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The Tragically Hip and the Bands Ties to Canadian Culture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 3956 words Published: 17th Sep 2021

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On October 17th 2017, famed Canadian musician and lead singer of The Tragically Hip died of a brain tumor at the age of 53. Who was deemed a poet of Canada by scholars, the man who walks among stars by the nations ancestors, and a rock star for the ages as called by his fan base (Barclay, 2017). Gord Downie defined what it meant to be Canadian whether he liked it or not.

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 To first understand the identity Canada achieved due to the likes of Gord Downie, the history of Canadian culture (the lack of to be more specific) has to be looked at. From Confederation in 1867, the newly formed nation did not have much time to develop its own independent identity. This is because Canada still had very close ties to Great Britain, including Canada’s involvement as an ally in two world wars which took the nation to 1945 (Smith, 2017). Following this was the continuing rise of America as a global superpower. Canada’s neighbours to the south would go on to eclipse them culturally (and the rest of the world quite frankly) moving forward.

“Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt” (Trudeau, 1969 cited in Smith, 2017). Spoken to Americans in 1969 by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (Justin Trudeau’s Father), it was clear the nation was having an identity crisis since Confederation. In the late 1960s, Canadian culture was non-existent with the United States casting a massive shadow on Canada’s media industry. U.S television programs made up 70% of all television viewing in Canada, U.S cinema accounted for 96% of the theatrical distribution market in English Canada (83% in French Canada), and 70% of all magazines bought in Canada was overflow from US markets (Campbell, 1997). Canadian authors were also often pressured by American publishers to change plot locations from Canada to the U.S (Wilson, 1996). Many Canadian actors and musicians at the time were also migrating to the United States to achieve success. Canadian songwriters Neil Young and Joni Mitchell both signed with American labels in the 1960s (Wilson, 1996). This still happens today as Canada’s new generation of artists (Justin Beiber, The Weeknd, Shawn Mendes etc.) continue to move to the States to further their music career. With Canadian culture being swallowed up by the States the federal government decided to take action marking a pivotal point for the future growth of Canadian culture. January 1971, legislation was passed that introduced Canadian-content regulations for radio stations. This mandated radio stations to dedicate a minimum of 30% of their airtime to Canadian artists only (Campbell, 1997). Canada would continue to fight for their own distinct cultural vision separate from the U.S throughout the 20th century.

On January 1st 1989, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was signed and was replaced by NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994. With negations starting in 1986 for the trade agreement, many disputes of cultural industries in relation to trade were brought to light (Wilson, 1996). During this time Keith Kelly of the Canadian Conference of the Arts told the Globe and Mail, “Perception is part of the problem. For them its an entertainment industry. But for us, it is national cultural identity” (Kelly, 1996 cited in Wilson, 1996, p. 15). Canadian artists would go on to get exemptions for cultural industries in both the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and North American Free Trade Agreement. This protected the achievements of Canadian artists, but it did nothing to help broaden their influence in the States or help them achieve audiences in America either (Wilson, 1996).  

While Canada was struggling to define itself in the 20th century, in 1984 a local Canadian band was also fighting to define themselves in the small town of Kingston, Ontario (Barclay, 2017). The Tragically Hip consisted of lead singer Gord Downie, bassist Gord Sinclair, guitarists Robbie Baker and Paul Langlois, and drummer Johnny Fay. During the band’s first few years they mostly covered songs by The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and The Monkees (Barclay, 2017). They would not have to fight for long though as they would eventually become Canada’s biggest band. Their first album Up To Here released in 1989 and their third album Fully Completely released in 1992 would become two of only 24 Canadian records to sell over one million copies domestically (Barclay, 2017). Six of the albums out of the 24 belong to Celine Dion (Barclay, 2017). But, none of the Tragically Hip’s albums have ever broken the Billboard Top 100 like various other Canadian artists. This begs the question pondered by many Canadians why The Tragically Hip never went on to achieve the same success as other Canadian artists in America. To answer this question is Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy stating,

“I’m not sure that matters. The greater question is: Why were they so important to Canadians?… The Hip represent why we are a different culture. We would not expect them to be big in France. Gord is an extremely recognizable figure up here” (Cuddy, 2016 cited in Barclay, 2017, p. 39).

The Tragically Hip would certainly do well in Canada indeed. They have won 14 Juno awards, were given a spot on Canada’s Walk of Fame, an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and in June of 2017, Downie and the band were named to the Order of Canada (Canadian Music Hall of Fame, 2019). No other Canadian band has sold as many records domestically as the Tragically Hip (Farrell, 2016). What many will tell you upon witnessing The Hip in their early days is that their success would be immanent, and it was largely because of their front man Gord Downie.

“Gordon Edgar Downie was one of the most riveting and mystifying performers in rock ‘n’ roll history. Anyone who managed to catch him fronting the Tragically Hip in 1985, playing covers at a roadhouse in Renfrew, Ont., could tell you that. As could anyone who watched him command 40,000 people at any given outdoor appearance during the 1990s, singing songs that were summer soundtracks for an entire generation” (Barclay, 2017 cited in Barclay, 2017, p. 10).

The 20th Century was meant to be Canada’s year according to former Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier (Gray, 2017). History proved him wrong unfortunately, and with the talk of free trade and constitutional arguments in the 1980s, the 1990 Oka Crisis, and the 1989 Montreal Massacre, The Tragically Hip emerged in a Canadian climate of identity confusion and national self-examination (Barclay, 2016). Due to this, Gord Downie’s lyrics became signifiers of Canadian culture that Canadians would begin to latch onto during the late 20th century. Their breakout hit, 1989’s New Orleans is Sinking, contains an Uncle Sam persona informing Canadians in the song with the lyric: “Hey North, you’re South, shut your big mouth” (Downie, 1989 cited in Dame, 2018). This is a reference to the Free Trade negotiations that were happening at the time with the United States, which was also a defining issue of the 1988 Canadian federal election (Dame, 2018). Unintentional or not, this lyric helped further contribute to the “Us versus Them” climate continuing to take shape during the 1980s. Canadiana was beginning to rise and spread across the nation with fans hungry for something they could finally identify with. Downie used Canada as a palette for his poetry and songwriting as he drew references from all across Canada. As a result, his lyrics began to connect people across different landscapes and cultures and unite them under one country.

In the Hips early years opening bands were often drowned out by chants of “Hip! Hip! Hip!” which musicians would call “getting Hipped” (Barclay, 2016). This even happened to Blue Rodeo (another Canadian band at the time contributing to the rise of independent Canadian culture), and Daniel Lanois, who had beer bottles thrown at him opening for The Hip at a Canada Day show in 1994 (Barclay, 2016). This caused Downie to dedicate the first song of The Hips’ set that day to “assholes who throw shit at musicians” (Downie, 1994 cited in Barclay, 2016 p. 30). Hip hysteria continued throughout the 1990s creating more reckless fans and testosterone fueled outbursts which resulted in the female fan base to not always feel safe at concerts (Barclay, 2017). Despite the largely male fan base in their early years, the band has multiple songs about the struggles pertaining to women and have been analyzed under a feminist light as well. I’ll Believe in You tells the story of a woman standing up to a very bad man in her life with a shotgun. In an unreleased song titled Montreal, Downie sings about the Montreal Massacre in 1989. A tragedy in which a misogynistic gunman walked into a University classroom and murdered 14 women, while shooting and injuring 13 others (Warner, 2016). “Downie’s lyrics afford women agency. That’s so important and seemingly simple: women get to be people, not just a prop of male fantasy or wish fulfilment” (Warner, 2016 cited in Warner, 2016). It is clear the behaviour of some of The Hips’ fan base during their uprising weighed on Downie for years. This prompted him to thank his women fan base during the bands final tour in 2016 as he spoke only one thing to his audience at a show in Toronto; “Thank you to all the women for always coming to our shows, even when your men were jumping off stages and getting into fights down in front. We needed you here.” (Downie, 2016 cited in Barclay, 2016, p. 31).

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The Tragically Hip launched into Canadian fame with the population deeming them “Canada’s Band.” Many fans who went to see the band live would drape themselves in Canadian flags, especially if they performed in the United States (Barclay, 2016). Despite the actions of his fans Gord Downie was not a nationalist by any sense of the word, and yet it is his lyrics that the citizens of Canada use to define the country. “I was watching as nationalism began to metamorphose into something creepy and affiliated. Too much ill will was being generated by nationalistic feelings. I had to bail out.” (Downie, 1994 cited in Dame, 2018). Spoken to Saturday Night Magazine back in 1994, this was one of the many times Gord Downie spoke out about his resistance to be “Canada’s Band.” This irony can be found elsewhere in Canada’s attempts to define itself as a nation. It was Prime Minister Lester Pearson who was also famously not a nationalist, but lead the patriotic cause for creating Canada’s national flag back in 1965 (Dame, 2018). Singing about Canada and singing about your love for Canada are two different concepts, Downie’s non-nationalist approach is what made his lyrics so enticing and real, opposed to pandering. “I started using Canadian references not just for their own sake, but because I wanted to pick up my birthright, which is this massive country full of stories.” (Downie, 2016 cited in Barclay, 2016, p. 30). That being said, Gord Downie also did not let being Canadian represent his entire songwriting identity. He was just as likely to draw inspiration from other aspects of culture and history around the world than just hockey and cottage country Canadiana. Although, it should be noted that The Hip album with the most Canadian references throughout (Fully Completely released in 1992), has also been their most commercially successful album(Barclay, 2017).

In regards to Canadian culture, it is certainly easiest for fans to get excited about songs with references to Hockey Night in Canada, the CBC, or the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gord Downie’s godparent is Harry Sinden, celebrated hockey coach who brought Team Canada to victory in the 1972 Summit Series against the U.S.S.R. (Barclay, 2017). Downie’s connection to hockey royalty can certainly explain the celebration of hockey in some of his songs. The Hips’ 1995 performance of “Fifty Mission Cap” (a song about former Toronto Maple Leaf hockey legend Bill Barilko) at a sold out Maple Leaf Gardens would become etched into Canadian folklore (Jennings, 2000). The song was off their 1994 album Day for Night which created a huge year for the band. Thanks to the album, that year they would open for The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and were asked from fellow Kingston born actor Dan Aykroyd to perform on Saturday Night Live (Jennings, 2000). The former cast member had orchestrated the band to play on the show during March of 1995 in which he even introduced them (Barclay, 2017). That year gave America a look into Canadian culture and would mark The Tragically Hip’s best efforts at trying to break into the American market. Ultimately unsuccessful, regardless their 1994 album Day for Night was the first Tragically Hip album to debut at number one on the Canadian Albums Chart at the time (Farrell, 2016).

Gord Downie also made references in his songs to his Canadian literary heroes, including poet Al Purdy and novelist Hugh Maclennan. Downie, like his heroes was a poet who saw Canada for all of its flaws and challenges ahead. Therefore, his lyrics also touched on the many downfalls and tragedies of Canadian history. In the song Three Pistols, Downie sings about the mysterious drowning of famed Canadian painter Tom Thomson. Wheat Kings tells the story of Canadian David Milgaard who was wrongfully convicted for rape and murder. The song opens with the now iconic loon call, the sound many Canadians are familiar with as the loon is on the Canadian one-dollar coin, or “loonie” as the country calls it. The song Looking for a Place to Happen shares the tale of Jacques Cartier discovering Canada, but more importantly the takeover of Indigenous Lands as a result. Downie’s song repertoire would later explain his involvement in environmental issues and reconciliation issues. Not only did he later become involved with a Lake Ontario water charity (Barclay, 2017), in 2016 Downie and his brother founded the Chanie Wenjack Fund, an organization created to improve the lives of indigenous people throughout Canada (Edwards, 2016). With the charity he released the solo project Secret Path which was Gord Downie’s last official album. Downie used his last few months alive to bring attention to the topic of Indigenous Reconciliation, a deep seated issue in this country that the government has continued to divert attention from ever since Confederation. In December 2016, Gord Downie was honored by the Chief of the National Assembly of the First Nations of Canada. He received the spirit name Wicapi Omani, “Man Who Walks Among the Stars”, in front of the Prime Minister of Canada (Edwards, 2016).

In May 2016, The Tragically Hip announced to the public Gord Downie was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a terminal brain cancer that on average gives the patient 18 months of life after diagnosis (CBC, 2017). The following day the band announced they would be going on one final tour across Canada for their newest album Man Machine Poem (Barclay, 2017). This draws many parallels to famed Canadian hero Terry Fox, an amputee who lost his leg to cancer and would go on to attempt to ran across Canada in the 1980s (Barclay, 2017). Sadly, Terry Fox was unable to finish his Marathon of Hope due to the cancer. Many Canadians upon hearing the bands final tour announcement feared Downie would bare the same fate. The tickets of the tour sold out in minutes with many fans flying out to the first stop in Western Canada in fears he would not survive the entirety of the tour (Long Time Running, 2017). Paramedics were on sight at every stop of the tour and several teleprompters were placed on stage to help Downie remember his lyrics (Long Time Running, 2017). The nation’s eyes were all on Downie as he made his way across Canada representing a symbol of strength for Canadians (Long Time Running, 2017). On August 20th 2016, The Tragically Hip made it across Canada to their final show at the K-Rock Centre in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. A crowd of 25,000 people gathered outside in Springer Market Square, with the concert also being broadcasted across the country on the CBC (Barclay, 2016). 11.6 million Canadians watched the broadcast that night as a new Canadian hero was born. It is hard to imagine an event in Canada (besides a gold medal Olympic hockey game) that could unite so much of the nation together (Barclay, 2016).

As a songwriter myself I have taken a lot of inspiration from Gord Downie as a lyricist. Much of his songs have a certain stream of consciousness in them that I often try to emulate in my songwriting. In the song Nautical Disaster, Gord Downie creates a natural ebb and flow with his lyrics without using a single rhyme in the song. In my song, Songs Don’t Have to Rhyme, I tried to write lyrics that flowed naturally from one line to the other without uses any rhymes. When I chose to use rhymes I made sure they served a purpose to the overall theme of the song. In the song I also mention the Kawartha region, a cottage country region in Ontario. Like Gord Downie I want to use Canadian locations, but also only when they serve a purpose to the narrative and not for the sake of them. I have also been inspired by some of Downie’s themes in his songwriting. In his song Courage (For Hugh MacLennan), Gord Downie explores the theme of courage being a negative impulse at times. The song “exposes suicide as a selfish and impractical urge” (Dame, 2018) and expresses relief that the protagonist [Hugh MacLennan] did not have the courage to take his own life (Dame, 2018). The chorus ends with the lyric, “Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time” (Downie, 1992). In my song Afraid (Wrong Song), I also explore the theme of courage being a negative impulse at times and how it can lead to poor outcomes. The song tells the story of a protagonist who had the courage to share thoughts and feelings they should not have. I begin the chorus with the lyric, “This courage got the best of me.” 

The final song The Tragically Hip performed in Kingston on the night of August 20th 2016 was Ahead by a Century. The song is from their 1996 album Trouble at the Henhouse and is the band’s highest charting single (Rudnick, 2016). It was not a coincidence that they chose this song to end their career on. The song weaves together the past, present, and future as two kids grow up and experience life together. On a deeper level the song comes to represent Canada’s identity and the hope for a better future (Morrison, 2016). “It is a song in which the Hip asks us to shed what holds us back, and to imagine a future that sets us free” (Morrison, 2016 cited in Morrison, 2016). That night The Tragically Hip celebrated with the nation what it meant to be Canadian, but their final song reminded the audience to strive for a better future that should not be ahead of us by a century. In 2017, Canada celebrated its 150th birthday and Gord Downie had this to say; “Let’s not celebrate the last 150 years. Let’s celebrate our next 150 years.” (Downie, 2017 cited in Barclay, 2017). Gord Downie knew that Canada still had a long way to go in becoming a truly united nation. Furthermore, he showed us that there is still no clear definition of what it means to be Canadian. But, if one thing is for sure, it is that being Canadian has something to do with listening to The Tragically Hip, whether Gord Downie likes it or not.

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