Monday, April 05, 2010

Toronto Book Launch

My book launch for "The News" is now set for Tuesday, May 25th, 7:30 pm
It's part of the great This is Not a Reading Series, at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto.
Please come along and bring your 200 best friends.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

"The News" chapter 1 as a word cloud

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My New Book

Happy to announce that my new book, called The News, is finished and after a short delay will be launched in May 2010. It's published by Groundwood Books, in Toronto as one in a series called the Groundwork Guides.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Johnny Canuck's the Lad III

By Peter Steven

Spiritual – Popular Gospel
What a Friend we Have in Jesus (with lyrics by Joseph Scriven in 1855 and music by Charles Converse, 1868) must rank as the best-known example of the spiritual among a general audience. Scriven was quite a character. After moving to Canada from Ireland at an early age he achieved considerable fame and notoriety from his home-base near Rice Lake, Ontario. He drowned in mysterious circumstances, predeceased by both his former fiancées, one of whom also drowned.

African-Canadian hymns and spirituals from an earlier folk era made their mark on a wide audience. A few of these were composed by Canadian-based singers or church leaders, especially in Nova Scotia and western Ontario. The music could be either solemn as with most spirituals or uplifting in the form often called jubilee. The new urban forms, usually referred to as black gospel, drew from the emotion and polyphonic rhythms of the uplifting version. Unfortunately, this music while undoubtedly popular remained an oral form, unrecorded and apparently of no interest to Canadian sheet music publishers. But we know it existed because so many of the next generation’s musicians honoured it as an influence in their pop compositions.

White evangelists also wrote new forms of spiritual music in the late 19th century. This version of gospel emerged, like it’s black counterparts, as accompaniment to the great Christian revival movements which swept North America and Britain in the late nineteenth century. The best-known Canadian composers were John and David Whyte of Paris, Ontario, whose anthologies Sing Out the Glad News (1885) and Battle Songs of the Cross, of 1901 circulated widely in book and sheet-music form and invariably set the congregations rolling.

Even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union jumped into the act with the wildly popular 1909 hit for the teatotal set, sung by vaudeville star Lottie Moore to the tune of The Maple Leaf Forever. The WCTU reached its greatest popularity in these years just before the war and most of their meetings featured rousing music – all of it topical and political.

Canpop – It’s Awfully Nice
The musical genre with the most specific references to place and setting during this era could best be described as canpop. These contemporary tunes or old chestnuts with incorporated up-to-date lyrics, were meant to be enjoyed solely as entertainment, novelties or dance music. A reviewer for the Toronto Star heard the crowd at Sheas vaudeville theatre singing Take me to the Toronto Fair in 1915 and enthused that “The orchestra under Mr. Gus Nauman’s leadership is heard to particular advantage in this number.” Young folks might be hearing Silly Ass, a lively two-step in vogue during 1907 or Oh Take Your Girl to the Picture Show, recommended as a Valse Moderato by the Colonial Music Publishing Co. in 1909 – “It costs just a little. It’s only a nickel.”

Charles Wellinger (1888-1943) actually seems to have made a living composing these sorts of tunes. Originally from Ottawa, Wellinger performed regularly with Hamilton’s Royal Connaught Winter Garden Dance Orchestra. Waltz Me Kid (1910) became his biggest hit but other tunes capture the canpop spirit quite nicely. His Come With Me For a Roller Skate (1907) gave us that memorable Canadian phrase, “It’s awfully nice you don’t need any ice.”

As with the patriotic and the spiritual, these proudly commercial forms were not confined to the biggest cities in the East. During the Yukon gold rush of 1898 William Diefenbaker, an Ontario teacher and the father of John, Canada’s 13th prime minister, penned a true canpop number known as Rush to the Klondike. The new metropolis of Dawson was awash in this sort of thing during its heyday.

But the rather simple rhythms and melodies of the patriotic, religious and canpop genres were no match for the cultural power and musical sophistication of a completely new phenomenon that emerged in the last years of the nineteenth century – ragtime.

Ragtime – Vital as the Heartbeat
The earliest ragtime burst into life during the 1890s in the Midwest U.S. Like spontaneous combustion, it seemed to explode unannounced and within a flash it was everywhere. In fact, ragtime emerged in many settings at once, drawing on several strands of African-American music composed for dances, taverns, brothels, traveling fairs, and variety shows. The cakewalk of the 1880s and the earlier, but still surviving, racist ‘coon-songs’ set the stage with their complex patterns of syncopation.

Ragtime piano combined a steady beat, played in the left hand, with various off-kilter, syncopated rhythms in the right hand. Unlike jazz, which erupted fifteen years later, ragtime was composed rather than improvised music. The result was lively and joyous and it spread like wildfire throughout North America. Ragtime was distributed rapidly among musicians in sheet music form and via piano rolls. For general audiences it soon bounded onto the vaudeville and burlesque stages. Although later commercialized and horribly bastardized, ragtime in its classic form was a sophisticated, hard-to-play music – it only sounded easy. Ragtime represents the first truly modern music because it starts to blur the line between amateur and connoisseur. Once it had been easy to know the difference between the simple forms of popular music and the complex concert repertoire; now the culture starts to produce popular music that only skilled musicians can handle.

Canadian audiences heard ragtime almost immediately as U.S. performers toured in their regular cross-border circuits. And it wasn’t always second-class acts. A 1905 performance at Sheas in Toronto featured the great Williams and Walker, the best performers of Black music of any kind in their day. At the other end of the continent, in Dawson, “the most famous pianist in town,” recounts Pierre Berton, “was the Rag Time Kid at the Dominion Saloon.” The Kid reemerges in Robert Service’s classic poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune.

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899), named after a tavern in Sedalia, Missouri run by Canadians, became the most famous ragtime composition, but several Canadian composers also took up the form. Not much is known about G.W.Adams, author of The Cake Winner (1899) or S. Em Duguay, who wrote The Club Cabin in 1903. Also long forgotten is George Lynn and his Ottawa Rag (1913). But their songs can be heard today on the Library and Archives Canada Virtual Gramophone website.

One of the first Canadian performers to jump into the ragtime craze was the classically trained and prolific pianist J.B. Lafrenière, born in the small town of Maskinongé, near Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in 1875. Lafrenière first gained fame in Montreal’s El Dorado Orchestra in the 1890s and later performed as an accompanist for the moving pictures at The Ouimetoscope, Francais, and National Theatres. His performances at the Ouimetoscope, a sumptuous movie palace, opened in 1907 and unmatched for years anywhere in North America, would have made him well-known indeed. Before his early death in 1911, he wrote dozens of waltzes and marches as well as Balloon Rag, Taxi Rag, and his best-known piece, Raggity Rag (1907).

The young Nathaniel Dett ( 1882-1943) remained completely unknown in Canada beyond Niagara Falls during his time here, but thanks to modern scholars and supporters he is now considered a major figure, his name kept alive by Toronto’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale. Dett was born in Drummondville, an ex-slave community near Niagara Falls, became a child prodigy and went on to write dozens of significant compositions in many styles. These included spirituals with newly popular rhythms, serious piano suites and choral music.

His earliest compositions were clearly ragtime, created for popular dance tastes. After the Cakewalk – March-Cakewalk (1900) was the first, followed by Cave of the Winds, March and Two Step (1902).
“It was once possible to walk behind Niagara’s Bridal Veil Falls,” explained Dett. “The experience was very much like entering a cave.” Visitors described the winds there as “tumultuous and breathtaking and called it the ‘Cave of the Winds.’”

Dett’s music drew on a wide range of traditions – his mother’s piano and spiritual singing, through the local British Methodist Episcopal Church, his father’s guitar and saloon piano playing, and free music lessons by a skilled local teacher. While still attending high school in Niagara Falls, Ontario Dett landed steady work as piano player over the river at the up-scale Cataract Hotel. Yet not everything was smooth sailing, and lest we forget the social climate for African Canadians at the time, in 1889 Nathaniel’s younger brother was shot dead by a local, white property owner.

Early in the century he moved to the U.S. where he soon began to publish significant new music. His Juba Dance piano solo (1913) was included in the Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus. According to music historian Elaine Keillor of Carleton University, Dett’s subsequent work in the U.S. “revolutionized the presentation of African American music.”

"There was poured into the astonished and delighted ears of the world an indigenous music, sung by its own creators, a music as fresh as the morning, as intimate as the breath and as vital as the heartbeat."
– R. Nathaniel Dett

Joseph F. Lamb, yet another gifted kid, was born in New Jersey but, like Dett he made a strong impression on the Canadian popular music scene. As a young student Lamb attended St. Jerome’s College in Berlin, (later Kitchener) Ontario in the years 1901-1904. During that time, while still only a teenager he was terribly homesick, his sister later recalled, and quite fed up, she said, with the city’s ubiquitous sauerkraut. Despite these privations he also managed to write an incredible number of sophisticated rags. Among his best are Ragged Rapids Rag (1905), Lilliputian’s Bazaar: A Musical Novelty (1905), and Walper House Rag (1903), the latter named for the famously elegant hotel that still stands in Kitchener.

All the tunes were published in Toronto by the dynamic H.H. Sparks music publishers. The going rate was anything between $5. and $50. It seems that Lamb and Sparks decided to capitalize on the German connection associated with Berlin and spelt his name Josef. Under the pseudonym Harry Moore, Lamb and Sparks released She Doesn’t Flirt, with a title and lyrics revealing the new-century realities for young urban women – “every masher smiles at her as through the town he goes.” Lamb, who was white, has long been considered among the three greatest ragtime composers, along with Joplin and James Scott. He lived to see the first ragtime revival and in 1959 played a special tribute concert at Club 76 in Toronto.

Willie Eckstein (1888-1963) also started young. Following serious study with teachers from McGill University and a scholarship that took him to Sweden, Eckstein launched into life as a vaudeville star, beginning in 1900, with the astounding salary of $15,000 a year. He was twelve.
Willie wasn’t entirely happy with the arrangement, however, and years later recalled, “Lack of money interfered with my ambitions. My family needed aid and when my father received a fabulous offer for my services in vaudeville, he accepted!."

Willie’s act emphasized, even exaggerated, his youth – by presenting him in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit and Buster Brown collar.
A Montreal Gazette reporter later tried to sum up Eckstein’s vaudeville repertoire. His playing “brought together a curious mixture: Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, jazzed-up classics, popular tunes of the day and something called ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’” By his twentieth birthday it had all come to an end. The boy was simply too old to keep up the act.

For the next phase of his musical life Eckstein sank deep roots back in Montreal and in 1906 became serious competition for J. B. Lafrenière as a motion picture accompanist at the Lyric theatre on St. Catherine Street. During this period he also wrote his first commercial composition, The Royal Highlanders March and 2 Step and co-wrote two genuine rags, his most popular tunes – Delirious Rag and Perpetual Rag (1914).

Eckstein accumulated several nicknames throughout his career: “The Swedish Boy Wonder,” “The Boy Paderewski,” “Mr. Fingers,” and during his time at Montreal’s Strand, management billed him as “The world’s foremost motion picture interpreter.” Throughout his twenty years at the Strand the outside wall of the building featured a two-storey-high painting of Willie at the piano. In 2006 Willie Eckstein was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Many Canadians living today remember his music on the radio and on 78 rpm disks from the 1920s and 30s. He even made it onto early television, but Willie had contributed to the urban popular long before.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Johnny Canuck's the Lad II

Johnny Canuck II
Peter Steven

Popular music in these years between 1896 and 1914 covered a broad range. Much of it was simple tunes easily played by amateurs: marches and ballads for street bands; sentimental parlour songs or comic airs for lone pianos. But a good portion of this music also comprised sophisticated compositions that required expert playing skills. Nevertheless, all of these works were professionally composed, commercially viable, and popular. This was music wafting up from the city street and careening out from the vaudeville and burlesque houses. In the western cities the music blew in with the new Wild West shows. To the young generation this was not their parent’s folk music for fiddle and barn dance.
Patriotic - with a swing and a dash.
Perhaps the most widespread musical genre from this time was the Patriotic. Many hundreds of songs and poems extol the virtues of the Canadian landscape, such as A Handful of Maple Leaves by William Westbrook, written during the Boer War, or Herbert Godfrey’s Way Up in Fair Muskoka. Other works in the patriotic mode boost the British Empire, or specifically praise the fortunes of Canadian soldiers and their wars. He Sleeps in the Transvaal Tonight, for instance, written by J. Cecil Rhodes in 1899, stirs a melancholy yearning between South Africa and Canada.

Of course patriotic meant different things to different groups, even within English Canada. A tune like Godfrey’s Johnny Canuck’s the Lad reflects the new Canadian nationalism. For Canada’s Hymn of Empire, on the other hand, Godfrey links Canadian fortunes to the cause of British imperialism. And with Hark! The Drum, as befits its commercial appeal Godfrey could play to both crowds. At the end of this period the patriotic shifted with full force into recruiting songs for the Great War. There were even songs to praise the role of the U.S. volunteers of the American Legion who made up the 97th Canadian Battalion in the early years of the war. Thus, Morris Manley’s 1915 hit Good Luck to the Boys of the Allies ended with these rousing words:
They’ll win the fight their hearts are right,
You bet they’re filled with pluck.
Right on their track, when they come back,
We’ll cheer our Johnnie Cannuck.

These patriotic compositions could take countless musical forms, from marches, to waltzes, to the sentimental – sometimes touching, sometimes syrupy. But the common denominator for many songwriters was the challenge of finding a fresh rhyming scheme for ‘Canuck.’ In his 1910 composition Jack Canuck, Ravenor Bullen solved it thus:

If you want to meet a man who stands out far above the ruck,
Come along, my lad, come a-long.
For I’d like to introduce you to my friend Old Jack Canuck.

“I have been favored with a new patriotic song, ‘Johnnie Canuck’s the Boy,’ by Jean Mulloy, wife of Trooper S.W. Mulloy of Kingston, the blind Canadian hero of the South African War. It has a rollicking chorus that goes with a swing and a dash that is sure to make it both a favorite with the public and Tommy on the march. The song is a gift by Mrs Mulloy to the Red Cross Society, Kingston, a generous and kindly act.”
– L.W.H., Musical Canada, February, 1915.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Johnny Canuck’s the Lad
Canadian Popular Music, A Hundred Years Past

A big shout-out to all you classic oldies fans.
I mean really old-oldies, eh.
Today’s all-Canadian mix showcases Willie (The Fingers) Eckstein, R. Nathaniel Dett, Herbert Henry Godfrey and many others.
So keep it locked to The Blog.

The Art of Programme Making
The public came to be amused, not to listen to a stuffed programme of severely classical pieces. The intelligent, wide-a-wake conductor will not neglect the classics in his programme any more than give undue prominence to the cake-walk variety but will balance the programme with a judicious assortment of the short classic, popular, patriotic, descriptive and solo selections, which appeal to the tastes of the majority...
(John Slatter, Bandmaster of the 48th Highlanders, Toronto. Musical Canada, II. 3. July, 1907. )

The urban popular
Ever wonder who reigned as Canada’s pop music king 100 years ago? One energetic fellow, named Herbert Henry Godfrey, stands a good chance of winning that crown. Godfrey had his finger on the patriotic and sentimental pulse. He had worked for piano and sheet-music companies, tolled as a church organist, and played numerous turns in vaudeville outfits. His big hit of 1897, Land of the Maple, along with the French version, Le pays de l’erable, sold an astounding 100,000 sheet-music copies. Other composers tried their hand as city or regional boosters and racked up some decent sales as well. Take me to the Toronto Fair (1912) was matched by Vancouver Town (1913); both were outsold by the inimitable It’s Sunny Alberta for Mine (1913). “It’s sunny, it’s sunny. . . . they’re all making money.”

Canadian music historians have succeeded in chronicling the performers and composers of serious European-based music. We know the detailed histories of the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Montreal Symphony, the Mendelssohn Choir, etc. At the other end of the musical spectrum Canadians have amassed considerable knowledge of rural folk music – everything from Newfoundland shanties to Métis fiddlers. Think, for example (or better yet, hum a few bars) of The Red River Valley, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, or Farewell to Nova Scotia. (By the way don’t be fooled by those histories south of the border that continue to cite Red River Valley as originating in Texas.)

What has been missing in this musical history is everything in that great realm between the very serious and the folk. I’m referring to the popular sounds of the cities, especially in those years just before the Great War, 1896-1914. This was music to accompany the new mass entertainments -- vaudeville, film, organized sports, streetcars, the bicycle, the roller rink – in the rapidly expanding cities. The growth of Canada’s urban centres during these few years hit a pace that’s hard to imagine today. Montreal and Toronto doubled their populations, from roughly 200,000 to more than 400,000. For the west urban growth was even greater: Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg jumped fivefold. Along with this growth came new social and economic problems and, for many, a deterioration of living standards, particularly for housing and sanitation. In response vigorous reform movements sprang up to deal with the worst conditions and most blatant forms of inequality.

The melodies of urban popular music undoubtedly reflected these social dislocations. They also went hand in hand with the new freedoms and extra leisure-time away from the farm. This popular music reflected many novel types of urban diversity, the jostling of all sorts of strange city characters living in close proximity. The big end-of-summer exhibitions that drew thousands provided a microcosm for this new society in the process of shifting from a producer to a consumer culture.

To be Continued.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Excerpt from "The News" coming May 2010

Chapter 8. Examiner. Journalism Ethics

“There is more nonsense written and spoken about ethics than any other issue in journalism.”
– David Randall

That might be true. As a working reporter and journalism teacher, Randall should know. But, his comment also reflects a type of disregard and cynicism toward ethical issues common in the news business. It’s an attitude shared by many journalists and editors alike. Ethics is a barrier that gets in the way of doing their job and getting the story. Ethics, they say, pre-occupies academics who lack knowledge of real-world journalism.

Of course, not all news people share those attitudes. Many reflect constantly on their work and their methods. They question whether their articles treat people fairly and whether their stories might cause harm. And they know that a huge proportion of their audience hold a very low opinion of journalists and their ethics.