Written by Paul Haavardsrud
When barstool arguments break out about Canadian music, the Tragically Hip may not triumph as the voice of everyone's Canada, but it's a safe bet it's always in the conversation.
As the band plays a summer tour that's so meaningful to so many, Gord Downie is once again being hailed as the country's unofficial poet laureate. But why, exactly, do his lyrics feel more Canadian than anyone else’s? Like the old judicial line about obscenities says, you know it when you see it, but at the same time those feelings must come from somewhere.
A closer look shows the lyrics that feel the most deeply Canadian — whether by the Hip, Blue Rodeo, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, k.d. lang, Gilles Vigneault, Stompin’ Tom or otherwise — frequently strum many of the same chords. For any song looking to push maple leaf-shaped buttons in the hearts of Canadian music fans, the first stop is often geography.
'There's a reason that I love this town'
As Spinal Tap's immortal "Hello Cleveland!" attests, the simple act of calling out a place is a quick and dirty route to firing up a crowd. A name-check, though, is just that. To make the short list in the unofficial contest for most Canadian lyric ever takes much more than a Canadian artist just mentioning a Canadian place.
Consider "Your Ex-lover is Dead" by Montreal band Stars, which tells the story of a former couple that shares a cab across town after a chance meeting on the street:
Captured a taxi despite all the rain,
We drove in silence across Pont Champlain.
Canadian though Stars may be, and gorgeous as the song is, the mention of a Montreal landmark is more incidental to the storytelling than it is germane. An awkward meeting between old flames could happen anywhere. It's a universal experience to which someone in any city might relate, rather than one that might be properly considered as universally Canadian.
For a geographical reference to stir genuine feelings of belonging to a place, it must be woven much more deeply into the fabric of a song.
“There has to be a synergy between genre, sound, lyric and experience," said Scott Henderson, a professor of popular culture at Brock University. "Those things all need to come into orbit somehow, so it creates an evocative picture. It's not just a series of name checking that says, 'OK, that's Canadian because it mentions these five things that are distinctly Canadian.’ “
The most oft-cited example of vintage Hip Canadiana may just be “Wheat Kings,” a song that contains a unity of storytelling, themes and lyrics that allows it to tap into a reservoir of feelings in a Canadian listener that other songs can’t access.
Its opening reference to "the Paris of the Prairies" sets up a larger story about the wrongful imprisonment of David Milgaard. Even if the song is the only reason many Canadians know about Milgaard, the simple awareness that it's a Canadian story and part of our national mythology offers a possibility for connection that wouldn't exist if it were set anywhere else but here.
Lyrics aside, from the opening call of the loon and sound of a squeaking weather vane to the sparse musical arrangement, the song creates a sense of space that evokes the vast open reaches of the Prairies.
Musically, the Hip is also part of a blues-rock tradition that, similar to folk, is deeply rooted in place. The blues comes from somewhere, Chicago or the Mississippi Delta, as does the myth-making heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan's Americana. It's no coincidence that the unpolished authenticity and specificity that count among the hallmarks of these genres are also tailor-made to help elevate a distinctly Canadian lyric toward the level of national touchstone.
At the risk of homerism, the archetypal Canadian lyric may well be:
Late breaking story on the CBC,
A nation whispers, "We always knew that he'd go free."
The common ground offered by the national broadcaster aside, the lyrics also reveal a subtle understanding of our collective character. "A kind of Canadian politeness seeps in there," said Henderson. "We always knew he'd go free, but let's not talk about it because it's so awkward."
The lyrics that feel the most profoundly Canadian don't draw from touristy iconography, polar bears, beavers and the like, but instead capture the small moments that only make sense if you live here. If an American can understand it, in other words, it's unlikely a lyric would ever be considered quintessentially Canadian.
'I remember Buffalo'
The consummate Canadian verse, at least for Henderson, comes from a Rheostatics tune about summer in northern Ontario's cottage country:
I jumped down from the bunk where I slept,
In the room with the fake-look wood,
And the painting of God.
"I stayed in countless people's cottages and there was always that room, it always had a bunk bed, it always had fake wood panelling, and there was always, if not a velvet Elvis, then some sort of religious garage-sale picture," said Henderson. "It's just a little lyric, but it makes you say, 'Yup, I've been there.'"
Another contender comes from a Weakerthans ode to indecision and curling:
Now the senior bonspiel winners circa 1963,
Are all staring, glaring disapprovingly,
From their frame in that old photograph at me.
As the song's narrator mulls his struggle to find the right words to say to his loved one, his Prufrockian paralysis moves him to order another drink to avoid going home. An inability to communicate may be a universal experience, but in the fading pictures of past curling champions, the yellowing banners on the walls of the lounge and the skips' calls from the sheets in the rink, the Weakerthans embed the idea in a fabric that is wholly Canadian.
The tug of nostalgia — a yearning for a time that may seem simpler than the complex present — is another common element that helps to shape an emotional response to a song. Accepting that no single lyric can speak to the entirety of the Canadian experience, a line that captures a sliver of something that is essentially Canadian has the power to transport a listener to a specific place in a way that feels authentic.
'We'll hold a grudge, anyway'
Since not everyone is nostalgic for the same past, settling on a single lyric to call definitively Canadian is both subjective and deeply personal. At the same time, it’s also not entirely a matter of taste. The criteria for whose lyrics get considered is more stringent than simply hailing from Canada. Celine Dion, Justin Bieber and Nickelback may carry Canadian passports, but little about their music is especially Canadian. Similarly, Trooper and April Wine were fine rock bands, but they, too, emulated the popular sounds of the time.
It wouldn't seem to be a coincidence that bands like the Hip and Blue Rodeo, whose popularity inside our borders isn't matched by commercial success elsewhere, are staples in any conversation about Canadian lyrics. Chicken-or-egg scenario as it may be, a knowledge that an artist is telling Canadian stories to Canadian audiences may actually contribute to a sort of biographical feedback loop that makes them, and their lyrics, feel that much more Canadian.
When barstool prophets gather to expound on Canadian music, it might be easier to get a parent to choose a favourite child than reach a consensus on a lyric that might be considered singularly Canadian — but there is one given. Regardless of the contenders, the road to the title, at some point, must pass through Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip: