July 01, 2006

Bonne fête, Canada

Today is July 1: the 139th birthday of the Dominion of Canada. Here in Ottawa, that means that there is a massive street party in the vicinity of Parliament Hill, together with a couple hundred thousand of your closest friends. At some point in the day, everyone is going to get completely drenched by rain. (This has not failed to happen in my memory.) Finally, the day ends with a spectacular fireworks display over the Ottawa River and a long wait for a ride home on the bus with a few dozen of your drunk best friends.

It is my custom on Canada Day to introduce my readers (particularly my non-Canadian ones) to a Canadian patriotic song. I am a sixth-generation Canadian, and although I am Ontario born and raised, my generation is practically the first to live outside of Nova Scotia. It seems fitting, therefore, to showcase the traditional Nova Scotian folk song, "Farewell to Nova Scotia" this year. When I attended the McClare/McClair family reunion in Nova Scotia in 2000, this was one of the songs we sang around the campfire. It was ironic that so many McClares from all over the continent gathered at our point of origin and sang this song.

My recording is by the Irish Rovers (who, ironically, are based in the West); the lyrics as recorded by them are:

Farewell to Nova Scotia, the sea-bound coast
Let your mountains dark and dreary be
When I am far away on the briny ocean tossed
Will you ever heave a sigh or a wish for me?

The sun was setting in the west
The birds were singing on every tree
All nature seemed to be at rest
But alas there was no rest for me.


I grieve to leave my native home
I grieve to leave my comrades all
And my parents whom I hold so dear
And the bonnie, bonnie lass I do adore.


The drums do beat and the wars do alarm
My captain calls, I must obey
Farewell, farewell to Nova Scotia's charms
For it's early in the morning I am bound far away.


I have two brothers and they are at rest
Their arms are folded on their chest
But a poor simple sailor just like me
Must be tossed and turned in the deep dark sea.


(If you'd like to sing along, naturally the Net has a MIDI accompaniment.)

The authorship of "Farewell to Nova Scotia" is unknown. Likely it was written in the early part of the 20th century, before or during World War I. In those days, Canada was still a colony of England, and when she went to war, so did we. The song is about resentment at being shipped across the world to fight (and perhaps die) overseas without seeing the homeland again. A century later it takes on a new significance, given the migration away from the economically depressed Maritimes for the more prosperous climes of Ontario and the West.

Virtually every East Coast musician of note has recorded this song, from Anne Murray to Great Big Sea. It is said that the best recording is that of the late folk singer Stan Rogers, although I have not heard it.

Previous songs from previous Canada Days: