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A Musical History of Winnipeg #WinnipegWednesday

Feb 05, 2014

The crossing of the Red River and the Assiniboine is known for it’s confluence of cultures. This historic meeting place has welcomed Aboriginal tribes for centuries, and with them they brought goods to trade and their own musical heritage. Aboriginal cultures intertwine drumming, singing and dancing into their societies’ political and social fabric. One can therefore imagine the sounds of drumming and singing emanating from the plains before the settlers arrived, establishing a strong musical foundation before the city was established. Once the French speaking fur traders arrived and the North West Company voyageurs passed through, they brought the sounds of spoons and fiddles. From then on, in the early days of the Red River settlement, young settler families and Hudson’s Bay men enjoyed playing fiddle and piano. As Winnipeg transformed from a colonial outpost to a thriving town and city, pipe organs could be heard from many churches and numerous bands formed to entertain including the Winnipeg Grenadiers, a military band.

Winnipeg boomed into an exciting centre at the turn of the century. Music shops opened as well as musical venues including the Walker Theatre in 1907. Orchestras played rousing tributes to the Titanic, and civilian orchestras emerged from military bands, promoting music and musical education. Winnipeg audiences were treated to classical performances including a Mozart overture, a vocal selection from a Wagner opera, a Schubert symphony, and pieces by Victor Herbert. A strong choral tradition encouraged women and men to sing in churches and public spaces as well. From then on, Winnipeg attracted musicians and music educators from New York and would then support Operatic initiatives and the creation of the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir.

In the 1930s and 40s, the musical scene changed in Winnipeg, much as it did around the world. The supper club phenomenon grew, and the musical circuit between Winnipeg and the United States attracted crooners and vaudevillian acts to the “Chicago of the North” (Barbara Streisand played Winnipeg in 1961). Soon after, new groups began to emerge in the city, and by the time the 1960s rolled around, the folk and rock and roll scene was flourishing. Winnipeggers enjoyed Bob Burns hosting the CJAY Teen Dance Party and watched bands like the Mongrels, the Fifth, Sugar & Spice and more play for young kids on television. By the mid 1960s, Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, who had come from humble beginnings at St. John’s High School, Earl Grey Community Centre, and Kelvin High School¬†were already leading the wildly successful band, The Guess Who (formerly: Allan & The Expressions). During that time, Winnipeg audiences flocked to see local talent, including Neil Young who broke into the international scene in the 1970s, but who had been playing consistently in local bars in Winnipeg since the mid 1960s.

Although Winnipeg never grew to the same prominence as it’s fellow provincial capitals, it’s maintained a strong core of local talent throughout its history. Musical historian, John Einerson says that,

“Winnipeg’s isolation allowed for a strong and vibrant local music scene to grow and flourish. We weren’t on the touring circuit, so much of the live music we enjoyed was generated locally. Another key factor was the existence of dozens of community clubs which gave neighbourhood kids a venue to perform live. It was music at a grassroots level and very exciting.”

That thriving local scene is notable among bands from the 1970s and 80s including Harlequin, Streetheart and Mood Jga Jga right up to The Watchmen and Crash Test Dummies. Winnipeg’s cultural confluence continues with more recent bands including ¬†the Celtic-folk of The Duhks, the aboriginal sounds of Eagle & Hawk, the twang of the Wailin’ Jennys, the gospel hip-hop of Grammy-nominated Fresh I.E., The Weakerthans and the francophone a cappella group Chic Gamine, all incorporating inspiration from this prairie city.

It might be cold, but in Winnipeg, there is more than enough musical choice to keep your ears happy and your heart warm.

Written by Michelle Rosner – Winnipeg Education Committee