JOHN GREER for the love of folk song

JOHN GREER for the love of folk song

I was blessed to grow up in a country that was justifiably proud of its cultural heritage and in a school system in which the study of music was an important part of the curriculum. My earliest memories of community music-making were in these elementary school music classes, and my love of Canadian folk song began there. Edith Fulton Fowke’s first volume of Songs of Canada (co-edited with Richard Johnson) became an early musical bible. The idiomatic and imaginative, yet easily accessible accompaniments made them a joy to play, even for a young pianist. I probably learned more about the history of my native country through the notes that accompanied the various songs than I did anywhere else. All my earliest arrangements of folk song were of songs found in that book. Of my fourteen arrangements or arrangement collections based on folk material, all but three are of Canadian folk song.

This is where my life as a creative musician began. Once my graduate studies at the University of Southern California were complete, I moved back to Canada and settled in Toronto in the early 1980s. Just two years later I was preparing for a concert at the National Arts Center with tenor Mark Dubois and baritone Mark Pedrotti, and we decided to improvise some Canadian folk song arrangements together to finish the evening. We started to explore various tunes, with some vague mention made of me playing the tambourine! I was not going to make my NAC debut with a tambourine in my hand, and so my career as an arranger was born. The arrangements were done so hastily that I had to write out the voice parts of the last song for the two Marks so they could begin memorizing, while I finished writing the (rather tricky!) piano accompaniment on separate score pages. This song, Vive la Candienne, was to become my first quodlibet, a composition in which various recognizable tunes are woven together contrapuntally. I fondly remembered working on Ingolf Dahl’s delightful Quodlibet on American Folk Tunes for two pianos, eight hands as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba. With Dahl’s finely crafted and exuberant piece as a model I was eager to try writing my own. To my surprise and delight Vive la Candienne has been performed many times since by every conceivable combination of solo and even choral voices. The success not only gave me a love of reworking folk song for specific artists to present in concert performance, it also began a creative career that has continued with numerous song cycles, choral pieces, chamber music, orchestrations, and two one-act operas for children.

In 1986 the newly established Aldeburgh Connection’s artistic directors Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata approached me to write an extended work for vocal quartet and two pianos based on Canadian folk song. (This work concludes with my second and much more ambitious quodlibet, a finale based on the rousing Newfoundland folk song I’se the B’y the Built the Boat. This movement eventually caught the ear of the late Elmer Iseler and he had the accompaniment arranged for full silver band by Howard Cable.) 

I was now nicely settled in Toronto and had the richly stocked shelves of the Edward Johnson Library to draw on as a resource. What astounding wonders I discovered there! I have spent hours pouring over the various collections of folk songs that have been amassed, literally a whole wall of them, and what a joy that was. 

So much of our indigenous song is mere appropriation of songs from Britain, France or the United States, and these songs rarely interested me, regardless of the wonderful wealth with which they infuse our culture at large. I was always searching for tunes or text that I considered distinctively Canadian. With my middle-class WASP upbringing I also rarely felt it was appropriate to exploit the rich vein of aboriginal material I found on these shelves except for one or two special cases in which I was so inspired by tune or by a text in English translation that I found it impossible to leave the material hidden on a library shelf. In one case, the haunting Ojibway Quince from my Studies and Rambels of Wasagewanoqua, I was merely acting as a transcriber of history, arranging a tune and text that Anna Jameson had recorded to the best of her ability in her memoir Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, tune and all. My only challenge there was having her resourceful attempt at transcribing the Ojibway tongue “translated” and reworked by a native speaker.

As the U of T library often had numerous versions of the same folk songs that I was researching, I quickly became aware of the transitory nature of songs that have been passed on orally over so many years. Each transcription is really just a snapshot in time - a piece of folk culture that is constantly evolving. This was an inspiration when dealing with a folk song like The Brown Girl from the Maritimes, clearly a piece meant to challenge and display a singer’s abilities as an expressive virtuoso. In my arrangement for baritone Kevin McMillan I made use of as many of the ornate variations as I could find, giving organic, idiomatic and thoroughly authentic variety to my compilation and arrangement of the numerous verses of this beautiful tune and affecting tale. Regardless of the number of verses in any one transcription, none of them told a complete or comprehensible story. However, after collecting dozens of different transcriptions from different sources I was able to piece the story together myself to my own satisfaction. Sometimes the unreliability of the human ear made me chuckle as I came across slightly different versions of words: “ fair gracious queen” and “ fair Grecian queen”, for example! Which one came first?

My Maritime colleague, composer and fellow lover of folk music AlasdairMcLean has strong ideas about this sort of arranging. He feels in order for an arrangement of a folk song not to interfere with the work’s integrity, it must use only the musical materials of the song itself; key and/or mode, range, rhythmic motifs, etc. I bear his words in mind whenever I begin to work on a new project, and of course am always very eager to respect the intrinsic nature of each work I choose to arrange or incorporate. I have managed to do so in some cases and have been more freely creative in others. It is usually easy to justify my liberties. For one thing, every arrangement is a collaboration between the material itself and the individual personality of the arranger. For another, many of my favourite adaptations of folk song are those in which the arranger gives a more free rein to his creative responses. I feel it is equally important that the arranger demonstrates skill in matching his work to the forces at his disposal and in bridging the gap of communication for the largest number of listeners. Nothing taxes a creator’s cultural and stylistic awareness, knowledge and taste more than this task, but no aim is more deserving or worthwhile. In my case, all my arranging has been for classically trained artists, most of it to be presented in formal recital. This paradigm alone has its inherent limitation, but also astounding scope. I have often delighted in finding and setting some whimsical or ribald ditty that I know will surprise and hopefully also amuse and delight a listener when delivered by a singer in white tie and tails or an evening gown!

I am so grateful for the chance to indulge my love and passion for folk song in this way. I am currently working as Head Coach of Voice and Opera at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, home of the world renowned American Spiritual Ensemble directed by Dr. Everett McCorvey. I heard them perform recently for the first time and it was a cathartic experience, eclipsing in its power and personal connection anything I had heard in the last year. The concert was further proof that these rich treasure troves of folk music performed by those who are as passionate about carrying on the traditions as their creators were passionate to express themselves in the first place will continue to move us to the core of our being as long as we have ears to hear and hearts to feel. 

Ever since I first learned the Newfoundland folk song masterpiece The Morning Dew from Edith Fowke’s first anthology it has haunted and obsessed me. How can such a slight wisp of a song with two simple verses and a seemingly static ABBA form with a line that moves almost entirely stepwise within the range of an octave and implies no more than two harmonies lodge itself in the mind and move us as profoundly as it does? The instrumental fantasia that I created for two pianos in my arrangement All Around the Circle to separate these two simple sung verses is my attempt to show in its expansive, romantic and highly personal way how grateful I am for these simple and profound blessings. How wonderful it is to know that there are so many other fellow travelers on the path of life that have the same innate gratitude and who welcome the opportunity to share it.  

Canadian John Greer  Is on the faculty at the University of Kentucky in  Lexington.  



1976 -Three Canadian Folk Songs- Three part men’s chorus & percussion (triangle, glockenspiel & hand drum)

1. Les Raftsmen
2. Donkey Riding
3. I’se the B’y that Builds the Boat

1982 -Three French Canadian Folk songs- (triangle, glockenspiel & hand drum)
First performed by Marc Dubois and Mark Pedrotti with the composer at the
piano at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa on November 28, 1982

1. Les Raftsmen
2. Un Canadian Errant*
3. Vive la Canadienne 

1984 - New Brunswick Bicentennial Salute - STTBrB chorus, fl, tpt, guitar & piano
Commissioned by CBC television, the Maritimes. First performed at the
Playhouse, Frederickton, on June 17, 1984 (televised)

1983-1992 - Four Negro Spirituals - Mezzo-soprano, Bass and Piano

1. Little David, Play on your Harp#
2. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot#
3. ‘Tis me, O Lord*
4. By an’ By+
First performed by Catherine Robbin and John Doddington, with Valerie Tryon
at the piano at the Art Gallery, Winnipeg, on November 20, 1983*
With the composer at the piano at Walter Hall, Toronto on November 12, 1987#
and by Valdine Anderson and Duncan Campbell, with the composer at the piano
at the Art Gallery, Winnipeg, on January 12, 1992+

1982 - Danny Boy - F. E. Weatherly - High Voice and Piano

1987 - My Love is like a Red, Red Rose - R. Burns - High Voice and Piano

1987 - All Around the Circle, Opus 8 - SATB Soloists and Two Pianos
Commissioned by the Aldeburgh Connection, Toronto. First performed
by Martha Collins, Gabrielle Prata, Dennis Giesbrecht and Mark Pedrotti
with Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubakata, pianists. Northern Lights, Walter

Hall, Toronto, January 31, 1988

1988 - First to this Country - Mezzo-soprano, Baritone and Piano
1. The Carrion Crow
2. La jeune fille sans amant (mezzo solo)
3. The Brown Girl (baritone solo)
4. Catherine etait fille
Commissioned by CBC Radio with the assistance of the Canada Council.
First performed by Sonia Racine and Kevin McMillan with Michael McMahon
at the piano, Debut Atlantic Series, January 1989

1990 - Beau Ciel (Chanson d’Acadie) - Soprano, clarinet, string quartet & piano
Commissioned by Rosemarie Landry. First performed by Rosemarie Landry,
James Campbell, Andre Laplante and the Arthur LeBlanc Quartet for the 1990
Festival Acadien in Caraquet, NB and recorded at that time for CBC broadcast

1992 - Chante, Voyageur, Chante - Baritone solo, male chorus in 2 or 3 parts and violin
Commissioned by James Campbell for the Festival of the Sound. First
performed by the Parry Sound Choral Society, Linda Lipsett director, with
baritone Daniel Neff and violinist Julie Rosenfeld at the Festival Hall,
Parry Sound on July 17, 1992 (“Gala Opening Canada 125 Salute”)

1993 - Monica’s Fancy - High Voice and Guitar
1. The Morning Dew
2. Kate’s Big Shirt
3. Un Canadian Errant
4. Que sais-tu bien faire?
Commissioned by Monica Whicher. First performed by Monica Whicher and
Rachel Gawk, Debut Atlantic Series, March 1993

1993 - The Second Dip - Mezzo-soprano, flute, ‘cello and piano
1. Rattle on the Stovepipe
2. She’s like the Swallow
3. The Farmer’s Curst Wife
First performed by Marcia Swanston, Susan Hoeppner and Ron Laurie with the
composer at the piano at the Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, on September 26, 1993

2003 - My Fancy Late and Early(A Maiden’s life and love in Canadian folk song) Op. 22 - Soprano & Piano
Prelude: Salish Song of Longing (Fancy awakes)
I. The Jolly Raftsman O (Young MacDonald)
II. She’s Like the Swallow (Who Is At My Window Weeping?)
III. I Died My Petticoat Red
IV. An Old Man He Courted Me
Epilogue: Come All Ye Old Comrades
Commissioned by soprano Ingrid Attrott and pianist Rachel Andrist
First performed by the commissioners at the Theatre de Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium
on March 31, 2003

2010 - Canadian Water Music - Soprano, Baritone & Piano
(Aquatic Songs of the Canadian People, Old and New)
I. The Log Driver’s Waltz (by Wade Helmsworth)
II. Song for the Mira (by Allister McGilvary)
III. The Mary Ellen Carter (by Stan Rogers)
IV. I Wish I Had a River * (by Joni Mitchell
V. The Banks of Newfoundland (Traditional)
Arrangements and Transcription * commissioned by the premier performers
Martha Guth, soprano, Tyler Duncan, baritone & Erika Switzer, pianist and first
performed at Ravna House, Snow Lake, MB, Canada on January 17, 2011


1996 - Studies and Rambles of Wasagewanoqua, Opus 16 Soprano and Piano (4 hands opt.)
Text taken from Anna Bromwell Jameson’s memoires Winter Studies and Summer
Rambles in Canada
1. Voyage to Canada (study) [text by F. von Schiller]
2. Toronto (ramble)
3. Sleigh Trip to Niagara (study) [text anon.]
4. The Resurrection of Nature (ramble)
5. From Sault Ste. Marie en Bateau! (ramble and three studies)
6. Ojibway Quaince (ramble and study) [text and tune anon.]
7. The Heart’s Laugh (envoi) [text by S. T. Coleridge]
Commissioned by the Aldeburgh Connection and first performed as part of their
programme Lady Blarney in Walter Hall, Toronto, on March 3, 1996 by soprano
Monica Whicher with pianists Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata at the keyboard.

Funding was provided by the Laidlaw Foundation.

1999 - The Beginning of the World, Opus 18 - Mezzo-soprano Solo, two-part Children’s Chorus and Piano OR Children’s Chorus in three parts and Piano

Salish Legend recounted by Chief K’hhalserten, translated by Sophia White and abridged
by J. Greer

Commissioned by the Toronto Children’s Chorus with the generous assistance of the
Ontario Arts Council. First performed by mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin and the
TCC, Jean Ashworth Bartle, conductor with Ruth Watson-Henderson, piano at the Ford
Center, Toronto, on May 6, 2000

LIZ UPCHURCH memories of Martin Isepp

LIZ UPCHURCH memories of Martin Isepp