Helen Creighton: A Pioneering Folklorist

Helen Creighton recording songs with William Gilkie of Sambro, Nova Scotia, 1959. © Library and Archives Canada / National Film Board fonds / e011177107
Helen Creighton and CBC producer John Hobday discussing dramatic presentations based on her book, Bluenose Ghosts, 1959. © Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds / e011177106

For the week of August 12, 2019.

On August 18, 2017, the Government of Canada designated folklorist Helen Creighton as a national historic person in recognition of her significant contributions as a prolific collector and publisher of traditional stories, customs, and songs from the Maritimes.

Creighton was born in 1899 to a prominent family in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. She was educated in Halifax and Toronto and worked as a social worker, educator, and journalist, writing for such publications as Maclean’s and the Montreal Star.

While living at her family home, Evergreen House, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, she started to collect songs and stories. Beginning in Eastern Passage, a region near Halifax, in 1928, she travelled by car, on foot, or by boat around the Maritimes with heavy recording equipment in tow. She eventually amassed more than 4,000 recordings among the Acadian, the English, the Gaelic, the French, the Mi’kmaq, the Afro-Canadian, and the German populations.

Creighton began her career in folklore at a time before the field of folklore was professionalized or gained much recognition in and outside of academia. There were no university programs in folklore in Canada until 1944, when Université Laval introduced the first degree-granting program in the country. Institutions such as the National Museum of Canada (today, the Canadian Museum of History) helped advance the field by hiring experts, funding fieldwork, and publishing scholarly research. Though criticized for her lack of formal training and subjected to gender discrimination, Creighton persisted, collecting folklore for the American Library of Congress (1943–1948) and working as a field researcher with the National Museum of Canada (1947–1967).

Creighton brought her collections to audiences across Canada and around the world. She lectured in the United States and Canada and published numerous book-length collections, including Traditional Songs from Nova Scotia (1950), which helped popularize the unofficial anthem “Farewell to Nova Scotia,” as well as the bestselling book Bluenose Ghosts (1957). After a chance meeting with the head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), she took to the airwaves with a national radio program in 1938 and 1939. Creighton’s program represented a departure from other CBC shows, showcasing field recordings from her collection and insisting that traditional singers be featured alongside the trained musicians typically heard on the network.

Helen Creighton, a designated national historic person, died in Dartmouth in 1989, at the age of 90.

Find out more about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and the National Program of Historical Commemoration here.