Lacrosse in Victorian popular music

our national game sheet musicAs strange as it may seem to modern audiences of both popular music and the game of lacrosse, almost as soon as lacrosse took hold over the young Dominion of Canada in the late 1860s, composers were inspired to write music whose melodies were deemed reflective of the qualities exemplified by its game play.

Clearly the best known music composition would be the song La Crosse, Our National Game, words by James Hughes and the music arranged by Toronto teacher and choirmaster Henry Francis Sefton (ca.1808-1892) in the mid-1870s. Various dates of publication have been given for the piece, with 1872 being the most common.

While the song would predate the birth the game in British Columbia by a decade or more, when the game did gain traction on the Pacific Coast, this song too made the journey west as well and was not unknown to lacrosse fans here. In the 1890s, one of the local newspapers published its lyrics in the form of a poem.

La Crosse, Our National Game was dedicated to Lord Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada, with its typical Victorian-era ‘huzzah’ lyrics inspired no doubt by the extolling of Dr. William G. Beers, the ‘Father of Modern Lacrosse’ in Canada. Himself an adroit voice for the young Dominion of Canada, the song mirrors Beers in proclaiming the various merits of ‘the national game’ played up at the expense of the British and American sporting pursuits which would have also been on the minds of many Canadians in the 1870s and later years of the 19th century. With ice hockey years away from being organised, lacrosse was viewed as the one athletic pastime unique to Canada and the new nation established in 1867, in contrast to imported sports such as cricket and rugby from the Old Country or baseball from America.

Canadian opera soprano and comedian Mary Lou Fallis recorded a modern rendition of the song for her 1997 album Primadona on a Moose, a collection of early Canadian songs. The album and related show tour was inspired by old song recordings unearthed by her and McGill University researchers in the mid-1970s.

The Library and Archives of Canada has this modern vocal recording of La Crosse, Our National Game.

There are at least four other known pieces of music composed in Canada for “lacrosse” audiences:

La Crosse Galop or The Lacrosse Gallop composed by J. Holt and “dedicated to the La Crosse Clubs of Canada”. Inspired by the sudden popularity of the sport in Toronto, this dance piece was composed in 1867 or 1868 and was the first song written with lacrosse in mind. A galop is a lively dance forerunner of the polka in 2/4 time; often it would be performed as the final dance of an evening.
– The piano piece Lacrosse Jersey (for Piano), written in 1892 by Nellie Smith and dedicated to the Toronto Lacrosse Club.
La Crosse Waltz, composed by W. Rowland and dedicated to Dr. William G. Beers, was first performed on May 20, 1876 at the Theartre Royal in Montréal.
Lacrosse Polka (For Piano) written by L. Fred Clarry of Millbrook, Ontario.

None of these three compositions had lyrics written so it is unknown what exactly inspired their composition – apart from perhaps the need for appropriate music and performance pieces on hand at lacrosse club social functions in an era when the dancehall would be the primary venue.

(MUSIC & PHOTO SOURCES: Library and Archives Canada)

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