July 01, 2012

Come, all ye bold Canadians, to Canada Day

Happy Canada Day, mes amis. Today is Canada's 145th birthday. I'm actually writing this up on the evening of June 30, but if the weather is agreeable, then by the time you read this, I'll be downtown seeing the sights on and around Parliament Hill (and I'll be viewing this evening's fireworks from a friend's balcony).

Since I started this blog, it has been my tradition to give a brief history of a different Canadian patriotic song each July 1. I believe I hit the point last year where I had done the last song I knew. So I found myself at a bit of a loss this summer for new material.

However, at some point I realized, "Hey, wait a minute—this is 2012. It's the bicentennial year of the beginning of the War of 1812!" After all, surely a major war produced a patriotic song or two . . .


In 1812, Britain was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, and sought to impede American trade with France. They also needed sailors for their naval ships, and used press gangs to crew their ships with qualified seamen from the merchant Navy as well as sailors from other countries. These included British sailors who had taken American citizenship, which England did not recognize. The British were also encouraging Indian raids on American settlements. In response, Congress declared war for the first time, against England, on June 18, 1812.

On August 15, 1812, British general Isaac Brock, along with the Shawnee commander Tecumseh, began a seige of Fort Detroit. Brock had used a ruse to make the Americans believe that their numbers were much larger than they actually were; when the shooting actually started, American general William Hull was so demoralized that he surrendered the fort without much of a fight: only a handful of American soldiers died in the skirmish. (Hull was later court-martialed and sentenced to death for his surrender, but he was pardoned by President James Madison in light of his past service to his country.) The nearly 600 American regulars stationed at Fort Detroit were shipped to Quebec as prisoners of war, and the British held the fort for more than a year before the Americans retook it.

It was during this campaign, then, that the folk song "The Bold Canadian" was born. It was intended as a recruiting song: it plays up the victory of Brock and the surrender of the Americans, and encourages Canadian men to enlist and join the militia and fight the good fight. This song was passed down only in oral tradition throughout the 19th century—only published for the first time in the 1920s—so, like many folk songs, it comes down to us in multiple versions. The Wikipedia entry lists three, for example. So, rather than try and come up with one more-or-less authoritative version, I'll just leave you with this recording, made last year by folk singer Geoff Berner:


The end of the War of 1812 resulted in a lasting peace and friendship between the U.S. and Britain. We could wish that all wars ended with enemies becoming such close friends. Also, the war gave the Americans at least one significant patriotic song: "The Star Spangled Banner," their national anthem, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 after he witnessed the siege of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.

Erratum: In the comments, the video's owner pointed out what I should have spotted myself: the performer of "The Bold Canadian" is Charles Jordan, not Geoff Berner. It was an honest mistake, of course, and easy to make if you simply concede that "Charles Jordan" is virtually indistinguishable from "Geoff Berner," and "Canadian Folksongs: The Centennial Collection" is easily confused with "Folk Songs of Canada Now." Mea culpa.

Previous Canada Day songs: