Helen Creighton | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Helen Creighton

Mary Helen Creighton, CM, song collector, folklorist, writer (born 5 September 1899 in Dartmouth, NS; died 12 December 1989 in Halifax, NS). A pioneering collector of Maritime folk music and folklore, Helen Creighton helped define Maritime culture.

Mary Helen Creighton, CM, song collector, folklorist, writer (born 5 September 1899 in Dartmouth, NS; died 12 December 1989 in Halifax, NS). A pioneering collector of Maritime folk music and folklore, Helen Creighton helped define Maritime culture. After collecting for the US Library of Congress, she worked at the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of History) for 20 years, ultimately bringing to light over 4,000 songs in English, French, Gaelic, Mi’kmaq and German. She also lectured throughout North America, helped organize folk choirs and assisted in CBC presentations of folk music. A Member of the Order of Canada, she won three Rockefeller Foundation fellowships and the Canadian Music Council Medal.

Education and Early Career

Creighton received a junior diploma in music from McGill University in 1915 and graduated from the Halifax Ladies' College in 1916. During the 1920s, she worked briefly as a social worker in Halifax and taught at the American School in Guadalajara, Mexico. She also appeared as "Aunt Helen" in a children's radio show on CHNS Halifax (1926–27).

In 1928, inspired by the work of W. Roy Mackenzie (compiler of Ballads and Sea Songs of Nova Scotia), Creighton began to collect folk songs and lore in her native province, occasionally travelling into isolated areas on foot, pushing her melodeon (a small reed organ with a single keyboard) in a wheelbarrow. Unskilled in the transcription of music, she would "pick out" on this instrument the tunes that were sung to her. During the 1930s she collaborated with Doreen H. Senior, an English musician who acted as her transcriber.


From 1939 to 1941, Creighton was Dean of Women at University of King's College in Halifax. In 1942, she studied at the University of Indiana’s Summer Institute of Folklore. Between 1942 and 1946 she won three Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, and in 1943 the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, supplied her with a portable machine for recording on acetate discs; she began recording on tape in 1949.

She collected and recorded Nova Scotia songs and folklore for the Library of Congress (1943–44; 1948) and while on staff (1947–67) at the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of History). During her career, Creighton gathered and recorded more than 4,000 songs and their variants in English, French, Gaelic, Mi’kmaq and German. Songs in English include some from the black community. Typical titles in the overall collection are "He's Young but He's Daily a-Growing," "I'll Give My Love an Apple," "The Cherry Tree Carol," "The Farmer's Curst Wife," "Cecilia," "Oran do Cheap Breatainn" ("Cape Breton is the Land I Love"), "Lost Jimmy Whalen" and "The Bold Pedlar," a 15th-century folk song lost in England but preserved in Canada.

The oldest of her finds is the 13th-century ballad "The False Knight Upon the Road." The best-known is "The Nova Scotia Song," aka "Farewell to Nova Scotia,” popularized in the 1960s by Catherine McKinnon. Nova Scotians Catherine Gallagher, Enos Hartlan, Ben Henneberry, William Riley, Freeman Young and the Redden family sang for Creighton, as did the New Brunswicker Angelo Dornan. On Prince Edward Island she recorded, among others, Ernest Sellick, Charlie Chamberlain and Julius (Duke) Neilsen; the latter two later gained fame with Don Messer and His Islanders.

Compositions and Recordings

Several Canadian compositions have been based on the tunes Creighton collected, including the music for Michel Perrault’s ballet Sea Gallows (1958), Trevor Morgan Jones and Donald Wetmore’s opera The Broken Ring (1953), Klaro Mizerit's Two Maritime Aquarelles (1970), Alex Tilley's Maritime Folk Song Medley (1977), and Scott Macmillan's Tribute to Helen Creighton (1987) and Homage to Helen (1991).

In addition, many of the songs have been recorded commercially, including two discs devoted to Creighton's material: Diane Oxner's Traditional Folksongs of Nova Scotia (1973); and Clary Croft's False Knight Upon the Road: Songs from the Helen Creighton Collection (1986).

Film and Television

Creighton was heard frequently on CBC Radio and appeared on such CBC TV programs as Open House (1960), Land of the Old Songs (1960), The Lady of the Legends (c 1966), Take 30, (1968), the mini-series Gary Karr and His Friends (1973) and The Legacy of Helen Creighton (1988). She was also the subject of three NFB documentaries: Songs of Nova Scotia (1958); The Nova Scotia Song (1987); and A Sigh and a Wish: Helen Creighton’s Maritimes (2001).

Creighton's interest extended to the performance of folk music as well as to the music itself. In 1956 she "discovered" Finvola Redden-Bower, and in 1957 the Redden family sang on an episode of CBC TV's Graphic, which dealt with Creighton's work as a collector. She was an organizer (1967–73) of the seven-voice Nova Scotia Folk Singers, conducted by Kaye Pottie. Creighton lectured widely in Canada and the US, and in 1959 she addressed the International Folk Music Council in Romania.

She was also an authority on Nova Scotia ghost stories, many of which were featured in her 1957 book Bluenose Ghosts and the 1973 documentary of the same name.

Organizational Involvement

Creighton was a fellow of the American Folklore Society and the American Anthropological Association, a correspondent of the International Folk Music Council, and vice-president 1957–67 of the Canadian Folk Music Society (now Canadian Society for Traditional Music). She was made honorary president of the society in 1974. She was also a member of the board and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Honours and Legacy

The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame honoured Creighton posthumously with the Frank Davies Legacy Award in 2011. In March 1980 The Collector, a musical tribute to her life's work, written and directed by John Brown, was presented by Mount Saint Vincent University. The East Coast Music Awards present an annual lifetime achievement award in her honour.

The Helen Creighton Folklore Festival of Dartmouth was established with funds from the City of Dartmouth to honour Creighton on her 90th birthday. The festival, which was held annually from 1989–94, promoted the presentation and preservation of folklore in Maritime Canada. The Helen Creighton Folklore Society (HCFS) was founded under the auspices of this festival.

In 1990, the Province of Nova Scotia established The Helen Creighton Foundation to perpetuate her memory through lectures, library acquisitions and the awarding of a Citation of Merit for publications on subjects related to her work. The Foundation merged with the HCFS in 1997. Creighton's collection, including more than a dozen photo albums of pictures taken by her and her family, is housed at the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management (NSARM) in Halifax.


Honorary Degree, LLD, Mount Allison University (1957)

Honorary Degree, D Litt, Université Laval (1961)

Honorary Degree, DCL, Dalhousie University (1967)

Canadian Music Council Medal, Canadian Music Council (1974)

Honorary Degree, D Litt, St Francis Xavier University (1975)

Honorary Degree, D Litt, St Mary's University (1976)

Member, Order of Canada (1976)

Honorary Degree, Humane Letters, Mount Saint Vincent University (1982)

Frank Davies Legacy Award, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2011)



Helen Creighton, Bluenose Ghosts (Toronto, 1957).

—, Bluenose Magic (Toronto, 1968).

, Folklore of Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia (Ottawa, 1950; Toronto, 1976).

—, Folksongs from Southern New Brunswick, National Museum of Man Publications in Folk Culture 1 (Ottawa, 1971).

—, A Folk Tale Journey through the Maritimes (Breton Books: 1994).

—, A Life in Folklore (Toronto, 1975).

—, Maritime Folk Songs (Ryerson: 1962, 1972).

—, Songs and Ballads from Nova Scotia (Dent: 1932; Dover: 1966).

Helen Creighton and Ronald Labelle, La Fleur du Rosier (University College of Cape Breton Press and Canadian Museum of Civilization: 1988).

Helen Creighton and Calum MacLeod, Gaelic Songs in Nova Scotia, National Museum of Man Bulletin, 198 (Ottawa, 1964).

Helen Creighton and Doreen Senior, Traditional Songs from Nova Scotia (Ryerson: 1950) and Twelve Folksongs from Nova Scotia (Novello: 1940).

Helen Creighton and Eunice Sircom, Eight Ethnic Songs for Young Children (GVT: 1977) and Nine Ethnic Songs for Older Children (GVT: 1977).

"Song Singers," Maclean's, 15 December 1937.

"Recording Folk Songs 'Before It's Too Late,’" CBC Times, 14–20 December 1952.

"Fiddles, Folk-Songs and Fishermen's Yarns," Canadian Geographical Journal, vol. 51 (December 1955).

"Songs for Christmas," Atlantic Advocate, vol. 50 (December 1959).

"Collecting Folk Songs," Music Across Canada, vol. 1 (April 1963).

"W. Roy Mackenzie, Pioneer," Canadian Folk Music Society Newsletter, vol. 2 (July 1967).

"Carols and Other Songs for Christmas," The Canadian Composer, 45 (December 1969).

"Capturing Folklore on Tape," Canadian Author and Bookman, 46 (Spring 1971).

"Canada's Maritime Provinces – An Ethnomusicological Survey," Ethnomusicology, vol. 16 (September 1973).

"Looking Back on a Satisfying Career," The Canadian Composer, 120 (April 1977).

See also: Bibliography for Anglo-Canadian folk music — Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Further Reading

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