Canada has a rich history of nurturing lyricists with remarkable poetic abilities, and the late Gord Downie is no exception. Downie’s lyrics formed the songs of beloved Canadian band The Tragically Hip. In turn, those songs have been dubbed “Canada’s soundtrack”. The Canadian element in Gord Downie’s words is almost subconscious because the references aren’t glaringly Canadian. There is no “O Canada” or “fly the flag” type commercial patriotism; there is instead an element of modesty. Gord wrote about the everyday, which is why The Hip’s music fits a myriad of social situations: sitting around a campfire – check; travelling on a road trip – check; enjoying a few drinks with friends at your favourite local bar – check.
Although the often melancholy and other times gritty riffs make for tunes that swell our humble Canadian hearts, a lot of Gord’s lyrics call out things that were, and in most cases still are, socially, politically or legally unjust. Aside from his final curtain call with “The Secret Path”, what else did Gord Downie teach us about Canada through his lyrics?
How much do you know about this land we call home and how much of it did you learn from listening to The Tragically Hip?
The song “Silver Jet” mentions Cape Spear – the Eastern most point in Canada. The last line in the song says “A silver jet, Clayoquot Sound to Cape Spear”. Clayoquot Sound is located on the West coast of Vancouver Island, so “Silver Jet” is effectively illustrating a plane flying across the whole of Canada from the very East to one of the most Western points – not typically what we all think of. Most people would just call out St. John’s to Vancouver or Victoria.
Another line from “Silver Jet”: “As if the wolves of Northumberland themselves” is a geographical reference specific to the band. Northumberland County is formed by a line of towns along the North shore of Lake Ontario; essentially the route between Toronto, where the band played many gigs over the years and their home town of Kingston, Ontario.
In “Thompson Girl”, Gord Downie drew our attention to the Canadian North and personalized it. Although Thompson, Manitoba, and even more so, Churchill, Manitoba are famous for polar bears, these communities are long-established gateways to the North and played an important role in mining and trade dating back to the start of the Hudson’s Bay Company. This song highlights the majesty of the Canadian North. While listening you can envision a girl walking along the backdrop of the Northern Lights. It also describes the way we as Canadians hibernate during the cold and snowy months and welcome the arrival of Spring after a long Winter: “It’s the end of rent-a-movie weather”.
The Tragically Hip makes an interesting nod to their hometown Kingston, Ontario in “38 Years Old”; a town famous for its maximum security prisons. The song from 1990 album “Up To Here” is a fictional ballad about an actual escape of inmates from Millhaven Institution in 1972.
Gord Downie embedded hockey references into his music, but like the overall Canadian theme, it was more abstract than just talking about the “good ole hockey game”. How did you feel when you witnessed a moment in hockey history? What are the stories of the players we love to watch? Want to explain something to a hockey-loving nation? Use a hockey analogy.
In “Fireworks”, Gord calls out one of Canada’s most glorious moments in hockey history – the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and then USSR. Also called the “Super Series”, there were eight games played: four in Canada and four in the USSR. This marked the first time NHL players participated in international hockey. Besides the intense pressure the Canadian players had to bring home a victory, it was also during the Cold War. The song also highlights a young man’s struggle between hanging out with the guys watching a hockey game and getting the attention of a girl: “We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger/And all I remember is sitting beside you”; “You held my hand and we walked home the long way/You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr”.
“Fifty-Mission Cap” highlights a dark moment in Toronto Maple Leafs history – the disappearance of Bill Barilko who went missing while on a fly-in fishing trip during the summer after winning the Stanley Cup Final. The song also makes the connection that the Leafs had an 11-year Stanley Cup drought until Barilko’s body was found in 1962.
In “It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken” there is a very subtle, yet relatable line to a hockey-playing nation: “Get life day-to-day/In the forget-yer-skates dream”. No doubt every hockey player can attest to that type of anxiety before a big game.
Political & Social Consciousness
Even before Gord Downie ever thought of writing “The Secret Path”, his lyrics have taught us to look critically at certain events in history so that injustices are not repeated.
“Looking For A Place To Happen” calls out Jacques Cartier who discovered Canada on France’s behalf and was the first to map out the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Unfortunately, for his contribution to the development and naming of Canada, Cartier is also known for his harsh dealings with the Iroquois people:
“Jacques Cartier, right this way,
I’ll put your coat up on the bed
Hey man you’ve got a real bum’s eye for clothes
And come on in, sit right down,
No you’re not the first to show
We’ve all been here since, God, who knows?”
“Bobcaygeon” could also side step into the geography category with nods to the Ontario cottage country town and the line “That night in Toronto”, which always gets a loud cheer from local crowds; as does the shout out to the “checkerboard floors” of famed musical establishment The Horseshoe Tavern. The song also subtly draws attention to anti-semetic actions or riots; however, there is some debate as to which specific event inspired Gord to write about “keeping order restored”.
Of course the most popular Hip song in this category is “Wheat Kings”, which Gord Downie penned following the release of David Milgaard who was wrongly convicted of murder and imprisoned for 23 years.
Thank you, Gord, for reminding us of what we love about Canada with your beautiful, obscure poetry. Thank you for teaching us about places in our country we didn’t know much about. Most of all, thank you for helping us learn from the parts of history that we often want to forget. For your words, we are forever grateful.