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Fowke, Creighton receive Legacy awards

With stars like Sylvia Tyson and Robbie Robertson in the house for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees’ gala,  a small tribute to the late song collectors Edith Fowke and Helen Creighton was hardly the evening’s most glamorous moment.

Amid the glitz at the Toronto Centre for the Arts last Saturday, the faces of two ordinary-looking, elderly women appeared briefly on screen in black and white as a tribute to their respective careers boomed over the sound system. It was anything but a telegenic moment, and the slick show moved quickly on.

Yet the acknowledgment of the life’s work of these two remarkable women was arguably the highlight of the show, for without their work our understanding of the Canadian songwriting tradition would be much the poorer.

Today, when we think folk, we think Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and the singer-songwriters that followed in their footsteps.

But a more classic interpretation of folk is “music of the people,” and the great song collectors of the 20th century were largely responsible for fueling the folk revival that allowed the likes of Lightfoot to carry the tradition forward.

Edith Fowke’s work as an archivist and historian was crucial to establishing the existence of an authentic Canadian song craft, especially in Ontario, where her efforts were concentrated in Guelph, the Ottawa Valley and the Peterborough region.

Fowke catalogued and published the songs of lumbermen, fisherfolk and other “ordinary people”. Her work preserved and popularized Canadian songs, games and folklore.

Edith Fowke’s book “Sally Go Round the Sun” was found in schools across the country. She was the first Canadian to receive (posthumously) the Lifetime Achievement Award from Folk Alliance International.

Helen Creighton’s work is considered groundbreaking in the field of folklore. While collectors across North America discovered and recorded songs of various music traditions, Helen Creighton went where few have gone before, often using unusual methods to gather her material in remote villages.

The image of Helen Creighton transporting a melodeon in a wheelbarrow to transcribe songs remains legendary in the Maritimes.

Among many outstanding contributions to Canadian culture, Creighton collected and published “Nova Scotia Song,” commonly known as “Farewell to Nova Scotia.” Interestingly, the song’s entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia, describing its collection by Helen Creighton, was written by Edith Fowke.

Edith Fowke and Helen Creighton both received numerous awards and honours, and both were Members of the Order of Canada.

While  rock icons like Daniel Lanois got the greater glow of the limelight at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame awards ceremony, it’s important to remember that the history of Canadian song begins long before the rock and roll era.

Imagine a lone woman, seeking songs and singers willing to share them in rural Canadian villages, camps and shanty towns. No artist shows a greater dedication than these women did in their respective careers, digging deeply into a history whose existence few authorities even recognized, let alone explored.

Helen Creighton was active from the 30s, collecting 4000 songs and ballads over a lengthy career; Edith Fowke produced several CBC radio shows and published numerous books and collections from the 50s into the 90s.

Edith Fowke (1913-1996) and Helen Creighton (1899-1989) were both honoured posthumously with the 2011 Frank Davies Legacy Award for their contributions to the Canadian songwriting tradition.

Images, courtesy Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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3 comments

  1. avatar
    Rachel Barreca 11 April, 2011 at 16:11

    I still have my hard cover copy of “Sally Goes Round the Sun”. I loved it as a child and used to spend hours poring over its pages, singing its songs.

  2. avatar
    Eric Thom 11 April, 2011 at 16:15

    As Canadians, we shy away from holding our own history high sometimes. I loved this and would like to see more like it. Helen Creighton is someone I wish I’d known. And I am much to learn about Edith Fowke. Good one!

  3. avatar
    Paul Mills 11 April, 2011 at 22:01

    These two women were pillars of the Canadian folk music revival. I had the honour to meet them both towards the end of their lives and feel enriched by their contributions. I have no doubt that Sylvia had a lot to say about their inductions into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame – good for her!

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