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What Does a City Sound Like? The Musical Dynamics of a Colonial Settler City

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 December 2014

David Gramit*
University of Alberta Email:


A study of public musical life in Edmonton, Alberta from the 1897 Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria through the beginning of World War I provides a case study in the development of new urban musical cultures during the settlement of western North America. The contrast between the Jubilee celebration and Alberta's inauguration as a province in 1905 reveals growing ambition to demonstrate a capacity for the serious music that could be viewed as a marker of civic achievement, and the absence in 1905 of First Nations dancers and drummers, who had taken part in the 1897 event, provides a reminder of the displacement of indigenous peoples that accompanied the immigration booms that characterized settler colonialism. Popular music too developed with the city; as an alternative to non-literate, rural practices like fiddling, it could represent another form of urban sophistication, but also provided an opportunity to import high culture's dismissal of the popular, yet another signifier of urban cultural practice.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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Research for this article was supported by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It makes use of materials gathered by research assistants Kathleen Danser, Janine Stockford and Caitlyn Triebel, to whose energy, interest and insight I am indebted. I am also grateful to Sarah Carter for insightful comments on an earlier draft, to Mary Ingraham for a variety of insights during the drafting of the paper and to the other contributors to this issue for their comments at a roundtable on nineteenth century music in Canada at the annual meeting of the Canadian University Music Society in Victoria, British Columbia in June 2013.


1 Population statistics are found at (accessed 16 January 2014). This document includes the correct number for 1897, unlike the otherwise updated version found at, which gives the 1899 population figure for 1897.

2 Abbott, Carl, How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008)Google Scholar: 8. The examples are also derived from Abbott's discussion of the extraordinarily widespread habit of local residents seeing their settlements as on the verge of becoming central metropolises (5–8).

3 ‘Edmonton's Jubilee’, Edmonton Bulletin (24 June 1897): 1.

4 The chorus's first rehearsal was announced in the ‘Local’ column of the Bulletin (20 May 1897): 1. On Randall, see Berg, Wesley, ‘Music in Edmonton, 1880–1905’, Canadian University Music Review 7 (1986): 141170 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 151–4. Berg's article is the most extensive published source available on music in early Edmonton. Another study of limited circulation was prepared for Edmonton's historical park, Fort Edmonton Park: Gardner, Beeth, Edmonton's Musical Life, 1892–1930 (Edmonton: Fort Edmonton Park, 1992)Google Scholar.

5 ‘Edmonton's Jubilee’.

6 The summary of events is found in the ‘Local’ column, Edmonton Bulletin, (28 June 1897): 1, and the dinner is described in detail in ‘Dined’, ibid. Among the Cree of northern Alberta, the meskisimowin, or ‘tea dance’, was a spring and fall ceremony of thanksgiving and gift-giving, including the offering of food, tobacco and tea both to those present and to the spirits; see Waugh, Earle, Dissonant Worlds: Roger Vandersteene among the Cree (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996)Google Scholar: 55. It is not possible to determine from the brief account in the Bulletin whether this is the event that actually took place.

7 For a brief summary of Edmonton's history, including its early development as a fur-trading outpost, see Rod Macleod, Edmonton: A City Called Home, (accessed 16 January 2014). For more detailed accounts, see James Grierson MacGregor, Edmonton: A History (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1975); Betke, Carl, ‘The Original City of Edmonton: A Derivative Prairie Urban Community’, in The Canadian City: Essays in Urban and Social History, ed. Gilbert A. Stelter and Alan F. J. Artibise, The Carleton Library 132 (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1984): 392430 Google Scholar; and the essays collected in Hesketh, Bob and Swyripa, Frances, eds, Edmonton: the Life of a City (Edmonton: NeWest Publishers, 1995)Google Scholar. On the phenomenon of boosterism, see Artibise, Alan F. J., ‘Boosterism and the Development of Prairie Cities, 1871–1913’, in Town and City: Aspects of Western Canadian Urban Development, ed. Artbise, Canadian Plains Studies 10 (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1981): 209235 Google Scholar.

8 ‘Jubilee Celebration’, Edmonton Bulletin (27 May 1897): 4.

9 ‘Edmonton's Jubilee’.

10 Mathers, Charles W., Souvenir of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Celebration at Edmonton, N.W.T. June 22–23, 1897 (New York: Albertype Co., 1897)Google Scholar.

11 ‘Local’, Edmonton Bulletin (24 June 1897): 1.

12 ‘South Edmonton Sports,’ Edmonton Bulletin (5 July 1897): 1. For earlier accounts, see ‘Bear's Hill’, Edmonton Bulletin (8 November 1884): 3; and ‘Bears’ Hill’, Edmonton Bulletin (18 April 1885): 3.

13 Quotation from Berg, ‘Music in Edmonton’, 153. The national frame finds particularly clear expression in Richard Crawford's assertion that ‘What does it mean to be an American musician?’ is ‘certainly the central question of our music historiography’; Crawford, , ‘On American Identities in Musicology’, AMS Newsletter 33, no. 1 (February 2003)Google Scholar: 23.

14 For a concise discussion of the colonial process in these terms, see Loomba, Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, The New Critical Idiom (New York: Routledge, 1998), 23 Google Scholar.

15 See Baker, Geoffrey, Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008): 4250 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 ‘The Civic Holiday’, Edmonton Bulletin (24 October 1902): 2. In 1904, Edmonton's population was 8,350. There are no data for 1905, but by 1906, the figure is 14,088.

17 ‘Upbuilding of the City’, Edmonton Journal (31 August 1905): 12.

18 Belich, James, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 8586 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Belich's discussion of western Canada in particular, see 406–17.

19 For a North American perspective on the urban growth associated with settlement, see Abbott, How Cities Won the West.

20 ‘Upbuilding the City’.

21 Mathers, Charles W., Edmonton: Souvenir of the Inaugural Ceremony, Friday, September First, Nineteen Hundred and Five (Edmonton: Edmonton Printing and Publishing Co., 1905)Google Scholar. A complete copy is preserved in the Provincial Archives of Alberta (hereafter PAA) 69.198/1b. The copy available online at (accessed 16 January 2014) is incomplete, lacking several pages of both text and photos.

22 Examples of the unnumbered plates include ‘Main Street, Edmonton: Ten Years’ Progress’ and ‘Transportation – Past and Present’. (The latter contrasts a locomotive with a small horse-drawn cart.).

23 Belich, Replenishing the Earth. See 551–4 for a summary discussion of the impact of settler booms on aboriginal peoples, a topic that recurs throughout the study.

24 For an exploration of the ways in which physical dispossession and ideological justifications combined to accomplish colonial dispossession (in this case in British Columbia), see Harris, Cole, ‘How Did Colonialism Dispossess? Comments from an Edge of Empire’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94/1 (2004): 165182 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 For a concise history of interaction between Aboriginal peoples and colonizers, see Carter, Sarah, Aboriginal People and Colonizers of Western Canada to 1900, Themes in Canadian Social History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999)Google Scholar. On Métis settlement and dispossession in South Edmonton, see Randy Lawrence, Métis Strathcona, published with Monto, Tom, Old Strathcona before the Great Depression (Edmonton: Crang Publishing, 2008)Google Scholar.

26 Blue, John, Alberta: Past and Present: Historical and Biographical, 3 vols (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924)Google Scholar: vol. 1, v–vi.

27 ‘Meeting Unanimous’, Edmonton Bulletin (1 August 1905): 1.

28 ‘Upbuilding the City’.

29 Herbert, Trevor, ‘Nineteenth-Century Bands: Making a Movement’, in The British Brass Band: A Musical and Social History, ed. Herbert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 1067 Google Scholar.

30 ‘The Province and People of Destiny’, in Mather, Edmonton: Souvenir of the Inaugural Ceremony.

31 A list of participants is found in ‘The First Provincial Day’, Edmonton Bulletin (31 August 1905): 4. For a more detailed description, see the ‘The Inaugural Celebration’, Edmonton Bulletin (2 September 1905): 1.

32 ‘Local’, Edmonton Bulletin (14 June 1897): 1. Because the ‘Red River Jig’ is the dance most closely associated with Métis culture, its being singled out in the 1897 description separates that dance still more emphatically from the 1905 ball: in the former event, the associations of dance are not only casual and fiddle-based, but also racially mixed. On the Red River Jig, see Boulette, Oliver, ‘The “Red River Jig”: A Fiddle Tune and Dance that Defines the Metis’, in Metis Legacy: Michif Culture, Heritage, and Folkways, ed. Lawrence J. Barkwell, Leah M. Dorion, and Audreen Hourie, Metis Legacy 2 (Saskatoon: Gabriel Institute; Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 2006): 161163 Google Scholar. On Métis music more generally, see Quick, Sarah L., ‘Performing Heritage: Métis Music, Dance, and Identity in a Multicultural State’ (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2009)Google Scholar.

33 ‘The First Provincial Day’, 4.

34 ‘History in the Making in Alberta's New Capital’, Edmonton Journal (2 September 1905): 1.

35 Fair Play, ‘The Proposed Ball’, Edmonton Bulletin (31 July 1905): 2.

36 The Journal noted that ‘the 15th Light Horse Military band of Calgary, under the leadership of Bandmaster Bagley was an attractive and necessary part of this program’. ‘History in the Making in Alberta's New Capital’, 1.

37 ‘Inaugural Concert’, Edmonton Journal (2 September 1905): 4. The Bulletin (‘The Inaugural Celebration: Continued from Saturday's Daily’, (5 September 1905)) was scooped by the evening Journal's account of the event, but provided a more extensive description of each piece's performance. On Vernon Barford, a central figure in Edmonton's musical life for several decades, see Berg, , ‘Music in Edmonton’, 154156 Google Scholar.

38 In addition to the listings found in both newspapers, a copy of the programme is preserved in the PAA, 69.198/1a.

39 On the promenade concert, see Weber, William, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 208231 Google Scholar.

40 The concert programme included texts for the songs and choruses.

41 Mathers, Edmonton: Souvenir of the Inaugural Ceremony, [2].

42 On the enforcement of a newly exclusive concept of marriage and the family that accompanied the settlement of the western provinces, see Carter, Sarah, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

43 On women's roles in the institutions of North American music, see Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860, ed. Ralph P. Locke and Cyrilla Barr (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

44 These numbers are drawn from the programmes for the concluding concerts of the first three festivals, preserved in PAA, 72.310, Part i.

45 ‘The Musical Festival’, Edmonton Journal (7 May 1908): 2.

46 ‘The Provincial Musical Festival’, Edmonton Bulletin (4 May 1908): 4.

47 The papers of the Women's Musical Club of Edmonton (the organization's name from 1912) are held in the Edmonton City Archives, MS 654. For a brief consideration of the phenomenon from a Canadian perspective, see ‘women's musical clubs’, The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, (accessed 16 January 2014).

48 ‘Orchestral Society Formed’, Edmonton Bulletin (Morning Edition, 12 June 1912): 9. The society's first concert was declared ‘a distinct musical success’ later in June; ‘Entertainments: Orchestral Society’, Edmonton Bulletin (Morning Edition, 25 June 1912): 3.

49 Mrs. H.H.T. Alexander, ‘Vernon Barford Leader of Mendelssohn Choir’, Edmonton Journal, Music in the Home (14 December 1918).

50 Musicus, ‘The Week in Retrospect’, Edmonton Journal, Auto News/Theatres Section (4 September 1920): 6. For an overview of the history of this orchestra, which survived until 1932, see Steinwand, Nicholas, ‘Music on the Periphery: Concert Programs and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, 1920–1933’ (MA thesis, University of Alberta, 2008)Google Scholar.

51 Headline of the special promotional issue, Edmonton Journal (16 October 1911): 1.

52 See Scott, Derek B., Sounds of the Metropolis: The Nineteenth-Century Popular Music Revolution in London, New York, Paris, and Vienna (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 ‘Shasta Grill Is Formally Thrown Open’, Edmonton Journal (27 November 1913): 3.

54 The ‘souvenir menu’, including musical selections and texts for an apparent sing along, is preserved in the Provincial Archives of Alberta, 72.310, part J.

55 For an image of Carl Fisher's 1911 edition of Everlof's ‘King of the Air March and Two-Step’, see (accessed 16 January 2014).

56 On The Tik Tok Man of Oz, see The Annotated Wizard of Oz: Centennial Edition, ed. Michael Patrick Hearn (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000): lxxv–lxxvi and 389.

57 On minstrelsy, ragtime, and vaudeville itself as urban popular entertainment, see Scott, , Metropolitan Sounds, 5154 Google Scholar. The songs listed in the Shasta Grill souvenir include ‘You Can't Stop Me from Loving You’ (Thomas S. Allen [American]); ‘When it's Apple Blossom Time in Normandy’ (Tom Mellor [British]); ‘I'll Get You’ (Gus Edwards and Will D. Cobb [American]); ‘You Made Me Love You’ (James V. Monaco and Joseph McCarthy [American]); ‘Down in Dear Old New Orleans’ (Con Conrad, Joe Young, et al [American]); ‘Somebody's Coming to my House’ (Irving Berlin [American]); ‘What d'ye Mean you Lost yer Dog’ (Joseph M. Daly, Thomas S. Allen et al [American]); and ‘Floating down the River’ (James S. White and Roger Lewis [American]).

58 Shasta Grill ad, Edmonton Bulletin (Morning Edition, 31 December 1913): 12.

59 John Darwin notes the eventual triumph of what he calls ‘Britannic nationalism’ – a Canadian-Imperial identity as a self-governing but still fundamentally British people. See Darwin, John, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 144159 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 ‘Sunday's Concerts to be Continued,’ Edmonton Journal, Plays and Players Section (1 November 1913): n.p.

61 Blue, Alberta: Past and Present, vi. On early twentieth-century African American immigration and the hostility it encountered, see Shepard, R. Bruce, Deemed Unsuitable: Blacks from Oklahoma Move to the Canadian Prairies in Search of Equality in the Early Twentieth Century Only to Find Racism in Their New Home (Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1997)Google Scholar.