Is There Such a Thing as Canadian Music?

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by Murray Burton

Many of you came from countries with strong musical traditions. When you hear music from China, Iran, Peru, India or Africa – to name just a few – there is no mistaking which part of the world it comes from. Is there such a thing as real Canadian music?

The music of Maritimes has Celtic roots, often based on traditional Irish jigs and reels.

In the 1960s, CBC television (at the time most parts of the country only got one channel) hosted a show called Don Messer’s Jubilee that was very popular with farmers, fishermen and others living in rural Canada.

Another show that aired at the same time was The Tommy Hunter Show, which featured traditional country music. A Canadian country singer named Hank Thompson had a hit called “Squaws Along the Yukon”, about falling in love with an aboriginal woman. The song is now considered both “racist” and a “classic.”

Canada had a few jazz and pop heroes – mostly from Ontario, although the famous jazz pianist Oscar Peterson came from Montreal. A saxophone and flute player from Toronto named Moe Kaufman had one huge hit in the 1950s with “Swinging Shepherd Blues.”

Pop singer Paul Anka came from Ottawa. The famous classical pianist and composer, Glenn Gould, was from Toronto. Which all goes to prove that we produced some good musicians – but doesn’t say much about the music of Canada.

Possibly the first popular music that was truly Canadian came from an Ontario folk singer named Gordon Lightfoot. With songs like “The Canadian Railway Trilogy” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, Lightfoot was one of the first to write about Canada.

In the 1970s, a rock band from Winnipeg called The Guess Who had a huge hit song called “American Woman.” The song was an allegory (a kind of symbol that has another meaning hidden in the words) about living next door to the United States. Most Americans either didn’t realize or didn’t care that the song was very critical of the U.S.A. and the song sold millions of copies south of the border. “American Woman” had a real Canadian perspective. Also in the 1970s, a successful poet named Leonard Cohen decided to become a musician. While many laughed at his lack of vocal range, no one in the world was writing better lyrics in English. So his deep voiced drone echoed across the land. And there was no sound considered more Canadian, except perhaps the cry of a loon (the bird that’s on the back of a Loonie). Other distinctive Canadian voices were making their mark in music. Saskatchewan’s Joni Mitchell is one of the greatest living western folk singers. A Canadian singer named Neil Young rose to fame with an American-based band called Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But when Canadians hear Young’s nasal voice, most of us experience a swell of national pride.

In the 1990s, a rock band called The Tragically Hip began their careers singing about hockey and other Canadian pastimes. While they had a few hits outside the country, their success was limited mostly to north of the 49th parallel. One of the main reasons for this is that their music is so darned.Canadian.

There was a great deal of excellent Canadian music produced during those decades. For many years, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission has enforced Canadian content regulations which require radio and television stations to carry a minimum amount of Canadian content. At first, broadcasters complained about this rule because there wasn’t enough good Canadian music to fill their schedules. But there is little doubt that it is at least partially responsible for the strength of our music industry.

And the industry is strong. At one point in time, no less than three Canadian women singers topped the music charts in North America and the world. Shania Twain, Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette all had bestselling records during the same year. And Sarah McLaughlin became world famous a short while later.

Canadian music is not and never will be as well-defined as music from other countries. But it is probably true that music is becoming more global all the time – with world music influencing musicians everywhere and musicians from all ethnicities now producing pop music with similar sounds.

But if you listen to enough of the Canadian music produced over the last 50 years, you may even come away nodding your head, “Yes, there is such a thing as Canadian Music.” If you don’t believe it, lock yourself in a room with Gordon Lightfoot and the Tragically Hip for a few hours. There’s a good chance you’ll come away singing songs about hockey and maple syrup. If that doesn’t do it, look up Stompin’ Tom Connors. It’s a bit like jumping into ice-water – it’s bracing but it’s as Canadian as a polar bear swim.

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