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Encyclopedia > Canadian music

Music of Canada
Maritime Provinces
Prairie Provinces
Native American
Genres Classical - Folk - Hip hop - Jazz - Pop - Rock
Timeline and Samples
Awards Juno, Hall of Fame, Western Canadian Music Awards, East Coast Music Awards, CASBY Awards
Charts Jam!, Chart
Festivals Canadian Music Week, NXNE
Media Canadian Musician Magazine, Chart, Exclaim!
National anthem "O Canada"
Local music
Alberta - British Columbia - Manitoba - New Brunswick _ Newfoundland and Labrador _ Northwest Territories _ Nova Scotia _ Nunavut - Ontario - Prince Edward Island _ Quebec - Saskatchewan - Canadian music includes pop and folk genres; the latter includes forms derived from England, France (particularly in Ireland, Scotland, and various Inuit and ethnic groups.

Outside of Canada, artists like The Band, Céline Dion, D.O.A., Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette, Dream Warriors, Avril Lavigne, Bryan Adams and the Barenaked Ladies have achieved success in genres ranging from folk-rock to hip hop.

Within Canada, artists are recognized with Juno Awards and induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.


Folk music

Canadian folk music includes Quebecois, Irish,Scottish and First Nations and Inuit forms, as well as other genres from immigrant communities representing Vietnam, Haiti, India, French settlers brought music with them when inhabiting what is now Quebec and other areas throughout Canada. Since the arrival of French music in Canada, there has been much intermixing with the Celtic music of Anglo_Canada.

French_Canadian folk music is generally performed to accompany dances like the jig, jeux dansé, ronde, cotillion and quadrille. The fiddle is a very common instrument, played by virtuosos like Jean Carignan, Jos Bouchard and Joseph Allard. Other instruments include the German diatonic accordion, played by the likes of Philippe Bruneau and Alfred Montmarquette, spoons, bones and Jew's harps.

Quebec music

Main article: Music of Quebec

French immigrants to Quebec established their musical forms in the future province, but there was no scholarly study until Ernest Gagnon's 1865 collection of 100 folk songs. In 1967, Radio-Canada released The Centennial Collection of Canadian Folk Songs (much of which was focused on French-Canadian music), which helped launch a revival of Quebec folk. Singers like Yves Albert, Edith Butler and, especially, Félix Leclerc and Gilles Vigneault, helped lead the way. The 1970s saw purists like La Rêve du Diable and La Bottine Souriante continued the trend. As Quebec folk continued to gain in popularity, artists like Harmonium, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jim Corcoran, Bertrand Gosselin and Paul Piché found a mainstream audience.

Since 1979, Quebec music artists recognized with the Felix Award.

Maritime music

Main article: Music of Maritime Canada

Folk songs are those passed on orally, usually composed by unknown persons. Anglo-Canadian folk ballads are particularly well-preserved in Newfoundland. The widespread "Barbara Allen" is found in dozens of variations, as are songs like "The Farmer's Curst Wife", "Lord Randall" and "The Sweet Trinity". With the advent of printing, broadside ballads were found throughout Canada, many of them Anglo songs telling sad songs about unfulfilled love.

In the Maritime Provinces, sea shanties are widespread among the whaling and fishing workers. The lumber camps of New Brunswick have also produced their own body of folk songs.

Scottish and Irish settlers in the eastern provinces of Canada brought traditions of fiddling and other forms of music. Having declined in popularity during the 20th century, artists like Figgy Duff and Stan Rogers inspired a revival of Maritime traditions beginning in the late 1970s. Soon, Newfoundland Cape Breton Island and other Eastern locations were hotbeds of musical innovation. The Rankins, Mary Jane Lamond, Natalie MacMaster, Barra MacNeils and, especially, punk rock-inspired Ashley MacIsaac brough Cape Breton music to mainstream Canadians. Scott Macmilian's Celtic Mass for the Sea further brought Maritime music, this time from Halifax, into pop markets. Barachois and Albert Arsenault have popularized Acadian folk music.

Western Canada

Main article: Music of Canada's Prairie Provinces

Among the lumber camps of Ontario and British Columbia, and among the homesteaders and farmers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Anglo settlers adopted numerous American songs. "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie", for example, and the song known as "Prairie Land", "Saskatchewan" or "Alberta Land", which is adapted from an American song called "Beulah Land".

First Nations

Main article: Native American music

The native peoples of Canada are of a number of diverse ethnic groups, each of which have their own musical traditions. There are some general similarities, however. Music is usually social (public) or ceremonial (private). Public, social music may be dance music accompanied by rattles and drums. Prive, ceremonial music includes vocal songs with accompaniment on percussion, used to mark occasions like Midewivin ceremonies and Sun Dances.

Folk songs may be written by an individual, or they may be passed on from generation to generation, said to have been received through a vision or dream. These songs generally have one melody, which may be performed by an individual or a group.

Instruments include drums, rattles and flutes, constructed from natural objects.

Powwows are a common part of native music today. These are meetings and intertribal celebrations of music, dance and culture. The musical traditions of powwows draw on those adapted from the Plains Nations.

Inuit music

Main article: Inuit music

Approximately 25,000 Inuit live in Northern Canada, primarily spread across Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavik (northern Quebec). Prior to European contact, Inuit music was based around drums but has since grown to include fiddles and accordions. Music was dance-oriented and requested luck in hunting, gambling or weather, and only rarely, if ever, expressing traditional purposes like love or specialized forms like work songs and lullabies. In the 20th century, Inuit music was influenced by Scottish and Irish sailors, as well as, most influentially, American country music. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has long been recording Inuit music, beginning with a station in Iqaluit in 1961. Accordion players like Charlie Panigonak and Simeonie Keenainik quickly found an audience, with the latter notably incorporating musical influences like polkas and jigs from Quebec and Newfoundland.

Throat singing has become well-known as a curiosity. In katajjaq, female singers produce melodies from deep in their throats. A pair of singers stare at each other in a sort of contest. Common in Northern Quebec and Baffin Island, katajjaq singers perform in sync with each other, so that is producing a strong accent while the other is producing a weak one. The contest ends when one singer begins laughing, runs out of breath or the pair's voices become simultaneous. To some extent, young Inuit have revitalized the genre, and musicians like Tudjaat have even incorporated pop structures.

Other immigrant communities

Main article: Music of immigrant communities in Canada

Montreal's large immigrant communities include artists like Zekuhl (a band consisting of a Mexican, Chilean and a Quebecer raised in Cameroon), Karen Young, Eval Manigat (South Africa), while Toronto has a large Balkan and Turkish community that has produced, most famously, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Staro Selo, alongside Punjabi by Nature, who incorporate bhangra, rock, dub and English Punjabi pop, and the Afro-Nubians, who included musicians from across North America, Europe and Africa. Outside of these major cities, important artists include Uzume-Taiko and Silk Road Music from Vancouver and Finjan from Winnipeg.

Popular music

Main article: Canadian popular music

Before the explosion of modern popular music in the 1950s, Canada produced several notable stars. Bea Lillie of the World War 1 era, songwriter Shelton Brooks, doo wop group The Four Lads, bandleader Guy Lombardo, pop stars Giselle MacKenzie and Robert Goulet, jazz virtuosos Maynard Ferguson, Moe Koffman and Oscar Peterson and pop-country stars Wilf Carter and Hank Snow were all well-known.

After Elvis Presley's rockabilly style reached Canada in 1955, The Four Lads became one of the most prominent groups of the Canadian white R&B scene, which also included The Diamonds and The Crew Cuts. Crooner Paul Anka, however, became the first major pop star from Canada.

Canadian popular styles

Country music

Main article: Canadian country music

Country music evolved out of the diverse musical practices of the Appalachian region of the United States. Appalachian folk music was largely Scottish and Irish, with an important influence also being the African American country blues. Parts of Ontario, British Columbia and the Maritime Provinces shared a tradition with the Appalachian region, and country music became popular quite quickly in these places. Fiddlers like George Wade and Don Messer helped to popularize the style, beginning in the late 1920s. Wade was not signed until the 1930s, when Victor Record's, inspired by the success of Wilf Carter the year before, signed him, Hank Snow and Hank LaRivière.

Canadian country as developed by Carter, Snow and Earl Heywood, used a less nasal and more distinctly pronounced vocal style than American music, and stuck with more traditional ballads and narratives while American country began to use more songs about bars and lovers quarrels. This style of country music became very popular in Canada over the next couple decades. Later popular Canadian country stars range from Stompin' Tom Connors to Shania Twain.


Main article: Canadian jazz

Jazz is a genre of African American music, present in Canada since at least the 1910s. In 1919 and 1920 in Vancouver, Jelly Roll Morton, a legendary New Orleans pianist, plaued with his band, while native Canadian groups like the Winnipeg Jazz Babies and the Westmount Jazz Band of Montreal, also found regional acclaim.

During the swing boom of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Canada produced such notable bandleaders as Ellis McLintock, Bert Niosi, Jimmy Davidson, Mart Kenney, Stan Wood and Sandy De Santis.

In the 1940s, the first two prominent Canadian jazz musicians arose. They were Bert Niosi and Oscar Peterson. Peterson became especially internationally acclaimed, and is remembered as the premier Canadian jazz musician.


Main article: Chansonnier

Chansonniers were Quebecois singer_songwriters from the 1950s and 60s. They sang simple, poetic songs with a social conscience. The first chansonniers were La Bolduc, Raymond Lévesque and Félix Leclerc. It was not until the 60s, however, that chansonniers became such a major part of the Quebecois music scene. This was largely due to the formation of Les Bozos in 1959. Les Bozos was an informal collective of chansonniers, including Lévesque, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Claude Léveillée, Clémence Desrochers and Jacques Blanchet.

With the first stars popularizing the chansonnier format, a new generation of popular singers emerged in the 60s. These included Gilles Vigneault, Pierre Létourneau, Pierre Calvé, Hervé Brousseau, Georges Dor, Monique Miville-Deschênes and Claude Gauthier. The boîtes à chansons, a kind of performance place for chansonniers, also appeared during the 1960s, spread across Quebec.


Main article: Canadian rock

Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas_born rockabilly singer, became the most prominent figure in Canadian rock beginning in 1958. He did more than any other to popularize Canadian hard rock. He formed a backing band called The Hawks, which produced some of the earliest Canadian rock stars. Among them were the members of The Band, who began touring with Bob Dylan in 1966 and then struck out on their own in 1968, releasing well-remembered albums like Music from Big Pink and The Band.

Often, however, Canadian records were simply covers of American or British pop hits. One important example was a Winnipeg band called Chad Allan & the Expressions, who had a 1965 hit with a version of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates' "Shakin' All Over". Folkier singers like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Denny Doherty (of The Mamas & the Papas), David Clayton-Thomas, Neil Young, Andy Kim, Zal Yanovsky (of The Lovin' Spoonful), John Kay (of Steppenwolf) and Ian & Sylvia also found international audiences. Their success paved the way for a new wave of Canadian singer-songwriters, including Stan Rogers, Murray McLauchlan, Bruce Cockburn and Willie P. Bennet.

Guess Who?

Main article: The Guess Who

The decks stacked as they were against Canadian artists building successful long-term careers, the Expressions wanted radio stations and record buyers to believe they were a British Merseybeat band in disguise. So when they released their debut album, it didn't bear their own name -- instead, it was labelled "Guess Who?"

The ruse worked, and within a few years The Guess Who were one of Canada's biggest musical names. To this day, their best-known songs ("American Woman", "Share the Land", "These Eyes", etc.) remain among Canada's most enduring classic rock anthems.


In 1970, the Canadian government introduced new Canadian content regulations, requiring AM radio stations to devote 30 per cent of their musical selections to Canadian content. Although this was (and still is) controversial, it quite clearly contributed to the development of a nascent Canadian pop star system. The Juno Awards were first held in 1971, partially as an attempt to revitalize the Canadian pop industry.

The most immediate effect of the Canadian content regulations was the sudden rise to fame of Anne Murray, whose 1970 "Snowbird" was a multi-million selling record. Led by The Guess Who, Murray and The Irish Rovers, the early 1970s were a golden age for Canadian music. Following in these pioneers' footsteps was a wave of new bands, including April Wine, Triumph, The Stampeders, Five Man Electrical Band, Crowbar, Trooper, Fludd, Prism and Chilliwack.

The Canadian music industry was still nascent, however, with little independent music media and a limited distribution infrastructure. The two most internationally renowned bands to arise from this industry were Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Rush, both dominated by powerful managers. Bachman_Turner Overdrive's manager, Bruce Allen, went on to Loverboy and eventually manage such major pop stars as Bryan Adams, Martina McBride and Anne Murray.

Diversification in the late 1970s

Canadian pop music evolved with the times, reflecting worldwide trends. In the late 1970s, as punk rock and disco ruled the landscape, Canadian punkers such as D.O.A.., The Viletones, Pointed Sticks, Rough Trade, Diodes, Teenage Head, The Demics and The Young Canadians were there, along with disco divas like Patsy Gallant, Lisa Dalbello and Claudja Barry.

Pop rockers such as Sweeney Todd, Nick Gilder, Red Rider, Doucette, Triumph, Dan Hill, Trooper and Prism were also significant in the late 1970s.

Canadian cultural critics have noted that in general, the late 1970s were a lesser era for Canadian music. Many of the acts who had defined the earlier half of the decade were no longer recording, and the new artists emerging in this era simply didn't seem to be able to capture the Canadian pop zeitgeist in the same way. Many of them, in fact, were only "one-hit wonders".

However, a number of established Canadian acts, including Rush, Bruce Cockburn, April Wine and Neil Young, remained influential and recorded some of their most popular material of all during this period, and former Guess Who lead singer Burton Cummings emerged as a popular solo artist. Another of this period's most influential and popular rock bands, Heart, resulted from the collaboration of two sisters from Seattle with a supporting band from Vancouver.

Folk music

Some of Canada's most influential folk artists also emerged in this era, notably Stan Rogers, Ferron, Murray McLauchlan and Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

In the 1970s, chansonniers grew steadily less popular with the encroachment of popular rock bands and other artists. Some performers did emerge, however, including Jacques Michel, Claude Dubois and Robert Charlebois.


When New Wave became popular in the early 1980s, bands such as The Parachute Club, Rough Trade, Spoons, Trans-X, Rational Youth, Images in Vogue and Martha and the Muffins were along for the ride. (Rough Trade were particularly notable for "High School Confidential", one of the first explicitly lesbian-themed pop songs to crack the Top 40 anywhere in the world.)

The 1980s also produced mainstream pop-rockers such as Bryan Adams, Tom Cochrane, Platinum Blonde, Honeymoon Suite, Headpins, Helix, Toronto, Sheriff and Corey Hart. As well, the era produced the quirky art-pop of Jane Siberry -- who never exactly became a pop star, but remains one of Canada's most enduring cult artists -- and the country cowpunk of k.d. lang, who did eventually become one of pop music's biggest names. Lisa Dalbello, who had emerged in the late 1970s as a dance-pop singer, also transformed herself into a darker, edgier art-rocker, shedding her first name and becoming simply Dalbello in 1984. Another musician from this period, Annette Ducharme, has had more success as a songwriter for other musicians than as a recording artist.

In the late 1980s, the Canadian recording industry continued to produce popular acts such as Alannah Myles, , Blue Rodeo, Andrew Cash, Barney Bentall, Jeff Healey, Frozen Ghost, Sass Jordan and Colin James. However, alternative rock also emerged as an influential genre, with independent artists such as 54-40, The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, Skinny Puppy, Spirit of the West, Cowboy Junkies, The Pursuit of Happiness and The Grapes of Wrath all gaining their first widespread attention during this time.


The 1980s were also notable for the emergence of several media outlets which transformed the Canadian music scene by providing new venues for artists to promote their music.

Toronto radio station CFNY emerged as an influential player in Canadian music during the New Wave era. It was the first commercial radio station in Canada to support many of Canada's new and emerging artists, as well as alternative artists from the United States and Great Britain. It retained its tastemaker status throughout the decade, until new owners in 1989 tried to turn it into a conventional Top 40 station.

CFNY also created the U-Knows, which later became the CASBY Awards, to promote and honour independent and alternative artists.

As in the United States, music videos became an important marketing tool for bands in the early 1980s. With the debut of MuchMusic in 1984 and MusiquePlus in 1986, both English and French Canadian musicians had outlets to promote their music through video. The networks, however, were not just an opportunity for artists to get their videos played __ the networks created VideoFACT, a fund to help emerging artists produce their videos.


While the alternative revolution of the 1990s was kicked off in the United States by Nirvana and in the United Kingdom by The Stone Roses, in Canada it was ignited by an unassuming demo tape by the Barenaked Ladies. After the Yellow Tape became the hottest item in Canadian record stores in the fall of 1991, Barenaked_mania took the country by storm __ in turn, paving the way for an explosion of Canadian bands to rule the airwaves.

The roster of artists emerging in this decade includes Sloan, The Gandharvas, Change of Heart, Skydiggers, Eric's Trip, the Doughboys, Crash Test Dummies, The Lowest of the Low, 13 Engines, The Rankin Family, Alanis Morissette, Rheostatics, Ashley MacIsaac, Susan Aglukark, Our Lady Peace, The Philosopher Kings, Junkhouse, Treble Charger, Deborah Cox, Jann Arden, Ron Sexsmith, Hayden, Céline Dion, Rufus Wainwright, Crash Vegas and Shania Twain. The Barenaked Ladies didn't just clear the way for alternative bands, but for a whole new Canadian pop landscape, defined by a national pride and self-confident distinctiveness that had never been seen before in Canadian music.

No band benefitted more from that landscape, however, than The Tragically Hip. Unlike the Guess Who, The Tragically Hip's lyrics proudly wore their Canadian perspective on their sleeves. And while the Hip never made it big outside of Canada, it finally didn't matter: their Canadian fan base alone was enough to sustain a long, healthy career.

Alanis Morissette, too, kicked off another revolution in Canadian music. Just as Dalbello had a decade earlier, Morissette began as a dance-pop artist before transforming herself into an alternative rocker in 1995. However, Morissette's transformation launched an era in which Canadian women ruled the pop charts worldwide.

In the late 1990s, Morissette, Shania Twain, Céline Dion and Sarah McLachlan were arguably the four most popular and influential recording artists in the world, but several other Canadian women made waves of their own. Deborah Cox's 1998 single "Nobody's Supposed to be Here" was the longest-running chart topper in the history of Billboard magazine's R&B charts, Jann Arden scored an international hit with "Insensitive", and Kim Stockwood's "Jerk" topped the charts in several countries as well.

Also in the late 1990s, Elton John's 1997 re_recording of "Candle in the Wind" in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales spent almost two years on the Canadian Top 40 charts, substantially longer than in any other country. This was, in fact, a structural quirk of the Canadian market rather than a reflection on Canadian tastes in music __ whereas some countries combine radio airplay and sales into a unified hits chart, in Canada these are separate charts. So few CD singles are available in Canadian record stores, in fact, that in some weeks, a single that is available on CD can chart on sales of less than 100 copies.

Hip hop

Main article: Canadian hip hop

Canadian hip hop developed much more slowly than the rock scene. Although Canada certainly had hip hop artists right from the early days of the scene, the infrastructure simply wasn't there to get their music to the record-buying public. Even Toronto, Canada's largest and most multicultural city, had difficulty getting an urban music station on the radio airwaves until 2000, so even if a Canadian hip-hop artist could get signed, it was exceedingly difficult for them to get exposure.

Devon, Maestro Fresh Wes and Dream Warriors did manage, for a brief time in the late 80s and early 90s, to break through to mainstream pop. In 1991, Milestone Radio applied to the CRTC for an urban station in Toronto, which would have been the first such station in Canada, but that application was denied in favour of a country music station (something which Toronto already had on its radio dial.)

The decision was controversial, and hurt the Canadian hip hop scene considerably. Only one Canadian rapper, Michie Mee, made an appearance on the national pop charts between 1992 and 1998 -- and even she only managed it by partnering with the hard rock band Raggadeath. (Snow, who had a hit in 1993 with "Informer", is sometimes mistakenly labelled a rapper, but in fact was more accurately described as dancehall reggae than as hip-hop.)

It should be noted that many American hip-hop bands were popular in Canada, and that Black Canadian musicians such as Infidels, Deborah Cox and The Philosopher Kings had notable successes in the pop and rock genres. But for Canadian hip_hoppers, by and large the door was closed.

That began to change in

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Canadian Society for Traditional Music - Dedicated to the study and promotion of musical traditions of all communities and cultures, in all their aspects, particularly in Canada.
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