By Mat Wilkins
Founded in 1894, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir gave the city its nickname “choral capital of North America”
A common (and perhaps slightly ill informed) opinion about Canada’s musical output and its effect on the hearts and minds of people around the globe typically seems to go a little like this: “Rah rah! Hear Ye! Smash hit artists like Bieber, Drake, Avril Lavigne, and Nickleback are the backbone upon which this great nation’s rich musical history thrives and is maintained!” But do not be confused, dear readers, this opinion is an erroneous one, but it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the ability of these artists —who, as we know, have all generated remarkable amounts of cultural impact in Canada and abroad. No.
The reason the above assumption is misleading is primarily because of the above list’s pitiful length and tragic lack of breadth. But even after we consider artists like The Weeknd, Arcade Fire, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams, The Tragically Hip, Alanis Morissette, The Guess Who, Leonard Cohen, The Band, Sum 41, Simple Plan, Rush, Michael Buble, Celine Dion, and so on, we have only just skimmed the surface of this country’s musical past. To elaborate: Canadians typically seem to know a lot about those homegrown heroes that are most memorable to us, our parents, or even our grandparents, but memory is a funny thing that way; when we look at any kind of cultural anything that has existed in the past we’re often limited to the small histories of our friends, loved ones, and whoever else we turn to for information, trend reports, whatever. The whole truth, however, is that Canada has been churning out talented and influential musicians since —and before— The British North America Act was signed in 1867 unifying Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick under the crown. Happy Sesquicentennial!
To properly broach the considerably gigantic subject of origins and influences in Canadian music, let’s first go all the way back to before and around our nation’s first birthday. Since colonization in the 17th century, music (like people) was forcefully imported despite a largely inhospitable climate and geography. Settlements were spread far and wide, with prohibitively expensive opera houses and theatres spread even farther and wider, if at all. Unlike today, building-code-breaking bars or vile, unventilated venues simply couldn’t suffice. And without any stable or immediate form of communication with the old world or with one another, composers and performers who were intent on preserving their traditional styles were at a loss.
Eventually Canada was forced to create and adopt its own brand of orally transmitted folk music that was tailored to the settler lifestyle, the existence of which you’re just going to have to accept in good faith, I guess. But don’t worry, written compositions survived! These included but are not limited to such classics as “General Craig’s March” by Frederick Glackemeyer (circa 1810), or “Fairy Song” by Stephen Codman (1824). Though today songs like these don’t exactly set every Canadian’s foot a-tapping, they stand as a hallmark of the earliest Canadian musicians and their accomplishments (This of course doesn’t include Quebec which is somehow four times as old as the rest of the country and would likely require an entire standalone article to cover its particular histories, musical or otherwise). But enough of this pre-federation nonsense! Moving to 1867 and beyond!
After industrialization and mass immigration during the 1840s and 50s, places started popping up everywhere selling and manufacturing whatever you could possibly want (terms and conditions may have applied). Sheet music was among these things, and music from around the globe became much more available in a much shorter amount of time to citizens around the country. The population of lower Canada (now known as Eastern Canada) had doubled between 1831 and 1861, and five times as many immigrants were now settling in the West and North. Settlements in the West were still spread out, but music could now be printed and shipped around the country straight to your very own doorstep* (*read: the post office a few hours away). Gone was the age of the struggling and isolated Canadian musician, and thus began the age-old tradition of sensational artists fleeing the country to greener pastures— which continues to this day! Even Calixa Lavallée, the composer of the Canadian national anthem, thought he’d have better luck writing and performing in New York instead.
Fast forward again to the early 20th century, and vaudeville performances had become the newest craze sweeping North America, with talented Canadian musicians happily hopping right on board that steam-powered trend train with considerable finesse. Most notable of all were the accomplishments of Shelton Brooks, who composed “Some of these Days” for Sophie Tucker, one of the most popular entertainers in America in the beginning of the century. Here we find another Canadian tradition that’s withstood the test of time, as musical ghost writers like Stephen Kozmeniuk write and produce for artists like Madonna, The Game, and Nicki Minaj today.
The beginning of the century also heralded an explosion in orchestral and choral work, as large sums of money finally began flowing into the country to finance musicians and musical groups. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was founded in 1894, and, gracefully harnessing Torontonians’ natural loudness, gave the city its nickname as “the choral capital of North America” in the early 1900s. CMT continues to this day, recording and performing around the world and leaving whirlwinds of critical acclaim in their wake.
Now scurry everybody back into the time machine and have your IDs out it’s on a tight schedule. And fasten your seatbelts! You’ve no idea the liability issues you have to deal with operating one of these. With the stock market crash of The Great Depression and the advent of new radio and recording technologies, Canada’s domestic music had taken a considerable hit; Canadian musicians no longer had the money to buy instruments, while others from around the world were now outperforming them in the living rooms and watering holes of their former audience. But some fragmented flashes of hope remained far off in the red light districts of Montreal city (which apparently snuck into the dominion while we weren’t looking).
As vaudeville and orchestral musics’ popularity waned considerably, jazz was slowly becoming the frontrunner of the North American avant garde. The genre was developed by African American musicians in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, but segregated clubs had put a significant damper on performance opportunities. Montreal and its integrated clubs quickly became a hotspot for jazz musicians, attracting a myriad of artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and Duke Ellington. Occasionally frequenting these venues and performing at some not-quite-as-fabulous spots was local jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, who was later given the (kind of peculiar) nickname “Maharaja of the keyboard” by Duke Ellington himself. Peterson went on to perform in thousands of concerts, release over 200 songs, and win eight grammys. Montreal even remains a hub for all things jazz today, hosting Le Festival International de Jazz de Montréal annually, with an average turnout of around 400 000 people.
At around this point in our Canadian musical history lesson we’ve finally ventured into subject matter that you’ve perhaps experienced in your own past, or that your parents, grandparents, uncles, or aunts can take over describing should they be storytelling types. And let’s hope they are because this article is wrapping up regardless. Sorry.
But one last thing! Arguably the most underrated of all musicians in Canada are the great many First Nations cultures and communities that lived before the ‘founding’ of the nation and continue to live today. As most settlers in Canada took no interest in recording or describing First Nations music (don’t forget banning cultural practices too), most of the remaining evidence we have of the songs of particular bygone cultures’ is in the preserved instruments found in museums and private collections. Most First Nations peoples of the past used drums and noisemakers made of wood, animal hides, and horns to create complicated rhythms that were played in the background over powerful and poetic vocal melodies.
As for contemporary First Nations artists, there are plenty! Light In the Attic Record’s “Native North America, Vol I” is a compilation album of Indigenous pop, rock, folk, and country artists from around the country performing between 1966 and 1985. Artists recording and performing now include pop vocalist Iskwé, throat singer Tanya Tagaq, or singer songwriter duo Digging Roots, to name but a small few.
So as you can see, Canada’s musical history is in many ways like a great song: beautiful, necessary, and important at all points in time. And without a strong beginning, songs, poems, paintings, sculptures and histories would simply fall apart or cease existing entirely. Were it not for the countless Canadian musicians that set the stage for contemporary artists through their innumerable amounts of diligence, creativity, and talent, there is a good to fair chance that we would be a world without Shawn Mendes. Let that sink in.