The stories behind the stories behind

Rob Lutes’ fascinating backstory-telling on the origins of popular songs

By Byron Toben

February 10, 2022

Sorry to announce that David Novek‘s excellent series of film lectures, often movie musicals, which I have enjoyed and reported on the last few years, has now been terminated due to his retirement. Presented by the Cummings Centre, the series featured his research into the history of the films or genre selected, augmented by relevant clips, many rare and hard to find.

David Novek

David Novek – Image: courtesy of David Novek

Viewers may remember dancing stars like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, swimming star Esther Williams, singer Frank Sinatra, producer Harold Prince, the under-appreciated Black Hollywood, the massed choreography of Busby Berkeley and the great “script doctor” Ben Hecht, among others. Novek’s background stories included which studios played key roles in the career or development of which performer or topic. The backstory to his evolving into a film historian was his earlier activity as a publicist for the World Film Festival, which put Montreal on the global map for film festivals and uniquely the best one for including “finds” from countries just emerging into the industry. That festival, which originated in 1977, was cancelled in 2019. Its glory days and final decline is a story for another full study.

Anyway, the Cummings Centre penchant for finding background storytellers continues with its new four-part series that I previewed in my last article called The Story Behind the Song, created and performed by musician Rob Lutes.

I was impressed with Part One presented via Zoom on February 4. Here, he discussed the early advent of popular songs into Canada and the United States, beginning as early as the 18th century. The origins emanated from three areas – patriotic, religious and children.

Take, for example, the American national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. The USA did not have a national anthem until 1931 when it needed one for the 1932 Olympic games held in Los Angeles. What was chosen from a host of possible candidates was the winner which began life back in 1814, during the war of 1812, where the British, invading from their dominion which was not yet Canada, burned the U.S. white house and were bombarding Fort McHenry, the key to invading Maryland, from a flotilla of offshore battleships.

singer songwriter Rob Lutes

Singer and songwriter Rob Lutes – Image:

On one of those ships was prominent American lawyer, politician and poet Francis Scott Key, who had been granted access to negotiate a possible prisoner exchange. Witnessing the American flag still flying when the explosive clouds dissipated, he penned the words to what became the song. Published in a local paper, it eventually found a matching tune.

I happened to have known that much of its history, but not what Rob Lutes added. Key’s original poem contained 38 verses, only about three of which are usually sung. The 38th was actually a plea for slavery!

Turns out Key was a second-generation slave owner. Turns out that during the War of 1812, the British, who had abolished the shipping (but not owning) of slaves in 1807, made it known to slaves in the colonies that, if they escaped and fought for the British, they would be granted repeal of their slavery.

Francis Scott Key witnessing the battle of Fort McHenry

Francis Scott Key witnessing the battle at Fort McHenry – Image: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ds-00032a)

Turns out that two indigenous tribes, the Cherokee and the Choctaw, allied with the British, also owned some Afro slaves. Key actually sponsored a bill to return any so escaped slaves to their owners when the war ended, including to the Indian owners! Even worse, caught in all this mess were “indentured” servants, a form of near-slavery based on conviction of minor crimes or debt (more famous for populating Australia, but including some white persons in the colonies as well.)

I had long thought that a better selection as a national anthem would be Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. After hearing this background, I am more convinced.

Not an anthem, but another patriotic origin song is none other than Yankee Doodle Dandy, made even more popular in the 20th century by Broadway great, George M. Cohan. Its roots were in the French and Indian/Seven Years War of 1754-1763. There, the greater conflict in Europe between England and France was supplemented by battles in North America with their forces overseas aided by native tribes allied to one or the other.

I had long thought that a better selection as a national anthem would be Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. After hearing this background, I am more convinced.

The British, resplendent in their red coats, precise marching and polished boots, mocked their motley colonist allies who rode ponies (not proper horses) and stuck a feather in their hat and called it macaroni (a new delicacy at the time in London). Later set to music, it inspired Cohan to add that he was a “real live nephew of my Uncle Sam, born on the 4th of July.” Written in 1904, it became a great movie hit in 1942 starring James Cagney as Cohan.

John Newton

John Newton – Image: Joseph Collyer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Turning to religious origins of songs, none better than Amazing Grace, written by John Newton, who had an amazing life. His mother died when he was but 11, so his ship captain father took him aboard and he spent his life until 18 on ships. He eventually became a shipmaster himself and specialized in transporting African slaves to the new world.

After a dispute with another shipowner, he was stranded in West Africa where he befriended another Englishman who had married an African Princess. Somehow, word got out to his father, who sent a rescue ship. He returned to the slave trade, but the African stay had opened his eyes to the immorality of it.

Taking in some church studies and becoming an Anglican clergyman himself, he wrote the words to Amazing Grace in 1773. It was published in 1779 and adapted to music in 1835 by William Walker. In 1852, it appeared in the anti-slavery classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, banned in the American South but enforcing the growing anti-slavery movement in the North.

In our times, it became an icon of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Many fine versions can be conjured up by the likes of Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Collins (still going strong at 82). (I am partial to Ms. Collins, who I once saw at a show she performed at the Rialto, partly because she had earlier championed the young shy Leonard Cohen.)

‘The Bible, Rod Lutes pointed out, is good source material for Gospel songs such as Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’

Of course, another ultra-popular song with religious roots is When The Saints Come Marching In. This goes back to passages in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, the last book in the New Testament. Authorship of the song is uncertain, arising from both Gospel and Dixieland traditions, but it really took off in the 20th century with Louis Armstrong’s 1938 recording, which remains the gold standard despite its being performed by many other famous singers.

The Bible, Rob Lutes pointed out, is good source material for Gospel songs such as Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Children’s songs dealing with the alphabet, A, B, C, and games, Skip to the Lou (a favourite of Abraham Lincoln), were also backstoried by Lutes, who sang excerpts of these songs accompanying himself on guitar. His 8th album, Come Around, released in April 2021, has been nominated for four Canadian Folk Music Awards. He won its 2018 award as Contemporary Singer of the Year.

The series continues on successive Wednesdays, February 9, 16 and 23 at 12:30 ET.

Kitty Calling S2-5

Norma Wilson as Bernice in Colleen Curran’s Kitty Calling – Image: courtesy of Colleen Curran

Colleen Curran’s Kitty Calling

In addition to these real backstories, we are pleased to announce the third season of the wonderful fictional series, Colleen Curran’s Kitty Calling.

I have reviewed its first two series in 2019 and 2021. The first episode of 2022 is now up and running. It continues the adventures of mostly housebound Bernice, looked into by pandemic do-gooder Kitty, as she seeks to market her new biography, Bernice and Me, ostensibly written by her since abandoned cat as future dreams – call them front stories – of film and TV deals dance in her head.

This series won Toronto’s NOW Magazine weekly 2021 award as Web Series of the Year.

Gingold Theatrical Group’s Valentine Bash

Finally, a reminder of a posting in my last article of New York City’s Gingold Theatrical Group’s free Valentine Bash on February 14. I urge talented Montreal area performers to register and contribute that day, their own three-minute song, poem, recitation, etc.

The GTC is particularly specialized in G. Bernard Shaw plays both live and, now, streamed.

Feature image: Battle at Fort McHenry, painting by R W Goetting, fineartamerica.comBouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre –

More articles from Byron Toben

Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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