Canada: it has mountains, lakes, rivers, prairies, and extends sea to sea to sea. First Nations peoples of many tribes, immigrant legacies from Scotland, England, Ireland, France, Hungary, Romania, the Baltics, Viet Nam, and just about any other country you could name make up the tapestry of Canadian culture and life. Wilderness and coast, rural life and city, Canada is a land of contrast and a land of connection. The interaction of culture and landscape makes up what is distinctively Canadian from these strands.
Distinct expression of Canada is found in art, in poetry, in novels and non fiction, in architecture and in business, in education and in political life — and in music.
You may know of Canadian singers and songwriters Gordon Lightfoot, Terri Clark, Anne Murray, and Shania Twain. Perhaps you are familiar with the work of songwriter Stan Rogers or fiddler Natalie MacMaster.
To learn about others who tell their own unique stories of Canada in their music, read on…
Violin, viola, and cello are the instruments the four men of The Fretless play. Making intricate music in a territory that lies between the precision of a classical string quartet and the free lowing high energy of an old time string band, Trent Freeman, Karrnnel Sawitsky and Ben Plotnick,who all play violin and viola, and Eric Wright, whose instrument is the cello, have been staking out a blend of musical expolration all their own. Winning awards and appearing at major festivals, the quartet takes on roots music standards along with some newer pieces, infused with and re invented by their communication, camaraderie, and flat out passion for the music. Their most recent album is called Live from the Art Farm.
“We’ve made a record of our favorite pub tunes, but transformed them in our world of arrangement and intricacy,” said Trent Freeman, who plays fiddle and viola in the group. “We are hoping to bring the current pub crowd audience to us and we are hoping to bring a new crowd to the pub, too.”
They incorporate varied style of Canadian fiddle playing as well as world music influences, learned while they were honing their musical chops in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Massachusetts, and Vermont. On Live from the Art Farm the four create sets of traditional Celtic tunes, and include several originals as well as a set with tune by innovative composer (and founder of the top Scottish folk band Capercaillie) Donald Shaw. Listen out especially for Maggie’s Set and the Killavil Fancy. To hear what The Fretless do with a slower tune take a listen to Dawning of the Day. In performance The Fretless crackle with energy and resonate with feeling, which come through on this live recording. If ever you have the chance to see The Fretless live, you will want to take it, too. This photograph was made as they opened for Cara Dillon at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2018.
Land of Fish and Seals: that surely brings an image to mind. It is the name of a piece written by Margaret Sharp Peace, who emigrated from Scotland to Newfoundland and lived there in the mid nineteenth century.
It is the title that Keith Murphy has chosen for a recording which includes music with elements of his Newfoundland, Scottish, and Irish heritage, his time living in New England, and his love for the Francophone music of Canada and Vermont.
Murphy is a top class guitarist who has worked with a range of leading musicians of the Celtic tradition and beyond. He is also a fine singer with a nuanced sense of ways to integrate word and note as he sings and plays. Each of the ten tracks on Land of Fish and Seals offers differing ways to appreciate his gifts of interpretation. The songs range from the formal language of the title track to the lively dance of Isabeau s’y promene to the haunting, quiet beauty of Crossing the bar (arranged by Rani Arbo, who sings harmony with Murphy on the piece). The Thistle and the Rose is an upbeat bit of Celtic celebration. Go From My Window is a fast paced Newfoundland take on the classic folk song story of a lover visiting secretly by night. Murphy puts his own stamp on Bob Dylan’s Girl from the North Country, too. The ten tracks all work together as a journey through time, place, and culture. If you’ve not yet heard Keith Murphy’s music, Land of Fish and Seals is a fine place to begin.
Catherine MacLellan is a gifted storyteller in word and music, too. She comes from Prince Edward Island, a bit south of Murphy’s Newfoundland, though also in Atlantic Canada. Her work and life have taken her to many parts of her native land as well as across the world, as is often the case with musicians. Her award winning album The Raven’s Sun holds many songs of change framed in landscape and emotion.
She is a singer whose gifts come through most vividly in restraint. Listen, for instance, to the ideas and emotions shared in Frost on the Hollow.
That’s not to say she doesn’t know how to create a good time with a lively song: Tell Me Luella, inspired by a family story, is fine proof that.
Speaking of family: Catherine MacLellan is a songwriter’s daughter, as well as being an excellent tunesmith herself. Her father was Gene MacLellan, whose songs you will know even if his named is not immediately familiar: think Put Your Hand in the Hand, The Call, Biding My Time, and Snowbird, the latter a career making hit for Anne Murray. Recently Catherine reached a point in her own career where she felt it right to record an album of her father’s songs. It is called If It’s Alright with You. On it are the chart making hits as well as several lesser known songs. While you do not have to know anything of other versions of the elder MacLellan’s songs to enjoy the album, if you do, you will appreciate that this is a fine and classy tribute from one songwriter to another.
There are many stories of Canada to be told in song. Listen to these recordings – and see these artists in concert if you have the opportunity – and you will come away with refreshed perspectives on those Canadian stories and, quite likely, an appetite to learn more.
Photograph of Catherine MacLellan by Jule Malet Veale; photographs of The Fretless and of Keith Murphy by Kerry Dexter, made at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow by kind permission of the artists, the festival, and the venues.
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