The stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.
For those familiar with the evolution of modern music history, you will be aware that the late 1950s, into the decade of the 1960s was a time when society, in general, was becoming more open and permissive. The buttoned-down way of living that so characterized the Post World War II western world started giving way to the introduction of many new things such as the women’s movement, anti-establishment/anti-government protests, as well as changes brought on by the growing reach of television as witnessed most clearly by the daily coverage of the horrors of the Vietnam War. Musically, the 1960s saw the emergence of singer/poets like Bob Dylan, the move from acoustic to electric instruments, as well as the introduction of longer, more complex songs that extended beyond the traditional three minute mark and which began to feature a greater array of instrumentation and sound recording techniques. Creatively, the 1960s were a time of Modernism in the Arts and a revolution for the public recognition of the importance of the Arts in our society in the form of modern architectural design and the increasingly common practice of integrating modernist Art in public spaces. Overall, the 1960s was a period of societal transformation on many levels. Into that context, we place today’s song on the Great Canadian Road Trip: Murray McLauchlan’s classic tune, “Down By The Henry Moore”.
Just because we lived in Canada didn’t mean that we were immune to the wealth of changes sweeping the western world during the 1950s and 60s. Sometimes for momentous events to occur, a perfect storm of conditions is required. At that time in the history of Canada, and in particular, the history of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, societal change was afoot there, too. Canada was developing its own identity as a country. So, too, was Toronto, as a city. As the 1950s went by, it began to be felt by those in power that Toronto was worthy of being recognized for the diversity of its cultural neighbourhoods, and that it was deserving of hosting great pieces of Modernist Art that would bring the attention of the world to this great city. The first step in changing the nature of downtown Toronto happened when the mayor at the time, Mayor Givens, through Council, authorized the funding of a new city hall with an adjacent square for public use. The new city hall was to be a modern architectural design. The incorporation into that design of a public square was meant to make the city hall a focal point in a vibrant new vision for how downtown communities could breathe and function. Into the vision of a public gathering place was added the notion that public spaces would be infinitely better if they contained Art. Thus, respected British sculptor Henry Moore was commissioned to create a work that was to adorn the public square of Toronto’s shiny new city hall.
With plans underway for the building of the new city hall, an additional emotion flowed through Toronto. That emotion manifested itself in an explosion of music. The 1960s and into the early 1970s was the height of the Folk scene in Yorkville that saw singers such as Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte Marie, Joni Mitchel and others holding court. These singers began writing songs that used the real stories of Canadians: both ordinary folks, along with historical figures, to help create a sense of Canadian identity. It began to be important to tell the stories of places not named New York or L.A. One of those musicians who most took this to heart was a young folk singer named Murray McLauchlan. McLauchan was in his teens when he ran away from home and moved into the basement of a coffee house in downtown Toronto. While living in this coffeehouse, McLauchlan found himself in a music-rich environment. He also found himself with the freedom to explore the city. Eventually, he took pen to paper and began writing down his own poems and short songs. Soon enough, he acquired the encouragement of those who frequented the coffeehouse scene and agreed to perform a few songs live. Not long after his coffeehouse debut, he was offered a record contract which helped him launch a career that has seen McLauchlan record over twenty albums and win eleven Juno Awards. His very first song to reach #1 on the Canadian charts was called “Down By The Henry Moore”.
“Down By The Henry Moore” is a biographical ode to the city of Toronto. It namedrops famous Toronto landmarks such as the El Mocambo nightclub, the Silver Dollar Saloon, Kensington Market, as well as Nathan Phillips Square, which is what the public space at the new city hall ended up being called. Into that public square was built a fountain that in the winter time transforms into a public skating rink. It is while skating at the public rink that Murray McLauchlan found himself “Down By The Henry Moore” because the Moore sculpture dubbed “The Archer” sits beside the rink/fountain in a place of visual prominence. Over the course of the next few decades, the Art Gallery of Ontario became home to the largest public collection of Henry Moore sculptures in the world…many of which were donated by Moore, himself, in gratitude and in recognition for how he perceived that the city of Toronto had managed to integrate “The Archer” into the fabric of its being in the very heart of the city. There are many people in other parts of Canada who hold Toronto in disdain because they detect a “centre of the universe” mindset at play. However, in all great cities around the world, mythologizing the everyday people and places that comprise those cities helps to create a sense of identity that transcends its borders. Creating a sense of community and of place is important. The Arts go a long way to helping that to happen. Murray McLauchlan, lovingly described as Toronto’s first poet, deserves a lot of the credit for documenting his city in verse and in chorus at a time when Toronto was just discovering who it could be. I am not sure if today’s Toronto poets, Drake and The Weeknd, have the personal freedom to explore all of the unique and interesting neighbourhoods in the city and translate their impressions into song, but, if they do, I am sure they would find lots to write about and to brag to the world about because Toronto is truly a great city. If you are new to Toronto and want to start your own exploration, going “Down By The Henry Moore” wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
The link to the video for the song “Down By The Henry Moore” by Murray McLauchlan can be found here.
The link to the official website for Murray McLauchlan can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Art Gallery of Ontario…home to the world’s largest public collection of sculptures by Henry Moore…can be found here.
The link to the official website for Henry Moore can be found here.
The link to the official website for the City of Toronto can be found here.
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