country that means to hold its own in the arts as well as in the possession of dollars, then it counts for a good deal-if only we keep the instinct for the arts alive.

If we do welcome and foster the artistic instincts of the New Canadians, we shall be following the tradition of the English themselves, whose artistic culture has been greatly enriched by the children of naturalized aliens. The other day I asked a musical friend to name six outstanding English composers of today. The names he gave me were: Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Eugene Goessens, R. Vaughan Williams, Sir Edward Elgar, Arnold Bax. Now, of these six musicians, four are of European Continental stock, naturalized in England, whose work is, curiously enough in three cases, founded largely on folk music. They are names of which England has good reason to be proud, even though their stock may not be of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Applause.)

I wonder if we realise how much of the pioneering work done in Canada, how much of the history of Canada, has been, so to speak, made to music? The French who came to Canada three hundred years ago were a singing people, and they and their descendants sang at their work-the adventurous voyageurs as they paddled their canoes, the women as they sat at the loom and the spinning wheel. For a vast proportion of folksong is worksong, with the rhythm that accompanies the action. The worker who works with his hands and not with machinery sings or whistles as he works; and we may be sure that the pioneers who cleared the forests and ploughed the land in the early days--whether they were French of Normandy or Highlanders from Scotland sang as they toiled. It was to the rhythm of some such song as "A la Claire Fontaine" that the French adventurers paddled up the St. Lawrence in the year 1755, and established Fort Rouille on the site of the future City of Toronto, so that one may truly say that Toronto itself was founded on folksong. This song "A la Claire Fontaine" which came to Canada from Saint Onge three hundred years ago is still one of the most popular and widespread songs among the French Canadian people. It has survived because, like nearly all folksong, it is a good song and lies close to the heart of the people. (Applause.)

Now, I have been talking long enough, and I think the best thing to do is to demonstrate by a few examples how interesting the folksong is.

Miss James then sang "Where Sleeps the Queenly Maiden", "Muss i' denn", and "When I was Fourteen", the latter being a favourite with jenny Lind-Mr. Key accompanying on the piano. The closing selection was "A la Claire Fontaine", sung by the trio, all being greeted with applause.

MR. R. E. KNOWLES, in a humorous speech, voiced the thanks of the Club for the interesting address and delightful entertainment.

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The Music of the People

The speaker was assisted by Miss Mary Frances James, Soprano; Mr. Herbert Hewitson, Tenor; and Mr. Harold Eustace Key, Pianist. Mr. Hewitson begins with a solo. A discussion of folksong. Folk music in Toronto, with examples. Folktunes which familiar to the audience. Hymns that are folktunes, with illustrative examples. The current great revival of interest in folkmusic in England, and of English country dances. French Canadian folkmusic. The recognition of folkmusic which will do much to assimilate and create mutual confidence between the various racial groups composing the Canadian people, with illustration. Folkmusic brought to Canada by various peoples. The benefits of welcoming and fostering the artistic instincts of New Canadians. The address concludes with the performance of several folksongs.