Celebrating the 150th anniversary of our great nation presents the perfect opportunity to honour the people who have best documented our history; in song. What better instrument to exemplify the magnificence of Canada, than the poetry and lyrics of our finest story tellers. From the earliest known prose of Irish poet Thomas Moore who penned “A Canadian Boat Song” while travelling the St’ Lawrence River in 1805, to the laureates of today; Canadian artists have boasted our magnificence and lamented our growth pains with music through the years.
From the works of Oscar Peterson who composed “Canadiana Suite”, a brilliant jazz journey across the country, to Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “Sudbury Saturday Night” and the venerable “The Hockey Song”, Canada’s artist have portrayed a vision for us all what it means to be Canadian. There are countless examples of Canadian songwriters who have achieved star status worldwide. Leonard Cohen, Paul Anka, Joni Mitchell, Stan Rogers and Anne Murray are but a few.
One artist in particular though comes into sharp focus when considering work that represents this country directly. Gordon Lightfoot should be considered the patriarch of music that makes us Canadian, with masterworks like “Alberta Bound” and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, which chronicles the great effort to connect the nation by rail in the 19th century. Lightfoot’s lyrics, baritone voice, and twelve string acoustic guitar have defined Canadian folk music for more than six decades. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” may have been written about an American ship, but when he writes a line like, ’Superior never gives up her dead’, we know Gordon is speaking for numerous sailors of our own who have braved the seas and Great Lakes of this country. As a story teller Gordon Lightfoot has no equal. The simple humanity in his songs, “Early Morning Rain”, “If You Could Read My Mind”, and “Rainy Day People”, are only a small sample of his genius. One need not dig very deep to find words in these pieces that speak to the Canadian psyche. Robbie Robertson, legendary guitarist for ‘The Band’ rightly called Gordon Lightfoot a national treasure.
There have been many Canadian song writing artists to achieve global status; who arguably garnered greater success than Lightfoot. Neil Young is a Rock icon with firm roots in his Ontario upbringing. Though “Helpless” may be the only of Young’s songs that refer directly to his homeland, his distinctly Canadian sensibility can be gleaned from many of his other lyrics. “Running Back to Saskatoon” by Burton Cummings of ‘The Guess Who’ fame, is another great Canadian treasure as is ‘Lakeside Park” by ‘Rush’. None of these artists mentioned though, have yet to surpass Gordon Lightfoot’s imprint on Canadian culture.
Then however, we come to Gord Downie who is without a doubt the most prolific chronicler of Canada in song that we have ever enjoyed. Beginning with ”38 Years Old”, Downie would continue to weave uniquely Canadian stories and concepts into his lyrics for nearly thirty years. Songs like “Bobcaygeon”, “Wheat Kings”, and “Fifty Mission Cap” aren’t merely Canadian rock anthems. They are stories from our history that Gord Downie has masterfully shone a spotlight on with his poetry, and showcased musically with his bandmates. This is the song master that bares the soul of a nation for all to see, and for us all to reflect. As if this weren’t enough, with the sudden affliction that Downie has been forced to wrestle with now, he carries the weight of his words to what will most likely become his greatest legacy.
Gord’s ‘Secret Path’ project is so much more than another Canadian story. With accompanying book and animated film, the ‘Secret Path’ album has opened our eyes hopefully, with the potential to provide real healing and reconciliation to a horrible time in this country’s history. Bringing recognition and focus to our indigenous people’s pain and suffering with a long overdue dialogue can become a defining moment in the evolution of Canada as a great nation. Let us all walk the path with Gord Downie’s guidance and continue the healing process. Perhaps then we can all truly celebrate our nation together.
There’s one interesting phenomenon regarding ‘The Tragically Hip’ in particular, when celebrating the achievements of Canadians. They are one of the few artists that didn’t seek validation from success south of the border, in order to embed themselves in the Canadian consciousness while propelling them to stardom. This is a group of gifted musicians that chose to remain distinctly true to their Canadian roots, proving without any doubt that great success can be achieved in our own back yard. Their worldwide appeal may have been stunted a bit, but would we or they have had it any other way? Anyone from abroad wanting to learn more about this land would do well to listen carefully to stories by ‘The Hip’. After 150 years of searching for our own collective self-esteem, Gord Downie and his mates have finally made being Canadian cool for its own sake; a goal that is certainly worth pursuing by us all.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY CANADA!