New Brunswick

New Brunswick searches for a musical identity

Although many Canadian provinces have a song that defines and unites, in New Brunswick there is a distinct lack of a signature song.

Is St. Anne's Reel the provincial anthem by default?

Although many Canadian provinces have a song that defines and unites, in New Brunswick there is a distinct lack of a signature song.

Alberta Bound has become a provincial anthem in the west and on the other side of the country everyone knows Farewell to Nova Scotia

But that's not the case in New Brunswick.

Jac Gautreau, a music and cultural events producer in Moncton, says finding common ground when it comes to defining a provincial anthem is a challenge.

"Before you write that song, you have to have a definition for New Brunswick that everyone can agree on," he says.

"As far as New Brunswick itself, I mean the sort of duality of New Brunswick makes the existence of that anthem more difficult."

Gautreau believes there are some anthemic songs among Acadians, but says they are more difficult to find on the English side.

David Hawkins, a marketing consultant, said he agrees it has always been difficult to brand New Brunswick because it doesn't have many defining characteristics.

"You've got to have something that's different than what other people are doing ... there has to be a meaningful point of difference or points of difference and it has to be sustainable," he said.

"It's got to be authentic."

Provincial anthems are songs that bind

Gautreau argues all signature songs rely on authenticity.

"They do offer a sort of communion," he said.

"They're a touchstone that is useful in sort of mobilizing people in getting them to reflect on things or just getting them to feel something in a common way.

Gautreau offers Cape Breton's anthem, The Island, which was written by Kenzie MacNeil as an example.

"It binds the community together. Even if you think that song is cheesy, because some people do, it still binds you together," Gautreau says.

"The same way that Viens Voir L'Acadie binds a lot of Acadians together because it describes an Acadia that some people might think is an outdated description but it still connects," he said.

St. Anne's Reel top contender for N.B. anthem

Don Messer championed the song, St. Anne's Reel, on his radio shows in Saint John, Charlottetown and later on his CBC Television show. CBC

While many say the linguistic and cultural divisions in the province will defeat any efforts to find a unifying anthem, there is one front runner.

Although it doesn't have words, St. Anne's Reel is recognizable to nearly all New Brunswickers regardless of their heritage or age.

Samantha Robichaud, a Moncton fiddler, has travelled the world and when she performed as a soloist with the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra in China in 2007, St. Anne's Reel was the song that was chosen.

"I got to play this tune for an audience in Beijing and it was such a cool feeling to be able to bring this popular favourite song to a whole other country ... it just brought so much life to the tune and to me," she said.

Ivan Hicks, a fiddler, said St. Anne's Reel is one of the most requested songs at his concerts.

"It's got great timing to it, it makes the feet go, a great step-dance tune. If you're playing fiddle music all evening and you end off with the St. Anne's reel it just ends off a great evening of a good time."

Ronald Labelle, the McCain research chair in Acadian ethnology at the University of Moncton, said it's a remarkable song that has become part of the musical fabric of the province.

"It has been played so much that it's become so familiar — it's like the signature tune for fiddlers and even when you learn to play the fiddle, before long, you play the St. Anne's Reel," he said.

Jeanine Despres, a member of the Greater Moncton Fiddlers, said St. Anne's Reel is familiar and comfortable for people in New Brunswick.

"I call it New Brunswick's National Anthem," she said.

Mysterious origins

St. Anne's Reel was first recorded in 1929 in Montreal by Joseph Allard.

According to LaBelle how Allard acquired or adapted the tune is still a mystery.

"I've always suspected that it had an Irish origin but I've never come across it except in recent recordings over in Ireland and Scotland [where] a lot of people play the St. Anne's Reel," said LaBelle.

"But now I'm starting to think that they borrowed it from us because tunes went back and forth going way way back."

LaBelle said he believes Allard most likely had an older Irish tune in his head which he then modified and added a second part to.

"Traditional musicians are not like a modern composer. You don't start from scratch. The elements are all there. It's the same thing with stories and folk tales — the elements are all there and you just put them together in your own way," LaBelle said.

Allard's recording was distributed to radio stations throughout Quebec and the Maritimes, however in the end it was Don Messer who made it the popular tune that it remains.

Stanislas Paulin is a folklorist and a priest who was raised in Saint John.

He says Messer championed the song on his radio shows in Saint John, Charlottetown and later on his CBC Television show, Don Messer's Jubilee.

"As a little boy that was my favourite program and of course when the Reel de Ste. Anne came on or St. Anne's Reel we all got up and wanted to step," he remembers.

"It's lively, it's catchy, it's just a great tune and of course we had a great New Brunswicker playing it and a lot of the Acadian fiddlers throughout New Brunswick play that tune. It's part of their repertoire. Very commonly known and accepted and very much loved in New Brunswick."

Paulin said he believes New Brunswick's historically large Catholic population also plays into St. Anne's Reel's popularity because the song's namesake is a crucial figure of faith.

"Saint Anne would be the mother of Mary and Mary, of course [is] the mother of Jesus."

Paulin said Saint Anne has always been revered by all of the cultures in New Brunswick.

"We must not forget either that our provincial capital Fredericton was originally known as Sainte Anne and it was the administrative capital of Acadia and so Saint Anne has played a great role among the Acadians."

"Also, most of the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet parishes in the Maritimes either are called Saint Anne or Saint Joachim, her husband, and that's because First Nations people have a particular respect for the elders — Saint Anne would be the grandmother of Jesus and so a great devotion to Saint Anne among the Mi'kmaq and among the Maliseets."

Paulin said he believes St. Anne's Reel could be called New Brunswick's provincial anthem.

"It doesn't have words per se and it crosses all the language barriers. It's a tune that we listen to. It doesn't have words in French or in English or in Mi'kmaq. It's a tune that we all just love, we can identify with so why not?"

Gautreau believes the song has what it takes to unite French and English New Brunswickers.

"We all sort of have that resonating fibre when someone sparks up the fiddle and so it just might make sense that instead of looking for common ground in language that we look for common ground in music and that may be what we need to rally around."

Hawkins agrees that St. Anne's Reel is a provincial anthem.

"It's such an iconic piece of music I can't think of a community where that wouldn't resonate in a positive context," he said.