These are the stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.
If I were to climb into my car and drive for approximately one half hour to the north east of where I live, I would arrive at a site where one of the most iconic albums in Canadian history was recorded. That location would be a farmhouse situated in a rural village called Kendal Valley. That farmhouse would be owned by none other than Mr. Greg Keelor, co-lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band, Blue Rodeo. The album that was recorded at his farmhouse was called Five Days in July. Many music critics rate Five Days in July as being one of the top twenty albums ever produced in Canada. The album is compared favourably to other legendary albums such as Neil Young’s Harvest album or Music From Big Pink by The Band. The big single to come from that album was “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”. This is the story of the band, the album and that superb single. Let’s go!
The story of Blue Rodeo began way back in high school when Greg Keelor and fellow co-lead singer, songwriter and guitarist, Jim Cuddy first became aware of each other. Like many young, aspiring musicians, Keelor and Cuddy played in and out of many bands during their pre-Blue Rodeo days. Some of the people they played with ended up joining them as members of Blue Rodeo while others, like the Timmins Brothers, ended up in other bands such as The Cowboy Junkies. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a good time in the history of Canadian music. While Blue Rodeo were gaining their sea legs, bands such as Sloan, The Tragically Hip, The Skydiggers, Jane Siberry, Andrew Cash and many others were all being signed to recording contracts and were releasing albums that met with various levels of acclaim and sales success. Into that environment came Blue Rodeo. The guys in the band had, for a while, left Toronto and had settled into New York City in order to jump start their career. While overnight success failed to materialize there, what did happen was that they were afforded lots of opportunity to play and to write. Out of that experience came the song, “Rose-Coloured Glasses”, which was one of four songs that they shopped around and which eventually landed them their own recording contract. Their first album was called Outskirts. The breakthrough single from that album was the stellar track, “Try”. That single launched Blue Rodeo into the upper levels of fame in Canada.
Like all bands, there are times when everything runs like a well-oiled machine and other times when the group dynamic is off and the band lacks cohesion. In the early days of Blue Rodeo’s existence, things went relatively well. They had several hit songs which have gone on to become woven into the fabric of our national musical soundscape such as “Diamond Mine”, “Rebel”, “Til I Am Myself Again”, “Trust Yourself”, “What Am I Doing Here?”, “Lost Together” and “Angels”, among many others. Blue Rodeo had mastered the country-rock sound. They toured all over Canada and the United States. Many people considered them to be worthy peers of the kings of Canadian music, The Tragically Hip. One of the main reasons for their distinct sound was the keyboard stylings of original member, Bob Wiseman. Wiseman was considered by Cuddy and Keelor to have been uniquely talented. His virtuosity on the keyboard was such that instead of the usual guitar or drum solos that rock bands perform when they are feeling great on stage, Blue Rodeo would incorporate keyboard solos to show off Wiseman’s skills. Because of the presence of Bob Wiseman, Blue Rodeo had an aspect to their sound that no other band could duplicate. However, as the years went by and the album count climbed, Bob Wiseman no longer felt like he wanted to remain with the band. He felt constrained by the structure of this rock band. So, after several acrimonious months, he quit the band. The rest of the band were not unhappy to see him go.
Around this time, Greg Keelor found himself on a train that was heading back to Toronto from Montreal, I believe. That train passed through a section of land near where I live that has been dubbed, “The Rolling Hills of Northumberland County”. Just to the north of where I reside sits some of the best farmland in Ontario. This land alternates between rounded mountains and green valleys. It is a very peaceful, serene stretch of land that so far, as of this moment, has managed to evade the greedy clutches of the land developers. The Rolling Hills of Northumberland County remain relatively pure and bucolic. This is what Greg Keelor saw as his train chugged along. With the departure of Bob Wiseman fresh in his mind, the sudden presence of this peaceful, green countryside filled Keelor with a sense of calm that he hadn’t known for many months. As soon as he arrived back in Toronto, Keelor grabbed the real estate listings for the area and found a farmhouse that was for sale. That farmhouse was in a village called Kendal. Keelor bought it immediately. This farmhouse became a sort of homebase for the band, much in the same way that The Tragically Hip have their own recording studio called The Bathouse in Bath, Ontario.
With all of the turmoil of the past few months still echoing in his mind, Keelor decided that what he and the band needed to do most was to simply gather together, invite some friends along for a sleepover type of thing and just play music for the sake of playing music. So, the members of Blue Rodeo arrived in Kendal, as did musical friends such as Sarah MacLachlan, Colin Linden and many others. A small recording studio was set up in one of the rooms. Some beverages were consumed. Some weed was smoked. Good food was prepared and shared. Musical instruments came out. Voices joined in song. The sky was blue. The weather, warm. Soft breezes blew in through the open windows. Those who were there all say that those five days were among the most relaxed and enjoyable any of them have ever had. When that five day get-together began in July, no one thought that an entire album of original material would emerge from it. But, as we all know, sometimes when we are at our most mellow, we get the greatest ideas and inspirational thoughts. This was the case at the Kendal farmhouse. After the first day or so of singing and collaborating and of creating new songs, it was suggested that it would be a good idea to record the songs for posterity. By the time the fifth day had ended, all of the material that would end up on the Five Days in July album had been created and recorded. In fact, they were all so productive that half of the music for their follow-up album, Nowhere To Here was created and recorded during those five days, as well.
Many of the songs that were created by Keelor at the farmhouse, as well as many others he has written over the years alternate between themes of loss and of the excitement of new relationships. So, it is not a great surprise that a song such as “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” is about loss. Coming as it did during a period of major transition for the band, “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” reads like the feelings of someone who knew that change was afoot but remains stunned that it ended up happening just the same. We all deal with loss differently. For Blue Rodeo, the loss of Bob Wiseman and his brand of creative musicality allowed them to follow a new and satisfying path that resulted in one of the great Canadian albums of all time. The song is one of the few that mention Lake Ontario by name (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” being another notable song to do so). The video for “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” was filmed on a wintery day just north of Port Hope, Ontario. Port Hope is almost due south from Kendal and sits beside Lake Ontario. In the video, the boys in the band are burying someone (Wiseman?) in a field overlooking the Lake as the snow falls.
“Hey! Hey! I guess it hasn’t hit me yet.
I fell through this crack and I kinda lost my way.
I stand transfixed before this streetlight,
Watching the snow fall on this cold December night
And out in the middle of Lake Ontario
The same snow is falling (the same snow is falling),
On the deep silent water (on the deep silent water),
The great dark wonder
Into the waves of my heart
Into the waves of my heart
Of my heart.”
Blue Rodeo continues to make music and tour all across Canada, stopping to play in places large and small for anyone who cares to come by and listen. The band has been inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame, as well as earning a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. They have definitely earned all of the kudos that have come their way. However, in spite of their success, they remain level headed and grounded individuals. It wasn’t all that long ago that Greg Keelor and I both found ourselves in a Port Hope grocery store shopping for onions and potatoes at the very same time. He wore dirty, baggy jeans and a faded sweater coat. Nobody bothered this gray-haired man as he rooted through the potato bin. But I knew who he was and I was secretly very pleased. I hope that he enjoyed his dinner back in Kendal which is, as you now know, only a half hour from my own house. We’re practically neighbours, Greg Keelor and I.
The link to the official website for Blue Rodeo can be found here.
There is no website for Kendal, Ontario nor is there one for Lake Ontario. So, instead, the link to the official website for Port Hope, Ontario…where the music video was shot and where I bumped into Greg Keelor at the grocery store…can be found here.
The header photo was taken by Port Hope photographer Davandra Cribbie. It shows Lake Ontario as viewed from Port Hope harbour in winter. The link to Davandra’s website can be found here.
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