The Songs of Peterborough's first Irish immigrants

I think one of the dangers of the World Music genre is that it can promote a West-centric "them-and-us" approach to music of other cultures, where "World Music" just means any music that's not Canadian/American/European. When in fact (and hopefully this isn't a major news flash), "the West" is part of the World!

With that in mind, I want to share some world folk music that I recently found and thought was amazingly cool: Ontarian folk songs! Here's a sample, a thrilling ballad called "The Bold Privateer."

These Ontarian folk songs were collected by Edith Fowke in the 1950s who, in spite of the common understanding that what few folk songs there were in Ontario were probably long lost, set out to Peterborough in search of the descendants of the Irish who settled there during the Peter Robinson Immigration (these pioneers were paupers, mainly, who arrived in Canada poor in material wealth but rich - as all people are - in culture). By asking around, Edith located several people who still sang traditional songs. She recorded these in three albums: Folk Songs of Ontario, Lumbering Songs from Ontario's Shanties, and Ontario Ballads and Folksongs

Edith was struck to find that a number of the songs were Irish ballads, traceable to the early 19th century. Others were contemporary tunes more recently crafted (though undoubtedly not without that Irish flavouring), songs of pioneer life, agriculture, work, and relationships.

One of the traditional singers on the albums in John Leahy whose surname provides the handle of the established Canadian folk band. Of course, the connection isn't random: the 11 Leahy siblings who make up the band are descendants of John Leahy and, by extension, of Michael Leahy who immigrated from Ireland and settled a stretch of Canadian land in 1825, passing the songs of his own country down, down through the ages. If you listen to Leahy, you can't miss the strong Celtic influence they retain in songs like Mission or Seamus.

I like the way they describe their music on their website: "It's rock, it's pop, it's Celtic,'s folk,'s traditional,'s world." I like it because people often forget that "Western" music is World Music too, music that draws on long-established culture and tradition - albeit World Music that has become so familiar to us as to sometimes seem apart from music that is more foreign to our ears. 

(photo above from The Museum of Canadian Music.


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