Canadian Folk Music Heritage

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When someone says folk music what comes to mind? Gordon Lightfoot? Mariposa? Natalie McMaster? A sense of confusion as to what is actually classified as folk? Traditional folk music has existed in Canada since the 16th century.  Canadian folk music is rooted in oral tradition, Canadian heritage, and the struggles of the common people.  Today, Canadian folk music is still strongly linked to a uniquely Canadian past.  Anglo-Canadian folk songs often relate stories about the sea, fishing, lumbering, mining, and other activities which Canada was built upon.  Additionally, folk music often reflects the diversity of the original settlers of Canada.  The various sub genres of folk are frequently linked to a particular culture such as Franco-Canadian, Gaelic, Ukrainian,  and many others. Folk music often acts as a form of oral tradition and is directly linked to Canada’s past.

Despite the overtly Canadian roots of folk music there is a surprising lack of awareness of the rich cultural heritage attached to the folk community.  For example, this year’s Canadian Folk Music Awards were held on November 20th in Winnipeg.  Up until 2005 no formal national awards ceremony existed for folk music.  Even now, the Folk Music Awards receive little mainstream media coverage and Canadian folk music continues to slip between the cracks of the minds of many Canadians.

One of the reasons for the lack of awareness of folk music might be the flexible and somewhat illusive definition of Canadian folk music.  One of the more agreed upon definitions of folk music is the trans-generational nature of the music and the fact that this music was designed by and for the working classes.  Even though folk music has a very distinct cultural heritage, it is often lumped together with other genres such as alternative or east coast music.  Traditional folk music needs to be preserved as the songs and stories of folk reflect our unique multi-cultural past and emphasize the hardships, triumphs, and colourful events of Canada’s past.

Some work has already gone into preserving the history of the folk music community.  Through a ministry of heritage grant and work with York University a portion of the Mariposa Folk Foundation’s archives have been digitized and placed online.  This is a significant step towards preserving the history of the folk music community and folk music itself.

Library and Archives Canada does have a Music and Performing Arts Collection.  However this collection contains alarmingly little material relating to Canadian folk music.  Oddly, some of the more significant collections of Canadian folk music are held outside of Canada.  The Center for Studies in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University is an example of this.  The Center contains over a thousand items relating to Canadian folk music.  These items include things like sheet music, music recordings, and musical instruments.  The majority of the Canadian folk music  material held at the Center was collected by Laura Boulton during field studies she conducted in Canada in the early 1940s.  It is great that this material has been preserved by the Center and that someone is taking an academic interest in Canadian folk music.  But, it is also slightly disheartening that more Canadian organizations haven’t gone to the effort to preserve our own folk music heritage.

Krista McCracken is a public history consultant currently working as an Archives Technician at the Residential School Centre at Algoma University.

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