Monday, August 30, 2010

The Maple Leaf Forever

It's not really my song; it's my dad's song. It's not a song of my generation.

The Maple Leaf Forever. It's extremely Canadian. Well, English Canadian. In much of English Canada, it was the de facto national anthem till about the middle of the 20th century. It's what my dad knew as 'the national anthem' when he was in school. But the nature of the original lyrics, written by Alexander Muir at Canada's confederation in 1867, are problematic: they speak of a dedication to a British identity that is faded and quaint today. Moreover, it's slighting to the francophone and native peoples who were also here from the beginning of the country. And there's little for anyone of any other heritage to plug into, particularly newcomers. As a result, it had all but vanished from the public eye by the time I came along, entirely supplanted by O Canada, which became the official national anthem in 1980 (though I'd been singing it daily in school for years by that point).

I discovered the tune on the flipside of a 45 of O Canada that I bought in my mid teens, after which I dug around a little and discovered the lyrics:

In days of yore, from Britain's shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia's flag
On Canada's fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!

Chorus:
The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear,
The Maple Leaf forever!
God save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!


As you can see, the lyrics are imperialistic, ignore any tradition but that of the British Isles (though in a nod to the French Muir later changed the lyrics to include the lily with the rose, shamrock, and thistle), and get up the nose of French Canadians right off the bat by reminding them of the conquest of New France in the French and Indian War by James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham – a sure winner as a patriotic song if you're ethnically French. By the time I was born, most English Canadians were faintly embarrassed to sing these lyrics, and, as I indicated, the song faded from the public space of the nation.

Now, I don't mind the lyrics going by the board, though as a teenager with a strong streak of anglophilia, I found them personally stirring. But I'm older now and I get why this can't be a broadly-based Canadian song. It doesn't reflect Canada now, if it ever really did. But I confess, we lost something in letting the tune pass from the national hymnbook. I'd put it on a par with O Canada. It's a magnificent, soaring melody, and if it's rendered in the skirl of massed bagpipes, I don't think even Scotland the Brave can best it (proof of concept below: The Maple Leaf Forever performed by the 48th Highland Regiment of Toronto, medleyed with Gordon Lightfoot's Alberta Bound). I'll put it this way: if I were marching off to a necessary war and facing death, I'd want to march off to The Maple Leaf Forever. Coming home, with the country safe, that's when I'd want to march to O Canada.



I feel like we need a second song. The US has its official national anthem in The Star Spangled Banner (which even I find stirring, particularly this version), but also America the Beautiful (which I also like) and God Bless America (which I don't, much). Quebec has its own particular songs, particularly Gens du pays (literally "People of the Country", but probably better translated as "Countrymen".) But in English Canada, there's really only been O Canada since the 1950s or so. So I was pleased when I learned that The Maple Leaf Forever had been salvaged by an overhaul of its lyrics. Oddly enough, this was done as a part of a contest run by CBC Radio in the late 90s, which was won – surprisingly but somehow not surprisingly – by a new Canadian from Romania named Vladimir Radian. It was first performed in 1997 but I think it got its first real national exposure when Anne Murray sang it at the very last game the Toronto Maple Leafs played in Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999... the closing of the last Original Six stadium in the NHL; quite an occasion. Here is that performance... ironically, fronted not by the Maple Leaf flag but by the 1922-1957 version of the Canadian Red Ensign.



I think it's obvious that these are lyrics much more suited to a peaceful, multicultural immigrant nation of the 21st century, as well as one with longstanding interwoven threads from the 17th and 18th centuries, and beyond to time immemorial. They're entirely suitable to who we have become, and it's at last a song we could sing with pride without blushing and with the need apologize to no one. And so it has been now, before the world: a jazzy version of it was sung by performer Michael Bublé for the 2010 Winter Olympics closing ceremony. I was pleased by that. I bet a lot of people were. I really hope this song can make a comeback and take its rightful and needful place alongside O Canada, second only to it.

None of this is deny the power of the anthem I grew up with, of course... :) Take it away, you Oilers fans!



The words of The Maple Leaf Forever; 1867 version and 1997 version:


1867 lyrics, by Alexander Muir

1997 lyrics, by Vladimir Radian
In days of yore, from Britain's shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia's flag
On Canada's fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!

Chorus:
The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear,
The Maple Leaf forever!
God save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!

At Queenston Heights and Lundy's Lane,
Our brave fathers, side by side,
For freedom, homes and loved ones dear,
Firmly stood and nobly died;
And those dear rights which they maintained,
We swear to yield them never!
Our watchword evermore shall be
"The Maple Leaf forever!"

(Chorus)

Our fair Dominion now extends
From Cape Race to Nootka Sound;
May peace forever be our lot,
And plenteous store abound:
And may those ties of love be ours
Which discord cannot sever,
And flourish green o'er freedom's home
The Maple Leaf forever!

(Chorus)

On merry England's far famed land
May kind heaven sweetly smile,
God bless old Scotland evermore
and Ireland's Em'rald
Isle!
And swell the song both loud and long
Till rocks and forest quiver!
God save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!

(Chorus)
O, land of blue unending skies,
Mountains strong and sparkling snow,
A scent of freedom in the wind,
O'er the emerald fields below.
To thee we brought our hopes, our dreams,
For thee we stand together,
Our land of peace, where proudly flies,
The Maple Leaf forever.

Chorus:
Long may it wave, and grace our own,
Blue skies and stormy weather,
Within my heart, above my home,
The Maple Leaf forever!

From East and West, our heroes came,
Through icy fields and frozen bays,
Who conquered fear, and cold, and hate,
And their ancient wisdom says:
Protect the weak, defend your rights,
And build this land together,
Above which shine the Northern Lights,
And the Maple Leaf forever!

(Chorus)

Oh, Maple Leaf, around the world,
You speak as you rise high above,
Of courage, peace and quiet strength,
Of the Canada I love.
Remind us all our union bound,
By ties we cannot sever,
Bright flag revered on every ground,
The Maple Leaf forever!

(Chorus)

Red, white, and natural blue

Addendum, Sept. 1: I've listened to the Anne Murray version of the new lyrics umpteen times now ans the chorus lyric "within my heart, above my home" nails me every time. I think it's far more effective than Muir's eulogizing in the abstract on events long ago. Far more visceral.

Also, now that I come to think about it, the third verse of the original version is anachronistic. Neither Cape Race nor Nootka Sound were in Canada in the autumn of 1867, when the song was penned. "Our fair dominion" at that time extended from (metaphorically) Cape Breton Island to somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Superior. Nootka Sound is in British Columbia, which joined Confederation in 1871; Cape Race is in Newfoundland and wasn't a part of Canada even when my parents were born: Newfoundland didn't confederate until 1949. So that lyric couldn't have been written before mid-century. It's a knock on the noggin for all these folks who complain that the changes made to O Canada when it became official mean it's impure, unlike The Maple Leaf Forever.

No comments: