Sesame Street Turns Fifty!

In 2014, when Sesame Street turned forty-five, I wrote this blog post about the importance of a television show for children that, for my money, was the best of all time. Not only did the show teach academic skills such as letter recognition and counting but, it taught life skills to children in a very natural and respectful way. As an elementary school teacher for 27 years at the time of the creation of this post, one of the lessons I had learned is that children want to understand their world and that they are capable of understanding weighty topics when the adults in their world take the time to explain things clearly and with respect. The episode on Sesame Street that dealt with the death of Mr. Hooper is the best example of how to help children deal with important issues. Please enjoy this important post from five years ago. Thanks.

M: M is for Mr. Hooper

North American network television is a vast intellectual wasteland…..with all due respect to those who consider The Jerry Springer Show to be fine investigative journalism or Honey Boo-Boo to be wholesome family drama.

But, one area where North American network television comes off shining like new dimes is in the area of producing quality educational programming for children.  Throughout the entire history of television broadcasting in North America, there have been plenty of examples of shows that were created to help children learn basic skills such as counting and reading, as well as, lessons in life such as how to be a good friend.

In Canada, we have had shows such as The Road to Avonlea (based upon Anne of Green Gables), Mr. DressupThe Friendly Giant, as well as, the whole segments of their daily schedules allotted to children’s programming by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (C.B.C.) and TV Ontario (T.V.O.).

In the United States, there have been excellent programmes such as Captain KangarooMr. Rogers Neighbourhoodthe Electric Company and, today’s great shows such as the Magic School BusSid the Science KidSuper Why and many, many more.   All of these shows are well-written; mixing the teaching of facts with adventure and humour. All are respectful of the intellectual development of their audience members and always talk to them at a level appropriate for them to understand.  All of these shows deliver good messages such as believing in yourself, never giving up and doing the right thing, even when no one os looking.  They are all good shows and, as a parent and a teacher, I can, wholeheartedly, recommend them as good viewing for today’s children.

However, there is one show that towers above the rest in terms of the depth, breadth and impact of its’ programming on the cultural landscape of North America.  That show is Sesame Street.   The cast of characters from this show is a veritable who’s-who of cultural icons:  Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, just to name a few.   Sesame Street has been on the air for over forty years. In that time, countless children have learned to count with the number of the day, learned to spell because of the letter of the day or, to read because of the word of the day.  But, just as importantly, the characters all live together, in harmony, in their own neighbourhood.  If nothing else, Sesame Street has provided a visual demonstration, day in and day out, of how communities and neighbourhoods should be.  We should all care about our neighbour’s well-being.  We should all pitch in and work together to help maintain our neighbourhoods.  We should willingly join together to celebrate the good times and commiserate during the bad.  They did, every episode, on Sesame Street, in the most natural, unobtrusive way.

Being a parent and a teacher, I have found that, often, the best way to help children develop into well-adjusted, positive-minded adults is to treat them with honesty, fairness and respect.  There are plenty of moments that provide opportunities for the teaching of life lessons along the way.  Knowing how to handle such sensitive moments properly can help to lay a foundation of trust that will bear fruit, later in life, when the consequences of our children’s decisions may leave more permanent marks on their lives.   

Sunny Days
Under a cotton ball sky, A nest is discovered, One egg left unhatched. Tiny hands reach out to cradle newfound treasure. Lessons in life and death ensue. The price of growing up: Innocence.

When I think about moments life this, I recall one time when TV actually led the way. In what is widely considered one of the finest moments ever in all of broadcasting history, The Children’s Television Workshop accorded children everywhere the ultimate compliment by treating them with respect and compassion and believing them capable of understanding one of the most sensitive of all topics: Death.

When one of the long time actors on Sesame Street passed away in real life, the writers decided to use his absence as a teachable moment. They did so by having the rest of the adults on Sesame Street help Big Bird understand that Mr. Hooper, his friend, had died and what that actually meant. The airing of this episode was a watershed moment in Television history and one that still is used to help explain the concept of Death to children (most recently during the Sandy Hook tragedy). If you want to see television at its’ best then, watch “Big Bird Learns About Death.” Sorry, in advance, for making you cry.

You can watch this special scene here.

I always, always lose it right after Big Bird says that he is going to go into the store to give Mr. Hooper his drawing and the rest of the people gathered there react with uncomfortable silence.  I cry and I cry because Big Bird is about to lose some of that most precious of childhood treasures; his innocence.  But Death is a thorny issue, strewn as it is with emotional land mines all around.  In my opinion, the producers of Sesame Street handled this episode perfectly.

First of all, they didn’t tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died because he was old.  Many children view their own parents as being old. To equate age with death would needlessly worry millions of young children the next time one of their parents coughed.   Secondly, they didn’t tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died because he was sick.  Children get sick all of the time.  No one wanted them to become scared that they were going to die just because they developed a routine illness. 

No, Big Bird was told several important things:  Mr. Hooper died just because it is a normal part of life.  Big Bird was told that his friends would still be there for him and that life would continue to go on as normally as possible.  Big Bird was told that it is normal to feel sad and that the adults did, too.

I have been alive on this planet for fifty years and have watched tv shows, of one sort or another, for almost all those years.  In my opinion, as a seasoned consumer of television shows, those six minutes on Sesame Street are the finest moments ever to air on network television.  It just goes to show the power of television when producers create shows with thoughtfulness and respectfulness at the core of their broadcasting philosophies.

Did you have a favourite tv show when you were a child?  As parents, what does/did your child like to watch?  Do they watch tv at all or, is everything viewed from the Internet these days?  Whatever the case, please feel free to share your feelings in the comment box below.  Thanks, as always, for reading.  🙂

17- Grace, Too.

The Tragically Hip were about to experience their big moment in the spotlight of American television. They were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, hosted by their friend and fellow Canadian from Kingston, Ontario, Dan Ackroyd. It was a star turn, ten years in the making by that point. Yet, for the most part, it was their national debut in the United States. For a band that had always believed that they would forge their creative identity by sticking to the roots of Rock n’ Roll….“The Blues are still required”… it were, appearing on SNL was a pivotal moment in their career. As it turned out, it was a moment that is remembered by many who watched them that night as the time when Gord Downie appeared to muff the opening line of “Grace, Too”. Canada’s rising musical stars appeared nervous as the cameras rolled and a continent watched. But, in reality, how Gord opened “Grace, Too” was as crafted as anything he had ever done on any stage. He was the master of calculated improvisations for a reason. On this night, the reason had something to do with a birthday party for his eleven year old nephew. For Gord Downie and The Hip, family always mattered, even on that night in Manhattan.

Dan Ackroyd was one of the original members of SNL when it debuted waaaay back in the 1975. He is a cast member emeritus. Consequently, when he agreed to come back and host the show it 1994, it was with one condition…..that The Tragically Hip would be the musical guests. Traditionally, the music slot on SNL is reserved for a big name act and/or a hot new act that has a lot of momentum or cache associated with their name. The Tragically Hip checked none of those boxes. In Canada, they were coming off of the huge success of the Fully, Completely album. They were something special back home. But, with the exception of some U.S. border towns like Buffalo and Detroit, The Hip were relatively unknown in America. But, thanks to Dan Ackroyd, there they were as the musical guest on the biggest stage in Television.

There are many ways for a band to approach such a moment. They could have prepped and preened and put on the kind of rock set that they felt an American audience would accept and understand. They could have played safe hits such as “New Orleans is Sinking”, which had received moderate airplay south of the border. But, instead, they stuck to their roots and their penchant for being somewhat contrarian when it came to the U.S. and decided to debut a new song. That song was “Grace, Too“.

Grace, Too” was the opening track on their new album called, “Day for Night”. The second song they played during the show was “Nautical Disaster”, also from their new album. It was a bold, risky move to use their golden moment on the biggest stage of their careers to debut two unknown songs. But, sometimes, the biggest statement any creative person or group can make is to have confidence in their work, regardless of how well it is known. The Hip had been rehearsing “Grace, Too” for awhile and they knew they had a powerful song on their hands. So, they opted to trust their own instincts and go with the best and freshest music they had. As a band, The Hip always played their best music and gave every audience their best show. That night in Manhattan would be no different. New song or old, The Hip took the SNL stage prepared to take on America on their own terms. They trusted that they, and their new songs, would be enough.

SNL came back out of commercial. Dan Ackroyd appeared wearing a white shirt with a huge red word CANADA emblazoned across his chest. He smiled and staked our national claim to that 30 Rock stage. He introduced, with pride, his friends from Kingston, Ontario, The Tragically Hip. The audience applauded then, grew silent in anticipation of what was to come from this unknown band. The now familiar opening guitar chords of “Grace, Too” were struck, Gord approached the microphone and launched into the song. Only, he said the opening line wrong! In the video of this performance, you can see Gord shake his head afterwards, as if to say, what the heck did I just do.

The opening lyrics go, as follows: “He said, I’m fabulously rich! C’mon, just let’s go! She kinda bit her lip, Geez, I don’t know“. When Gord’s opening words were, “He said, I’m Tragically Hip” it seemed almost cringeworthy. It reeked of the opposite of confidence. To name-drop yourself is the height of self-absorption. I can remember watching this at home, being so disappointed and thinking that The Hip’s moment was over before it had even really began.

But I was wrong.

In interviews afterwards, Gord admitted to being distracted prior to the start of his performance. Gord had always been a good family man. He was very loyal to those he loved. His personal generosity and charitable nature were legendary. So, it was in 1994, as The Tragically Hip were about to be given, potentially, the biggest opportunity of their career, that Gord Downie made a promise to his nephew. His nephew was about to turn eleven years old. Gord would have been there for the party if time had allowed but, he was to be in New York instead. So, he promised his nephew a secret shout-out from the SNL stage. Among the million and one thoughts coursing through his head as he hit the stage and listened to Dan Ackroyd’s introduction, was that he had to, had to, had to remember his nephew off of the top of the song. When you watch the video, you will see Gord bring his fingers together to make an “11”. That was the shout-out. That was what he was thinking most about as he mindlessly repeated Ackroyd’s final words.

As Gord realized his error, he quickly regrouped and gave a ferocious performance. Gord is at his finest, frenetic self throughout the remainder of the song. How he fails to bang his head into the microphone in all his flailing about is amazing to me. It is a showcase performance for everything that made Gord Downie the mesmerizing front man he was. While Gord thrashed about the space in front of the mic stand, the band played on. “Grace, Too” is a song filled with powerful, growling, driving guitar chords. Rob Baker turns in a virtuoso performance on stage-right from Gord; his notes revving Gord’s vocal engine from the start to the finish. One of the hallmarks of all great bands is the level of collective skill that the band brings to bear but, also, how well the individual talent of the players serves to raise everyone’s game. On a night when Gord experienced a rare stumble out of the gate, the band picked him up and helped Gord right himself and then, rise up above it all. At the time, I thought the SNL performance was a disaster but now, looking back at it with more mature eyes, it has become, for me, the definitive live performance of “Grace, Too“.

On the Monday morning following the SNL show, I was driving to work and listening to the radio. The Toronto-area DJ was raving about how The Hip had “killed it” on Saturday Night Live and that all of Canada must be so very proud of how they did. At the time, I had tuned into the SNL show because I wanted to see a Canadian band do well in America. Many Canadians felt the same way because that was an inherent measure of the worth of any of our creative talents. We appreciated them at home but, if they made it big in the U.S. then, we would reeeeeeally love them. The fact of the matter was that The Tragically Hip sought to change the metric by which success was measured for Canadian acts. They did this all throughout their career. They did it on that night in Manhattan, too. They took to the biggest stage in America and trusted themselves, as musicians, as songwriters and as performers. The lessons embedded in this translate nicely to real life for all of us. If we want to be liked then, the best way for that to happen is to be ourselves. We need to trust that who we are is enough for others. Those who like who we really are will be the ones to become our good friends and our family. Those will be the people whose opinion matters in the end.

The video for this great song, “Grace, Too” can be found here. Remember to watch for the secret shout-out as Gord starts to speak and then, the shake of his head and the roll of his eyes as he realizes his opening error. Then watch him work. What a tremendous live performance!

As always, I thank you for reading my words. If you have any comments to make about this song, this particular performance on SNL, on what you think this song is actually about (because it has been the subject of more debate than most Hip songs) or whatever you heart desires, feel free to do so in the comments box below. If nothing else, always remember that the essence of who you are is more than good enough to be welcomed into the lives of others. You are worthy simply because you exist. That, for me, is the lesson of “Grace, Too“.

The Tao of Halloween

Happy Halloween, everyone! It is All Hallows Eve in our neck of the woods. The pumpkins stand watch on our front step. The treats have all been readied to give to any nasty little Spirits of the Dead who dare to darken our door tonight. Costumes have been donned. Trick-or-treating plans have been formulated. We are all prepared. Except for one thing…….it is raining.

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for our town that speaks of damaging winds and torrential rainfall and possible flooding. There has been some talk that communities in our area may dare to postpone Halloween for safety reasons and have it later on during the weekend. The children are having none of that talk. My youngest daughter has railed against the injustice of it all and this, being her final year of knocking on doors, has demanded to head out into the maelstrom regardless. As she stomps her feet and folds her arms, she looks to her mother and says, “We’ll go together, right Mom?!” Mom is not as enthusiastic.

Mom is a teacher. She still has to spend the next six hours of her life at school with several hundred costumed children; all out of routine, all amped up in anticipation of the sugar high to come, all without the benefit of the usual recess breaks because, as mentioned, it is dark and stormy and no one is going outside on this day. Teachers and students, alike, will all experience this day together for Halloween, in school, on an indoor recess day, is a day like no other. It is the perfect storm, as school days go.

A “perfect storm”, by definition, is an unusual event, characterized by the coming together of elements that usually remain apart. This day has it all! Children gorging on unhealthy food. No fresh air to stimulate young brains. Visual distractions everywhere the eye can see. The unrelentlessness of being trapped for six hours straight in classrooms that smell so much like sugar that your teeth begin to ache. The noise. The endless stimulation. It all can be too much and, it often is. It is a fairly safe bet that, before the school day ends, there will be vomit and tears and lost costume parts.

And yet, at the end of the school year, when students are asked to reflect upon all that they have experienced, many will point to Halloween as being their favourite day of them all. The overwhelming sensory stimulation will have been forgotten. What will remain is the memory of doing something special with people who are special to them and, most of all, that this day was fun. Every adult who works in a school for the benefit of young children deserves an extra bonus in their pay packet on days such as today for today, the magic they wield is very real.

If you have ever watched someone in a canoe battling to stay upright as they descend through a series of rapids then, you may have some idea of the awesome energy at play today in classrooms on Halloween, on an indoor recess day. A good teacher accepts that energy and absorbs it into the fabric of the class schedule for that day. For example, in many schools, one of the very first activities on Halloween is some sort of costume parade throughout the school or, if applicable, through the neighbourhoods that adjoin the school. This activity is very much by design and holds an important purpose. As the children first enter the school building on Halloween morning, they are, quite literally, pulsating with excitement. Fifteen minutes or so later, they are walking in a straight line for half an hour and they couldn’t be happier doing it. They think they are doing something grand and glorious; visiting classroom spaces normally off limits to them, seeing how other classes decorated their rooms, hearing the feedback from other students regarding their costume choices and yet, while excited, the kids are all calming down and settling in to the routine of the day…..a different kind of day, yes but, a school day, still.

By the time Halloween arrives, good teachers will have spent many weeks establishing consistent classroom routines. If they have been successful, a school day for their students will have a certain feel to it. That “feel” can best be described as a sense of comfort and familiarity for the students. One of the reasons that students like coming to school is that they know what to expect will happen to them throughout a day. There is little in the way of unfamiliarity to provoke anxiety. All is relatively well known. Establishing a consistent structure to each day allows the day to flow seamlessly from one activity to another. Halloween is the first real test of this in the school year. For Halloween at school cannot be six hours of straight unbridled partying. Six hours is a loooooong time when there is no structure to a day seemingly devoid of structure. But, there is always structure. That’s how educators make the day memorable for students and sane for themselves.

By the time the students have walked in a line for thirty minutes, they are ready to return to their own classroom space. They are ready to start their party. But, it is funny, young children do not know, instinctively, how to party. Unlike adults, they don’t tend automatically crank the tunes and commence with drinks and dancing. Young children tend to wait to be told how their party is going to work. What are the rules of this party? What order are things going to happen? When do we get to eat? If a teacher has done a good job of establishing the classroom routines prior to this day then, anarchy will remain a stranger and, instead, the kids will sit down on the carpet, as they always do, when they start their day. They will wait to start their day because that is what they have been trained to do.

A good teacher will design a different, looser day for their students because, despite their training, small children on Halloween on an indoor recess day are still small children on Halloween on an indoor recess day and their capacity for studious, industrious work is limited. No doubt, there will be Halloween colouring sheets and word search puzzles. There will be jigsaw puzzles and opportunities to build scary things with blocks. Students will be allowed to make Halloween crafts, draw spooky pictures, paint scenes that would make your hair curl. There will be computer time and story time, too. Of course, a classroom pumpkin will be carved, seeds extracted and counted and baked.

Then, of course, there will be snacks to eat along the way, as well. Healthy snacks first. Always healthy snacks first! This is when good classroom routines bear fruit. Prior to this day, whenever it is lunch time in class and the students open their lunch bags, a good teacher will always insist that students eat their healthy snacks first. Not all students have the healthiest of lunches. But, you want to honour their parents for sending in whatever they could afford so, you allow the child to eat everything in their lunch bag but, you always start by having them eat the healthiest foods first so that, if they are to fill up on anything, it will, at least, have been healthy for them. Halloween is no different. Food is one of the main attractions to this day for children. But, a good teacher will work to stem the tide of sugar intake by building on good classroom routines and inviting the kids to graze on fruit while they “party” at their Halloween activity centres. Once the fruit is gone then, there will be time for cupcakes. But, there is always lots of fruit to eat first.

You know, as well as I, that when our bellies are full, we tend to slooooooow down. So, time spent in the first half of the school day inviting children to fill their bellies has the added benefit of causing them to sloooooow down as well as the day progresses. Usually, around the half way mark, the kids begin to tire of their party and will want a break. This is when it is a good time for a movie and for some healthy popcorn, too. Keep eating, little ones, keep eating those healthy snacks.

By the end of the day, most small children are spent. Costumes are half on and half off. Their body posture can best be described as wilted. Not very many muster any level of excitement when the teacher brings out the big, heavily iced cupcakes just before home time. At the end of the day, the classroom will smell badly, there will be wrappers and crumbs around the room and no one will really care about taking home their Halloween worksheets and crafts, either. The kids actually do more resemble zombies than whatever it was they were supposed to be while getting ready for home. All in all, it will have been quite a day for everyone concerned. A day that, as tiring and overwhelming as it may have been; for many, it will be a day that they will cherish throughout the rest of the school year.

So, as my daughter looks to my wife for support on her determined quest to go out trick-or-treating in a storm, my wife looks back with an expression of weary wisdom on her face in reply. Much will have happened between this moment and the next moment they meet, eight hours or so, from now. So, Mom says, “I suppose but, we’ll see.” That seems a more realistic answer on a day that may turn out to be like no other. But, then again, it may, in fact, be a day of memories for my daughter who, years from now, will say to her Mom, “Remember that day I was a cow girl and your braided my hair for me and took me trick-or-treating for the last time? That was an awesome day, right?” And Mom will look at her daughter and say, “Yes. Of course it was. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

16- Little Bones.

This is the start of a second, fifteen-part series that highlights songs by the Canadian musical group, The Tragically Hip. *A simple scroll through my archives will reveal songs #s 1-15 in this series. In each post, I will focus on one song and will tell you the back story of how it came to be written, what the meaning is behind the lyrics and any other interesting tidbit that I think you might want to know. I wish to stress that I am just a fan of the band and not, in any way, an expert music journalist. The information I present will be my own thoughts, feelings and ideas with, two exceptions. I have learned lots about The Hip from two external sources; (1) The book, The Never Ending Present by author Michael Barclay (#NEP) and, 2- a website for Hip nerds like me called The Hip Museum (#HM). When I use information in a post that I obtained from either source, I will credit them accordingly. Other than that, I hope that you enjoy this post, my past Hip posts and all future Tragically Hip posts to come.

“Little Bones” is an interesting song in The Hip’s musical catalogue for several reasons. First of all, there is the story of the song’s lyrics, themselves. For that, I turn to (#NEP). “Little Bones” was part of an album called Road Apples. For those who may not be aware, the term “road apple” is uniquely Canadian and refers to frozen cow or horse dung which is, then used, as a hockey puck in pick-up hockey games. Now, I am a Canadian boy and I played my share of road hockey games in my youth and I can swear that I never played with frozen poop. But, in many rural, farming areas, where the games are played on frozen ponds or lakes, having access to cheap, disposable “pucks” is helpful and road apples are, indeed, a thing.

For many bands, the first album or two come to fruition in a burst of adrenaline and hopeful ambition. As bands tour with their early material and try to make a name for themselves in the public eye, they learn to hone their skills as individual players and then, collectively, as a unit. The Tragically Hip were no different. By the time this album came, The Hip had arrived at some important decisions; first of all, they decided that they were going to take control of the production of each album and, consequently, each song on each album. Secondly, the band members made a decision that, from our perspective seems obvious but, at the time, was a hold-your-breath moment for The Hip and that was, to let Gord Downie be the principal song writer. Up until then, Paul Langlois had written or co-written many of the early hits. But now, the poetic aura that emanated from Gord had become apparent to everyone. As Langlois stated, Gord had a way of taking the common, shared experiences of the group and then, creating universal messages out of it. He said, “Little Bones” was a prime example of how Gord worked his magic. Here is that story.

As part of the band’s decision to take control over the production of their work, the group scoured North America for a recording studio that was in sync with the mindset of the group at the time. The Hip settled on a gothic mansion in New Orleans that was being restored by Canadian producer, Daniel Lanois. At the time, Lanois was a hugely respected producer, having helped famous bands like U2 define their sound during the 80s and into the 90s. The mansion he was rehabilitating in New Orleans possessed interesting architecture and an even more interesting history….it was said to be haunted. The building was creaky and dark and had multiple floors, with rooms off of rooms that led in all manner of directions. It was an easy place to become lost. And The Hip loved it!

Anyway, in getting to know the city, the band members were all struck with the humidity and how it affected their ability to play their instruments, as well as, how much harder it was to play one of their favourite pastimes…pool! They were, also, becoming acquainted with the local cuisine and came to love Cajun dishes; especially those involving shrimp or chicken. From these everyday experiences sprang the inspiration within Gord Downie’s mind to write the lyrics that became, “Little Bones”.

It gets so sticky down here, better butter your cue finger up. It’s the start of another new year, better call the newspaper up. Two-fifty for a hi-ball and a buck and a half for a beer. Happy hour, happy hour, happy hour is here.”

Out of the minutiae of life while recording an album in The Big Easy came “Little Bones”. Sources of inspiration appeared almost effortlessly for Downie. A book he was reading at the time, Last of the Crazy People, by Canadian author, Timothy Findlay, made it into the song. *(the cat in the story was actually named, Little Bones). As did a controversial news figure at the time, Dr. Shockley, who promoted a view of creating genetically superior babies by excluding, what he considered to be, “inferior” genes from society’s gene pool.

The long days of Shockley are gone, so is football Kennedy style, famous last words taken all wrong, wind up on the very same pile. Two-fifty for a decade and a buck and a half for a year. Happy hour, happy hour happy hour is here.

In addition to how Gord parsed together the lyrics for “Little Bones”, a second aspect of note about this song is its musical construction. Many fans consider the guitar work to have “an edge” to it that was new, at the time. Well, just as Gord Downie was soaking up the atmosphere of New Orleans for source material for his new songs, the rest of the band was revelling in the musical atmosphere of being in the home of The Blues, as well as, enjoying bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were breaking big with their funk-driven sound. When you listen to “Little Bones” in this context, it is easy to pick up on the funky, bluesy influences that made their way into the song. Between the lyrics and the music, “Little Bones” is one of The Hips least Canadian songs but, one of their most powerful and driving of rock songs. This is what comes from being open and receptive to new ideas, people, places and cultures.

The video for “Little Bones” can be viewed here.

As always, I welcome your comments about this post, the particulars of this song, about New Orleans, Gord’s writing style, the band’s musical leanings or whatever you wish to discuss. Thanks to The Tragically Hip for their openness to experience new ways of living and learning. The fruits of your labours are a joy for us all to behold.

1- Nautical Disaster.

This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

This is my favourite Tragically Hip song. This is a song that I like for many reasons. I love the history behind the song. Like “Lake Fever”, it is actually a story within a story….a retelling of a dream…..a conversation between the narrator and Susan, who is either a lover or a therapist, take your pick. It is based, on all accounts, upon the sinking of the German battleship, Bismarck during the second world war. But, the story of the song actually begins a few decades prior, during World War One.

The most famous ship sunk during World War One was the passenger ship, Lusitania. It was sunk by a German U-Boat. U-Boats changed the way naval warfare was fought in a very significant way which influenced what happened years later when the Bismarck was sunk and which inspired my favourite Tragically Hip line of them all. You see, what initially happened in WWI when a ship was sunk was that other ships in the area would stop and rescue any survivors who had ended up in the ocean. Humane treatment of prisoners was one of the unwritten rules of battle at the time and thus, the rescuing of survivors was a time-honoured tradition. However, with the advent of U-Boats, that tradition became deadly. What changed was that once a U-Boat sunk a ship, it would wait where it was until another ship in the convey stopped to rescue survivors. Then, as the rescue was being completed, the U-Boat would sink the rescuing ship, as it was sitting “dead in the water” as the term has come to be known. Such was the alarming rate of ship loss that the Royal Navy passed a new rule: no ship was to stop for survivors any longer. If they did, their safety could not be guaranteed. 

Leaving fellow sailors to die in the ocean went against the moral code of seamen on both sides of the conflict. But, that was modern warfare in those days so, survivors were left in the water as ships sailed away to safety.

Fast forward, I once saw a documentary about the discovery of the wreck of the Bismarck. It was a National Geographic documentary featuring Dr. Robert Ballard (who discovered the wreck of the Titanic). In this documentary, Ballard set sail, along with a British sailor who had been in the battle that sank the Bismarck, as well as, a German sailor who, despite all odds, managed to find rescue. After the wreck was discovered, the two men, along with Dr. Ballard, held a peace ceremony and dropped flowers in the water. The sailors were interviewed about their memories and both said that they were haunted by the screams of the men left to die in the water. It was stated that some British ships left rope ladders down as they sailed past so that some men might be able to latch on as the ship sailed past. This is how the German was rescued.
When Gord Downie was interviewed about this song, he mentioned having watched “a documentary”. I know he saw the same one I did because the lyrics match the eye-witness testimony so precisely for it to be a fluke.

Anyway, Nautical Disaster is a song about the callousness and inhumanity of war and what war makes us all capable of doing to our fellow human beings. Yet, it remains one of the most popular and requested Tragically Hip songs of all time.

Then the dream ends when the phone rings
You’re doing alright he said, it’s out there, most days and nights,
But only a fool would complain.
Anyway, Susan, if you like
Our conversation is as faint as a sound in my memory
As those fingernails…scratching on my hull.”

The video for “Nautical Disaster” can be seen here.

I hope that you enjoyed this post and, if you have checked out all fifteen then, I hope you enjoyed the whole series. If you like what I did with these posts, let me know and, perhaps, I will be able to do something like this again with other Tragically Hip songs and stories. For now, I will thank you for being here and reading my work. But, most of all, I will thank Gord Downie, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, Johnny Fay and Rob Baker for making such good art. I am changed for the better because of your efforts and your personal and professional integrity. This series of fifteen posts doesn’t begin to say Thank You in the depth required but, it is a start. Thanks, Boys! I appreciate it all!

2- New Orleans is Sinking

This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

While not the first song to get the band airplay, “New Orleans is Sinking” is widely regarded as The Hip’s first big hit. Lost in the warm glow of nostalgia, many people, today, think that this song is about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that storm caused the city of New Orleans and the surrounding towns. It is not about Hurricane Katrina.

What “New Orleans is Sinking” is all about was a thematic undertone of much of their early work and that is, the band declaring their intention to not play the Pop Music game but, instead, to stay as authentic to the roots of their craft as possible. The first clue to this is the fact that the sing is set in New Orleans which is part of a geographic area hailed as the birthplace of The Blues. The Tragically Hip always felt that The Blues were an integral part of the music that wanted to produce. The sweat, the craftsmanship, the heart-and-soul nature of the lyrics and notes that swell up from the depths of the totality of one’s experiences, were all a source of inspiration and attraction for the band.

Secondly, The Hip spent part of their own song talking about what they see as what ails the Music industry. “Colonel Tom, what’s wrong? What’s going on? Can’t tie yourself up for a deal.” Colonel Tom refers to Colonel Tom Parker, the man who managed the career of Elvis Aaron Presley. Many people say that Elvis rose to fame on the backs of the Bluesmen and women who came before him and who, in his wake, never fully received their due. The Hip didn’t regard Elvis as being an authentic Bluesman and they didn’t want to chart the same path as he did. In the same verse, The Hip have Colonel Tom respond to their criticism, “Hey North! You’re South! Shut your big mouth! You’ve gotta do what you feel is real.” The Tragically Hip kept it real, including having as much say as possible about the production process of their records. After recording this album, The Hip purchased a farm in Bath, Ontario, which became known as Bathouse Studios. They recorded much of the rest of their musical catalogue there, under their own roof, on their own terms, working with people they respected and, as always, The Blues were still required.

This would be me, standing at the foot of the driveway at Bathouse Studios in Bath, Ontario, this past summer. I was fanboy enough to stand were I stood but, not fanboy enough to knock on their door. But, never-the-less, that is where much of The Tragically Hip’s magic happened. The search for that magic was on-going at the time that “New Orleans is Sinking” was written but, it is clear from the lyrics that The Hip knew where they were going. They were going home. This is where they went. This is home.

The video for “New Orleans is Sinking” can be enjoyed here.

Thanks for coming along on our musical journey this day. I hope your enjoyed this post. If you have any comments about The Blues, Elvis, this song, New Orleans or Bathouse Studios, please feel free to drop me a line in the comment box below. Thanks, as always, to The Tragically Hip for having the confidence to, among other things, make God a woman.

3- Springtime In Vienna

This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

I love a good line. The Tragically Hip are known for their imaginative, poetic, intelligent use of words in their songs. It is one of the qualities of the band that endears them to me. Sometimes, it is the language, itself, that catches my eye…..such as, “A bum’s eye for clothes”. Sometimes, it is an ordinary line that Gord’s voice makes extraordinary…such as, “I want to help you lift enormous things.” from At Transformation. Sometimes, the line they come up with is interesting because of the language used and then, how that language reflects a broader truth that the band is aiming for. For me, that is the case with Springtime in Vienna. The line that I love is simply, “We live to survive our paradoxes.”

“Springtime in Vienna” explores the nature of paradoxes and, in particular, the contradictions inherent in any act of creativity. True creativity is the ultimate in freedom of expression. However, for a band who understood the business implications of their creative decisions, lines like “Instructions from the manual could have been much more plain. The Blues are still required. The Blues are still required again.” offer insight into the artistic compromises that must occur. Creativity is freedom but, there must be rules. As soon as there are rules, then freedom is no longer pure. The band accepted that it lived a paradoxical life thus, “We live to survive our paradoxes.” They would be creative, on their terms but, within reason it seems.

(#HM) The origin of this song occurred one evening in New Orleans, when the band witnessed a lovers quarrel. Paul Langlois is credited with saying that the quarrel made him feel it was Springtime in Vienna. This is a reference to when the evil that was the Nazis invaded the beauty of Vienna, flush with the awakening of springtime. That Hate can emerge in the amid Love, as in the lovers quarrel or, Evil can temporarily push aside Beauty, as in Vienna during World War II, caused Gord to think of the very creative paradoxes that the band faced early in their career, as they sought to define the uniqueness of their voice in an industry that demanded conformity and predictability.

For me, I appreciate the choice of the word, paradox, for this song because it is a rich, literate word that gives a sense of the intelligent discourse the band wished to have with its fans. But, juxtaposed to this was the realization that for many fans, screaming the word, paradoxes, from the cheap seats was really just an exhilarating, cathartic experience. Let’s be honest, the word sounds cool to shout out. The dichotomy of expression; from band to fan and from fan, back to band, is at the heart of The Hip’s creative paradox. That they kept producing such excellent work for over thirty years is, to me, evidence that they have, indeed, learned to survive their own paradox…and, quite nicely, at that.

The video for “Springtime in Vienna” can be found here.

Thanks, once again, for stopping by to read my words. I appreciate it very much. If you have any comments to add about this song, about paradoxes in your own life, about screaming words out in public or anything else that may tickle your fancy, please feel free to do so in the comment box below. Thanks to The Tragically Hip for the integrity of their creative expression. It is most appreciated..

4- Looking For A Place To Happen

This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

This is a song about explorers and the exploitation of Indigenous cultures. It is funny to listen to this song, with lines about being on this land and seeing someone like Jacques Cartier, with his “bum’s eye for clothes” coming down the river toward you. We, as white, anglo-saxon Canadians of European descent take our History so very much for granted. Of course, we tell ourselves that expanding our empires was justified. Of course, the treasures reaped were warranted. We are all so quick to forget about those who were here first. As the lyrics state, “Come on in. Sit right down. No, you’re not the first to show. We’ve all been here since, God, who knows?”

While The Hip may have played this song for years as part of the standard concert lineup, we have not done much in the way of learning its lessons. I say this in light of the Climate Change movement that has, out of necessity, sprung up around the world. One of the main points they are attempting to drive home with their marches and sit-ins is that we need to stop exploiting indigenous cultures around the world as a formal part of government policies. However, last time I checked, the Amazon Rainforest was still on fire and many First nations communities in Canada still had undrinkable water. It is difficult for us to look at cultures and worlds different that we are used to, with eyes trained to see only through the filters of our own experiences.

Wayward ho, away we go
Its a shame to leave this masterpiece 
With its gallery gods and garbage bag trees.
So, I’ll paint a scene, from memory,
So, I’d know who murdered me.
It’s a vain pursuit but it helps me sleep.”

The video for this song can be viewed here.

Thanks, as always, for coming here and hanging out for awhile. I hope that you enjoyed this post. If you wish to leave a comment about this song, the topic of exploitation of indigenous cultures, climate change or whatever your heart desires, please feel free to do so. Thanks to the Tragically Hip for writing a song that can speak to something so important but, doing so in such a rocking’ way!

6- At The Hundredth Meridian

This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

The Tragically Hip are the quintessential Canadian band. They shared our stories with the world in ways that didn’t pass judgment or praise false idols. Their songs are sung from coast to coast to coast. They are as iconicly Canadian as Terry Fox or hockey or lakes soundtracked by the cries of the loon. They are ours.

But, throughout their career, there has always been talk about why the Tragically Hip weren’t bigger in the U.S. and, for that matter, did that even matter when it came to defining how successful the band really was. “At The Hundredth Meridian” is a song that touches upon what it means to be a Canadian band. It has several references to the struggle of becoming an established band in this country. For example, the line, “Driving down a corduroy road” is a term often used to describe travelling on a surface that is rutted and not easy to get across without great effort and, occasional, discomfort. Every band who were their own roadies, piling instruments into a cramped van, driving from Legion halls to county fairs to small bars in the middle of nowhere, can attest to the truth behind this words. The line right off of the top, “Me, debunk an American myth and take my life in my hands” refers to the group questioning the conventional wisdom that speaks of the proper measuring stick for success for Canadian bands being commercial sales in the States. Record sales and concert gross were not, by themselves, what motivated The Hip to move forward as they did. The complexity and originality of their song lyrics across the breadth of their catalogue speaks to that. 

Overall, this song is about the nature of what success meant to the band and how they defined themselves as musicians and songwriters. I always had the sense that all five guys were comfortable in their own skin and never needed external accolades as motivation for crafting the music they made. They never wanted to be pop stars.

If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me
They bury me some place I don’t want to be
You’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
Away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees
Whispers of disease and acts of enormity
And lower me slowly and sadly and properly
Get *Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.

*Ry Cooder was a legendary bluesman who was never what one would call “a big star”. He stayed true to his musical roots and, in doing so, helped serve as a role-model for the type of performer the band members wanted to be. Respect. Craftsmanship. Longevity. This is what The Tragically Hip looked for in themselves and hoped that we saw, too.

The video for this song can be seen here.

Thanks, again, for visiting my blog and reading this post. Your presence here means a lot to me. If you have any questions or comments about the nature of commercial success in music, any aspect of this particular song or any experiences such as those referenced in the lines, “I remember Buffalo. I remember Hengelo” feel free to jot those down, too. It is always good to talk shop when it comes to that most Canadian of bands, The Tragically Hip.

7- Fifty Mission Cap

This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

When most people evaluate the legacy created by The Tragically Hip, one of the most common responses is that the band celebrated Canadian stories. That assessment is undeniable. When you go through The Hip’s musical catalogue, it is filled with references to noteworthy Canadians such as Tom Thomson, David Milgaard, Hugh McLennan, Bobby Orr and, in “Fifty Mission Cap”, Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player, Bill Barilko. The other thing that stands out about The Tragically Hip is that they loved a good story. So, when a noteworthy Canadian was the subject of a good story in his/her real life, that subject matter was mined for gold. In Barilko’s case, his story became the hit song known as “Fifty Mission Cap”.

I really like this song for many reasons. First of all, the song is about hockey and, despite my love for Keri, I still love hockey. Secondly, the song is about the Toronto Maple Leafs and I still love the Leafs, even though it is been over fifty years since they won The Cup, as the song points out. But, mostly, I love this song because of a writing technique the band employs that helps to replicate the setting of the song within the lyrics of the song. Let me explain.
If you have ever found yourself somewhere where a group (of guys, probably) are talking hockey, the structure of their conversation is often the same no matter where you go. There is usually one guy with a bigger voice than the others who tends to use it to dominate the conversation with his stories and/or opinions. Then, his friends will interject their smaller thoughts when the dominant talker takes a breath. If you listen to “Fifty Mission Cap” and, specifically, to the interplay between Gord Downie (as the big voice in the room) and Paul Langlois (as the little friend who is trying to get a word in edge-wise) you will see that they have replicated the boys-in-the-bar style of talking hockey, perfectly. So, for me, it is not always the words that The Hip uses in their songs that does it for me, it is, also, the way the lyrics are structured. In this case, a hockey tale is told for all to hear, as if the boys were in a basement rec. room watching the game on TV.

*In this verse of the song, Gord sings the main words and Paul whispers the words in parenthesis.

“Bill Barilko disappeared that summer (in nineteen fifty-one)
He was on a fishing trip (in a plane)
The last goal he ever scored (in overtime)
Won the Leafs the Cup.
They didn’t win another ’til nineteen sixty-two
The year he was discovered.”

The video for “Fifty Mission Cap” can be viewed right here.

***A tiny bit of Tragically Hip trivia courtesy of (#NEP): Bill Barilko was a defence man who played for the Leafs. After scoring the overtime, Cup-winning goal, Barilko flew in a plane to go on a fishing trip. The plane crashed and was not found for almost a decade. Flash forward, when the band travelled up to Attawapiskat for that benefit concert, they flew over the exact location where Bill Barilko’s plane had crashed. Do with that bit of trivia what you will. 🙂

As always, your comments are welcome on all matters, whether they are hockey-related or not. Thanks to the band for telling such good stories about the people and institutions that make Canada the terrific country is it.