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.


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