Rivers in Canadian Music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Rivers in Canadian Music

Rivers were of paramount importance in the early development of Canada.


Rivers. Rivers were of paramount importance in the early development of Canada. Unlike the rivers of Europe, girded by castles and woven into legend, Canadian rivers have served more practical purposes: at first, with the Great Lakes, as the country's transportation network - to be supplanted by the railway - and later as an integral part of the logging industry and a source of hydro-electric energy. Like the rivers in Europe, those in Canada have been admired for their natural beauty, and to this may be attributed the many descriptive titles to be found in Canadian music. The first Canadian songs inspired by rivers were those of the voyageurs, including 'Youpe! Youpe! Sur La Rivière!'. Thomas Moore, who travelled with the voyageurs on the St Lawrence River in 1804, was inspired to write a 'Canadian Boat Song'.

Several individual rivers have enjoyed prominence in titles of music, but none more than the St Lawrence, beginning in the late 1850s with C.W. Sabatier's mazurka Promenade sur le fleuve Saint-Laurent. Other examples are A.J. Boucher's quadrille Les Canotiers du St-Laurent (ca 1860-6), the popular Sunrise on the St Lawrence (1910) by Maxine Heller (pseudonym for Frederick Harris), Gena Branscombe's song 'By St Lawrence Water' (1925), Percival Price's romantic symphony The St Lawrence (1932-3), André Prévost's Ode au Saint-Laurent (1965) for narrator and string quartet, and André Gagnon's suite Le Saint-Laurent (1977) available on an LP of the same title. Tom Wilson recorded Jim Plumly's 'The St. Lawrence River's (My Home)' for Rodeo Records.

Next in popularity would seem to be the Red River in Manitoba, given lasting fame in the folksong 'Red River Valley'. Other similarly titled pieces include Gigue de la Rivière Rouge by the violoneux Arthur-Joseph Boulay, 'Red River' from Violet Archer's choral suite Landscapes (1950), Graham George's Red River of the North (1970), Eric Wild's Red River Jig (1973), and at least three dance tunes by fiddler Andy DeJarlis. (DeJarlis honoured northern Ontario's Rainy River with a waltz, as did Burton Kurth with the song 'Road to Rainy River.'). Flooding on the Red River is the subject of Murray McLauchlan's 'Red River Flood' and James Keelaghan's 'Red River's Rising' is about the Riel Rebellion

The Saguenay River in Quebec inspired 'Capes Trinity and Eternity' (one of F.T. Egener's eight Canadian Scenes), La Traverse du Saguenay by the violoneux Louis 'Pitou' Boudreault, a Reel du Saguenay recorded by the harmonicist Henri Lacroix, Paul Jones du Saguenay recorded by the accordionist Tommy Duchesne, and the song 'By the Deep, Blue Saguenay' (1944) by Carlotta Fisher. André Mathieu's symphonic poem Mistassini was named for a river and lake in the Saguenay region.

From New Brunswick's Miramichi River come the folk songs 'The Miramichi Fire' and 'The Miramichi' and Kelsey Jones' orchestral suite Miramichi Ballad. The Ottawa River is celebrated in songs by Oskar Morawetz ('To the Ottawa River,' 1949, words by Archibald Lampman) and Ann Eggleston ('Night on the Ottawa River,' 1967), the Saskatchewan in 'By the Saskatchewan' from Ivan Caryll's and C.M.S. McLellan's 1910 US musical The Pink Lady and in Marguerita Spencer's piano suite By the River Saskatchewan. British Columbia's Fraser River inspired at least two songs: 'My Home by the Fraser,' a hit record in the late 1940s for country singer-songwriter Keray Regan (who also composed a 'Peace River Waltz'), and 'Fraser River' by Gladys Davenport Goertz. The Mira River inspired Allister MacGillvray's 'Song for the Mira' which has been recorded by Anne Murray.

Other pieces with references to rivers in their titles include Mrs G.A. Gilbert's 'Come to the Vale of the Beautiful Don' (ca 1870), J.F. Johnstone's 'The Humber Fairy' (1886), and Eugene Clair's 'Where the Dreamy Humber Flows,' all about the rivers which flow through Toronto; Joseph F. Lamb's Muskoka Falls - Indian Idyll (1902); A.A. Penn's 'To the Coaticook River of My Boyhood' (1909); William Ramsey Spence's Moonlight on the Rideau (1937); Reg Watkins' 'Where the Rideau River Flows;' and various country and Quebec folkdances. Ian McDougall's British Columbia Centennial Suite (1971) comprises six movements, each named for one of the province's rivers. Gilles Tremblay's Fleuves is an orchestral work with a river theme.

Films about Canadian rivers have had scores by Lucio Agostini, Maurice Blackburn, Robert Fleming, Harry Somers, John Weinzweig, and others. The CBC TV program 'Canadian Express,' 13 Sep 1978, presented 'Songs of the Valleys,' which included folksongs ('Banks of the Miramichi,' 'Where the Ottawa River Flows,' etc) sung by Marie Hare, Tom Kines, and others. In 1989 CBC filmed the group Tamarack as they cruised the Rideau Canal system as they explored the history and songs of the region. Tamarack On the Rideau is available on video and many of the songs were included on Tamarack's recording Shave the Bear.

See also Lakes; Occupational songs.

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