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The true, tragic and inspiring Canadian stories behind Gord Downie's best lyrics

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

After more than 30 years, the Tragically Hip are going on the road again to tour Canada, the country that has inspired countless hits for the band. Singer and songwriter Gord Downie, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in May, is famous for crystallizing Canadian stories from headlines, history books and even hockey cards, all while using his inimitable and enigmatic gift for myth making.

In celebration of his contributions, below are some the true stories behind his most Canadian songs.

A large amount of the background was sourced, a second-to-none source when it comes to material on the band.  

"50 Mission Cap"
“The last goal he ever scored,
won the Leafs the cup.
They didn't win another till 1962,
the year he was discovered”

The tragic, stranger than fiction tale of Toronto Maple Leaf player Bill Barilko, who disappeared on a fishing trip months after scoring the game-winning goal to secure the Stanley Cup. One of the strangest stories in hockey history, given the poetic treatment from one of the Canada’s greatest songwriters. For more on background of this song, be sure to check out our “50 Mission Cap” comic.

"Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)"
“For anything important any of us do
and yea the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
under pressure, under pressure"

As the title suggests, “Courage,” easily one of the Hip’s most popular songs, was dedicated to Canadian author Hugh MacLennan, an early artist to incorporate Canadiana into his work. His book The Watch that Ends the Night, which deals with a man struggling to appreciate life in order to produce meaningful art, directly inspired the song. Like the band, MacLennan was hugely successful in Canada and was even accused of selling out to nationalists for commercial gain. Downie interpreted MacLennan’s message through the filter of being in a band, and even paraphrased the above lyrics from MacLennan’s words: “there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.”


“It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
reveal themselves one star at a time.”

This Phantom Power track is practically synonymous with Canadian cottage country, especially given the remote Ontario lakeside town it draws its name from. But the story underneath the dream sequence-like lyrics reveals something much darker, a particular type of contrast that Downie is exceptional at. The song primarily seems concerned about a clash between police and rioters in Toronto in 1933. Known as the Christie Pits riot, it involved a group of Nazis from a Toronto gang called the Swastika Club brawling with a group of Jewish men. Police couldn't get “order restored” until the early hours of the following morning.


"Three Pistols"
“Well, Tom Thomson came paddling past
I'm pretty sure it was him.
And he spoke so softly in accordance
to the growing of the dim”

Like many Hip songs, there are myriad interpretations to Downie’s lyrics, but it’s commonly believed that the title of this song refers to the town of Trois-Pistoles, Quebec. The lyrics, undoubtedly, refer to the famous Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson. Thomson was found dead, mysteriously, in Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, and people will often report seeing his ghost on the lake. The lyrics “I’ve been shaking all night long, but my hands are steady,” could also refer to the time that Thomson stood outside through a snowstorm in order to capture it in progress. On another occasion, he's also said to have warmed his hand with a fire while the rest of his body shook


“Because a coward won’t die alone”

This song was written about the 1989 Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique, a dark and disturbing moment in Canadian history when an armed male killed 14 women and injured 13 more before turning the gun on himself. Intended for the Road Applesalbum, it wouldn’t be the only time Downie looked to the bleak headlines of the day for his music. Perhaps too bleak, because the song remains officially unreleased. However, the band performed the song in Montreal on Dec. 7, 2000, the 11th anniversary of the massacre.

"Wheat Kings"
“Late breaking story on the CBC.
A nation whispers, "We always knew that he'd go free"

“Wheat Kings” famously begins with the most Canadian of sounds: the echo of loons calling out over a lake. What commences from there is a story of one of the greatest injustices in the Canadian justice system: the wrongful rape and murder conviction of David Milgaard, who was released from prison after 23 years behind bars. He was 17 years old when he was wrongfully convicted. Yet another example of Downie’s obsession with this country’s darkest moments, as well as the band’s ability to contrast the disturbing lyrics with pleasant, even pastoral music. A song an untold number of Canadians have probably sang around the campfire, but one that will never sound the same after knowing the true story underneath it.   

“If there's a goal that everyone remembers,
it was back in old ‘72.
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
and all I remember is sitting beside you.”

Is there a greater, more mythical moment in Canadian sports history than the '72 Summit Series, a hockey game between Team Canada and the USSR during the height of the Cold War? No, there is not. There’s also no better song about the series than this one from the Hip’s 1998 album Phantom Power.   

"Locked in the Trunk of a Car"
“Every day I’m dumping the body.”

The first single from the Hip’s Fully Completely tells the tale of abduction and murder of Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte by the FLQ in 1970, told from the killer’s point of view. The event, now known as the October Crisis, lead Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to infamously enact the War Measure Act, suspending all civil liberties in one of the only three times it’s ever been used in history. Laporte’s body was eventually found in the trunk of the car used by his kidnappers after they tipped off a Montreal radio station. Like Lady Macbeth, who is unable to wash the imaginary blood of the slain King Duncan off her hands (“Out, damned spot!”), Downie’s protagonist is absorbed by guilt and forced to relive the event over and over.

"Born in the Water"
“I can speak my mother tongue
Passing laws, just because
And singing songs Of the English unsung”

In 1990, following the Meech Lake Accord, the mayor in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, passed a law declaring the small town as English only. Sault Ste Marie, founded by missionaries from New France, is translated to Saint Marie’s Rapids. The law was repealed in 1994, and it was enough to inspire Downie to pen this lesser-known early Hip song told from the point of view of a French-speaking citizen.


"Looking for a Place to Happen"
“I've got a job, I explore.”

A song about Jacques Cartier “discovering” and claiming Canada for France in 1534, disguised as a hard-rocking, matter-of-fact blue-collar anthem. Possibly the most Canadian song ever recorded.

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG

More to explore:

Gord Downie: CBC Music’s person of the year

And Grace, too: what awe-inspiring swan songs can teach us about greatness

26 Gord Downie quotes to inspire you

How the Tragically Hip became Canada’s band

The Strombo Show: Hip 30

Polaris 2017: 5 things you didn't know about Gord Downie's Secret Path

Coke Machine Glow: a love letter to Gord Downie’s solo debut

Chanie Wenjack: a 50-year-old tragedy rises up to inspire a new generation

Weird genius: what it's like to collaborate with Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip

A guide to Gord Downie’s Canadian tuxedo

Why Gord Downie's 'beautiful' work can't stand alone