St. Patrick’s Day is March 17, the date of Patrick’s death. While it has come to be a secular celebration of Irish culture and, perhaps, more identified with nationalist and Republican sentiment, it began as a religious feast day. It was an official Protestant holiday in Ireland beginning in 1783. Probably by no coincidence it came during Lent where an exception to the prohibition on celebratory eating and drinking alcohol was welcomed and led to the embrace of St. Patrick’s Day by all. Four Christian denominations observe the holiday: Anglican, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran.
St. Patrick himself, the patron saint of Ireland, goes back to AD 387-461 and the arrival of Roman Catholic Christianity in Ireland. Then there’s the thing about the snakes but we won’t go there.
International Women’s Day is one of the few celebrations observed in Canada that is the product of dissident or reform movements. Its origins go back to 1909 when the American Socialist Party held an event honouring the 1908 garment worker’s strike in New York, where women protested against gruelling working conditions in the city’s factories. The following year there was a women’s conference in Copenhagen and from a motion by two German socialist women, International Women’s Day was declared.
February is Black History month. We’ll help celebrate it with two entries dealing with music inspired and produced by two very different Afro-Canadian communities. The first is from Nova Scotia. You can get directly involved in this one by going to your post office where two stamps issued for Black History Month are on sale. The one I bought features the face of Viola Desmond. If you buy a booklet of ten you get her story. Stranded in New Glasgow in 1946 and waiting for her car to be repaired, Viola went to the movies to pass the time but found that the theatre was segregated. Blacks sat in the balcony. She refused to move from her orchestra seat and was jailed and fined. She appealed and finally, after a decade, won and destroyed Nova Scotia’s segregation laws. Buy the stamps and read the story.
The Underground Railroad was a network of conspirators working to help slaves escape the United States to find refuge in the British Empire and other places where slavery was illegal. In 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which helped slave owners recapture their escaped human “property.” The act put escaped or free Blacks living in non-slave states in danger. Freedom was found through the underground railroad.
It’s January and the depths of winter most places in the country. I was thinking about winter songs. I was going to mention a few contenders but then I figured I’d cut to the chase as they say. My hands down favourite winter song is a kind of extended groaner of a joke by one of Canada’s iconic poets, Robert W. Service.
On a wall in my home is a print by David Blackwood. It features a line of humans dressed in various swaths of fabric, masked and guided by lanterns. It is titled, “Mummers Group at Pound Cove”. It is an eerie picture that conjures up images of medieval, Breughelesque, ceremonies. Mummering goes back to medieval times and, according to some scholars, to the back of beyond. No one really knows for sure. What we do know is that mummering, done by mummers, arrived in what is now Canada with the first English and Irish settlers and remains part of the Christmas tradition in at least Newfoundland and Labrador, although a friend from Prince Edward Island tells me it is still happening there, too.
I grew up in Toronto in a militantly secular Jewish environment. My parents and their friends – comrades, really – were Communists. This meant that they were atheists. It also meant that they were passionately committed to a Jewish culture without religion. Our “temple” was the United Jewish People’s Order hall (UJPO) on Christie Street. It was a cultural Mecca, as it were. It was situated across the street from the park, Christie Pits. In August of 1933 a baseball team of Anglo Saxon Protestants flew a swastika flag – the emblem of the Hitler regime that had recently come to power in Germany.
Asia is big! Technically it begins in Turkey and ends not far from Alaska in the north west or Singapore in the south west. That’s a lot of turf and hundreds of cultures. Many of them are represented by significant communities in Canada, from Koreans to Armenians to Lebanese to Punjabis to Tamils to Vietnamese to Chinese and Japanese.
When I discovered that there is a National Police Week that runs from May 7 through 15 in Canada, I was delighted. There are so many songs that deal with the bad behavior of the police over many years, and this gives me the opportunity to share a few. It is probable that the first song about the unjust behavior of the police was written within days, if not hours, of the establishment of the first police force.
While May Day is celebrated widely just about everywhere except North America, its roots are firmly in the United States, in Chicago to be precise. It is also a product of the struggle of workers for the eight-hour day, one of the key demands of workers during the late nienteenth century and much of the twentieth. While May Day is known as the day of international workers’ solidarity, there is no one song associated with it. “Solidarity Forever”, “Joe Hill, Hold The Fort” and “The Internationale” are all widely sung in Canada as is “Bread and Roses”.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I thought it was appropriate to revist some classic shipwreck songs, from the Jack-Johnson-inspired “Fare Thee Well Titanic” to a vibrant toast about escaping the Titanic’s sinking, and a popular Stan Rogers’ song about the fictional wreck and rebuilding of the the Mary Ellen Carter.