The Tragically Hip holds a special place in the hearts of many Canadians, so take a look at how Gord Downie's songwriting reflects the stories of Canada, one year after his death.
Gord Downie was a poet, an artist, and a pop icon that helped define Canadian culture as we know it. He was an entertainer with a penchant for the whimsical, a colourful lyricist and an activist. All these facets of his persona were revered in their own right by fans and the broader Canadian community, but never did they come together as eloquently and as impactfully as they did through his storytelling and songwriting. On the anniversary of his death, we reflect on how Gord Downie breathed life into some of Canada’s most powerful stories and why those efforts continue to resonate so deeply with Canadians.
The beginning: Up To Here
Downie’s uniquely Canadian lyrical references date back to the beginning of his career. The band’s first single "Blow at High Dough" from their debut album Up to Here was released in April 1989 and begins, “They shot a movie once in my hometown. Everybody was in it from miles around. Out at the speedway some kinda Elvis thing. Well, I ain’t no movie star, but I can get behind anything.” As many of the band’s lyrics, we are left to our own interpretations, but this much is certain… ‘Speedway’ is both a 1968 American musical action film starring Elvis Presley and also a debaucherous hang-out for teens in Gord’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. The band’s love of Kingston, which struck a chord with every hometown-proud Canuck, was no secret and was indeed pervasive in the band's lyrics until the very end when the Tragically Hip performed their final concert in Kingston’s cozy K-Rock Centre for an audience of just under 6,000 while millions watched on.
The band’s 1991 Road Apples ballad, "Fiddler’s Green," purportedly had more personal meaning for Downie. The lyrics “September Seventeen. For a girl I know, it's Mother's Day. Her son has gone alee. And that's where he will stay. Wind on the weathervane. Tearing blue eyes sailor-mean. As Falstaff sings a sorrowful refrain. For a boy in Fiddler's Green,” are believed to be about his own nephew who passed away from a heart condition. ‘Fiddler’s Green’ is an expression used by sailors to refer to the afterlife, and it is worth noting that this song was included on the concert list for the Hip’s final tour as Downie himself was dying of a brain tumour.
Getting popular: Fully Completely
On the Hip’s Fully Completely album, Downie’s love for all-things Canadian really shines through. While "Courage (you couldn’t come at a worse time)" pays tribute to a lesser-known Canadian historical figure, Hugh McClellan, "At the Hundredth Meridian" references the line of longitude that unofficially separates Eastern and Western Canada where, as the song goes, “the great plains begin.”
Fully Completely also tells two uniquely Canadian stories. The first requires no further explanation than the lyrics of "Fifty Mission Cap." “Bill Barilko disappeared that summer. He was on a fishing trip. The last goal he ever scored (in overtime) won the Leafs the cup. They didn't win another until 1962 the year he was discovered.” This rare display of lyrical clarity is clouded by the fact that the song is believed to be a tribute to Downie’s grandfather as well as the term ‘Fifty Mission Cap’ which refers to a hat worn by fighter pilots during the World Wars.
In “Wheat Kings,” Downie references the plight of David Milgaard, a Winnipeg man wrongly convicted of murder in 1969, who served 23 years in a Saskatchewan prison. “In his Zippo lighter, he sees the killer's face. Maybe it's someone standing in a killer's place. Twenty years for nothing, well that's nothing new. Besides, no one's interested in something you didn't do…” These powerful lyrics foretell the increasingly activist role Downie would play in the latter years of his life.
Though the jury’s still out on the meaning of one of Downie’s later works, "Bobcaygeon" (the name of a town in Ontario), some say the lyrics, “That night in Toronto with its checkerboard floors, riding on horseback and keeping order restored. ‘Til the men they couldn't hang stepped to the mic and sang and their voices rang with that Aryan twang” are in reference to The Christie Pits riot which took place in Toronto in 1933 and which are often thought of as an example of a growing anti-semitic sentiment in the region in the lead up to the Second World War.
On the same album, Downie lightens the mood in his song, "Fireworks," and appeals to lovers of Canada’s unofficial national sport when he references a hockey moment that fans remember well—Paul Henderson's game-winning goal against Russia in the 1972 Summit Series. “If there's a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol' 72. We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger, and all I remember is sitting beside you.” While you might argue that the song has less to do with hockey than the broader themes of young love, pop culture and the Cold War, Tragically Hip fans know that being able to reference Canadianna big and small is what makes the band's brand of nostalgia so successful.
The end: Secret Path
After his diagnosis of terminal brain cancer in early 2016, Downie embarked upon the final and arguably most impactful storytelling venture of his career. Secret Path, his fifth solo studio album, strikes right at the heart of one of Canada’s darkest and ugliest hours. This concept album, which was accompanied by a stirring graphic novel and later adapted into an animated TV film, sought to tell the harrowing story of 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy, Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 while escaping a residential school in Ontario. The lyrics, “Walking home along the tracks. 'Secret Path.' He said, 'Secret Path.' I am soaked to the skin. There's never been a colder rain than this one I'm in” do not shy away from dismal details of Chanie’s short life and death which Downie called “Canada’s Story.”
Through his life and lyrics, Gord Downie struck an artful balance between music that illuminated contemporary themes and Canadian culture with good old-fashioned fun. In his final works, he held his beloved Canadians to account and invited them into a conversation that, even after his death, continues to re-write the ultimate Canadian story.