Farewell To Nova Scotia as sung by Catherine McKinnon…Song #21/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

The former Glace Bay General Hospital. This was the view from the top of my street. MacQuarrie’s store was just to the left of where this photo was taken. Great memories of that store and the folks who worked there.

As a child, I often thought that I would always live in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. It was where my friends were. It was where my family was. It was where my school and my church and all of the stores I had ever shopped in were. Mary MacQuarrie’s corner store…where I spent my allowances buying O-Pee-Chee hockey cards and Richie Rich comic books was just at the top of my street, across from the hospital where my mother and aunt and two cousins all worked. The cemetery, where my father was buried, was there, too. Glace Bay was the world as I knew it then. I wanted to live there forever.

Well, forever lasted until the age of 18. As my final years of high school passed and visions of a career as a writer took shape in my head, I discovered that to further my career ambitions meant that I would have to move away from Nova Scotia. So, I planned accordingly. I applied to university in Toronto and was accepted. So I spent the summer as an 18 year old saying goodbye to my friends and my family, graduating from my school, walking out of my church for the last time, making the rounds of all the stores and restaurants that I used to frequent and getting ready to leave my home. By this time, even Mary MacQuarrie’s store had closed. The time seemed right to leave.

Seal Island Bridge as seen from the Bras d’Or Look-off on Kelly’s Mountain.

With my bags packed, I boarded the Via train out of Sydney. We chugged past the Newfoundland ferry in North Sydney. We crossed the beautiful Seal Island Bridge and began climbing Kelly’s Mountain (The tallest elevation on Cape Breton Island). We passed the Gaelic College at St. Ann’s Bay and soon found ourselves in Baddeck (The former home of inventor extraordinaire, Alexander Graham Bell and his wife). An hour after that we were crossing the Canso Causeway and had left Cape Breton Island for the mainland of Nova Scotia. At that point, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean gave way to the endless forests of Nova Scotia’s upper mainland and then, into New Brunswick. After a night of fitful sleep, sitting up in an economy class chair, we arrived in Montreal. We changed trains there. To my eighteen year old self, Montreal seemed very big and a little bit scary, I have to admit. There were so many people there and they all seemed to be in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. I remember feeling relieved when I found the line of people waiting to board my train to Toronto. I joined it hours before departure. I sat there on the floor of the Montreal station and quietly waited. I must have looked very small, sitting there amid my suitcases. I sure felt small. But, time passed, as it always does, and soon I was on the Via train to Toronto. At Union Station in Toronto, my cousin, Brent, was waiting to meet me. He was not thrilled that I had two suitcases and a steamer trunk to navigate through the rush hour crowds. But, just the same, he helped me. We made it safely out of there. I had arrived in the biggest city in Canada. As I stepped out of Union Station and looked up at the shiny skyscrapers that stood watch, I knew that I wasn’t in Glace Bay anymore.

Although I didn’t appreciate it then, my arrival in Toronto made me just the latest in a long line of Cape Bretoners who answered the siren song of dreams of a better life in the big cities of Ontario or oil fields and big money of Alberta. Outward migration is part of the cultural history of Cape Breton. Many young people leave each year and only a very small number ever return in any sort of permanent way. Most leave because there isn’t enough steady work on an island as geographically small as Cape Breton. The fisheries have been in decline for decades. Coal production has ceased to be an economically and environmentally viable enterprise. Even the Sydney Steel Plant, in whose shadow my mother and her family grew up, had long since been shuttered, dismantled and paved under. So, the young ones leave in hopes of finding career fulfillment elsewhere in Canada. I left in 1982. In fact, I have been “away” for three quarters of my entire life. In those three quarters of a lifetime, I have enjoyed a fruitful career as an elementary school teacher. I have married and become a father. I have made new friends and have acquired new family members along the way. I am used to shopping in new stores and eating at new restaurants. My house is paid for. My neighbours are terrific. There is a beautiful beach just five minutes walk from where I live. My life “away” has turned out to be pretty good. But, the funny thing is, I still call Cape Breton…home.

The Barra MacNeils performing in Oshawa, Ontario. Oshawa is about a 40-minute drive west of where I live.

There is just something in the blood of those of us who grew up there that we have taken with us wherever we have ended up settling. I prefer tea over coffee. I am drawn to tartan as a design aesthetic. But most of all, I still love the music of Cape Breton. I love the sound of bagpipes and fiddles. I try to see all of the Cape Breton-oriented musical acts that tour across Canada such as The Barra MacNeils, The Rankin Family, as well as Rita MacNeil and the Men of the Deeps, when she was alive and they toured together. Bringing a bit of Cape Breton to those of us from away is one way the connection to home is strengthened. The other way is to go back for vacation. My whole family and I go back home each summer and I do the same by myself in the winter. We go to see my mother and other family and friends who have stayed behind. But, as much as we do that, we also breathe in the salt air, we let the ocean’s water roll over our toes and, most of all, we simply bask in the beauty of one of the world’s great islands. Cape Breton Island will always be my home. It is part of who I am, even if I am far away from it for most of my days.

The parking lot on the left hand side of this photo is where Keri and I became engaged. The green bridge is the one that has the “Welcome to Cape Breton” sign attached to it. If you drive to the left, you enter Cape Breton. To the right, you are leaving it all behind. The causeway extends to the right slightly less than a kilometre more than what you see here.

The hardest part about visiting Cape Breton Island is that, sooner or later, I have to leave again. Although my Ontario home is fine, I am always sad on the day that it is time to leave Cape Breton. Having visited Cape Breton Island over one hundred times as an adult, I know from experience that it is emotionally easier to leave by plane than it is to leave by car. When traveling by plane, all you see is the inside of the cabin, the tops of the clouds and, if changing planes, the inside of another airport such as Stanfield Airport in Halifax. You don’t get to experience leaving Cape Breton the same way you do when you drive your way out. When we drive for Ontario in a car, we re-trace the route I took as an 18 year old on the Via train. Knowing what I am leaving behind makes it tougher to drive past the Newfoundland ferry terminal in North Sydney. The beauty of the scenery as we cross the Seal Island Bridge and begin to climb Kelly’s Mountain is amazing, but it is tough to see it in the rear view mirror. Baddeck is always gorgeous and peaceful and is a place for staying a while, not passing through on the way to somewhere else. But, onward we go. Eventually, we arrive at the Canso Causeway and prepare to leave the island. We always cast a glance to the right, to the parking lot next to the Causeway proper, where I proposed to my future wife because I wanted Cape Breton Island to always hold a special place in her heart, too. And then, it is gone. We are off to the Nova Scotia mainland and then New Brunswick, Quebec and back to Ontario. The girls are always excited to get back to their home in Ontario. But each time we leave, a little part of my heart stays behind.

Catherine McKinnon as she appeared on the CBC TV show, Singalong Jubilee, which was filmed in Halifax.

Leaving Cape Breton is something that many have experienced over the years. The lure of coming home is strong and the painful reality of knowing we have to leave again is something each of us feels. This has been true in Cape Breton for generations. It has also been true in the ancestral homeland of Nova Scotia, which is Scotland. For those who may not be aware, the words “Nova Scotia” translate as “New Scotland”. There is much about the geography and the cultural background of those who live in both places that are similar. In 1791, a Scottish poet named Robert Tanahill wrote a “lament” called “The Soldier’s Adieu”. It was about the emotional toll on Scottish soldiers who were forced to leave their highland homes to fight in wars in foreign lands. With Scottish culture such an integral part of the fabric of Nova Scotian life, it was not a surprise that “The Soldier’s Adieu” resurfaced just as World War I was in full swing and thousands of Canadian soldiers were flowing into Halifax to board ships that would take them across the Atlantic to England and onward to the battlefields of the Western Front. As these soldiers were taking wistful glances back at Halifax Harbour as they sailed away, “The Soldier’s Adieu” came to mind. Except this time, it was updated for the times and became known as “Farewell to Nova Scotia”. Even in times of peace, “Farewell to Nova Scotia” has been a song that holds a special place in the musical canon of Nova Scotia and of Cape Breton Island. When I was a child still living in Glace Bay, I used to hear “Farewell to Nova Scotia” sung by a lady named Catherine McKinnon on a CBC television show called, Singalong Jubilee. This show transitioned into another popular show called Don Messer’s Jubilee. Regardless of the show, Catherine McKinnon sang this song as if it was coming directly from her heart. Her rendition of “Farewell To Nova Scotia” became the definitive take on the song. So, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that for many years, whenever I drove my car across the island of Cape Breton as I returned to the real world in Ontario, I would do so to a soundtrack of the best of Cape Breton music. Catherine McKinnon’s “Farewell To Nova Scotia” was always one of those tunes that I heard as I drove across the Canso Causeway and off of the island. It is a song that makes me sad and happy at the same time because it is a song that is a fundamental part of who I am. And who I am is someone destined to always return home, only to have to eventually leave again. Maybe someday, I will get to return for good. Then, and only then, will “Farewell To Nova Scotia” cease to be a song that touches my heart.

The link to the video for the song “Farewell To Nova Scotia” by Catherine McKinnon can be found here.

The link to the official website for Catherine McKinnon can be found here.

The link to the official website for Cape Breton Island can be found here.

***PS: The photo at the top of this post is of Glace Bay Harbour.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written permission of the author. ©2022 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Northern Touch by Rascalz ft. Checkmate, Kardinal Offishall, Choclair and Thrust…Song #20/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip.

My eldest daughter has really begun to show an interest in our family history. She has become quite adept at going online and locating documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and records relating to military service for our relatives from three, four and even, five generations ago. She uses this information to tell us all stories about the people whose decisions influenced how our own lives turned out. However, one of the areas of her family history that she finds to be a source of frustration centers upon me. She is constantly encouraging me to tell her the stories of my own life. I have not ever been someone who tooted his own horn so, for that reason, I guess I have not been as open about the stories of my past as she would like. So, let’s remedy that a bit today. To my darling daughter, Leah, here is a true story about a man who has gone on to be known as the “Godfather of Canadian Hip Hop music” and how his example helped me decide to become a school teacher. His name was Ron Nelson and this is the story of a time when our divergent paths crossed.

Morrison Glace Bay High School: my academic home from 1978-82.

When I was in high school I began to find out what kind of person I was going to be as an adult. One of the things that happened was that I developed a reputation for being a writer. In those days, I was more apt to write plays or poetry than I was to write commentary, as I do now. I always used my friends as characters in these plays that I would write. Every spare moment of class time that I could wrest away from my studies was spent writing in my notebooks or scribblers, as we called them in Cape Breton. Fast forward to the end of my final year of high school, one of the traditions there was that every graduating class would have a story written about it that would be read aloud at the graduation prom during the dinner portion of the evening. I didn’t write the story for my class but I was one of the very first people mentioned when it was read aloud. In the story, it was being predicted that my future included becoming an author. When that was said aloud, many of those in attendance nodded their heads in agreement that this prediction stood a good chance of becoming true.

Ryerson Polytechnical University (now called Toronto Metropolitan University) and photographed from the roof of the building in which I lived. I lived on the 8th floor and faced this same direction. What a view of downtown Toronto I had for three years!

I enrolled in the Radio and Television Arts Programme at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto (now called Toronto Metropolitan University) in the belief that I would one day become a professional “script writer”. Because of the joy I got from writing plays and the positive feedback I received from everyone in high school, it seemed logical to my eighteen year old self that writing for a living was the way for me to go. I was one of only 100 applicants selected (out of 1200 who applied). At the time, my ego was such that I expected to be selected so when I was, I didn’t take it for the compliment that it was, I took it more as confirmation that I had what it took and that my experience in Toronto would mirror my experiences in high school. Oh boy! Was I ever in for a surprise!

I graduated from high school with a mark of 99% in English. So, I went into my first university writing class with much confidence. Our introductory assignment was to go to a movie theatre in Toronto, watch any movie our little hearts desired and then write a professional movie review (as if we were writing for one of the local Toronto newspapers). I went and watched a screwball comedy called, “Stir Crazy” that starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. It was not the greatest movie ever written and I wrote my review accordingly. When I got my assignment back during the next class, I was shocked to see that I had been given a mark of 69%. That was a full thirty points lower than my high school English average! I had never received such a low mark in my entire school career! My head was swimming as I looked my assignment over and tried to distinguish my typewritten words amid the sea of red ink marks that littered my page. It turned out that I had tied for the top mark in the class for that assignment. That made no difference to me. My confidence was completely rattled right out of the gate. With that one assignment, I suddenly realized how out of my depth I really was and much harder I was going to have to work just to avoid failing.

As with many such things in life, I began to adjust and things settled down a bit. I developed a better study routine. I made connections with the new folks who were now my classmates. My professors got to know me better and I did likewise with them. However, I never quite shook off that initial feeling that I didn’t belong or that I wasn’t really good enough to warrant being there. What confirmed that for me was a second assignment (this time is audio class) that actually had nothing to do with how well I did or didn’t do. In fact, to be honest, I was relatively pleased with my own effort in my first audio assignment. But, what happened was that I was given the opportunity to see how high the bar was really set, as far as skill levels went. It was the day that a young man from the Caribbean named Ron Nelson chose to reveal himself as someone who would end up changing Canadian music history. It was also the day that I decided to become a teacher. Here is how it all happened.

Just one example of a K-Tel compilation album. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in the 1970s and 80s.

In our audio course, we were not yet working in a digital media field as we would be today. Back in the early 1980s, everything was still recorded and played on audio tape. So, one of the first lessons we were given in the audio course was how to record ourselves onto an audio tape and then how to make seamless edits. Making edits required us to use a razor and physically cut the audio tape and then tape it back together. Our first editing assignment was to create a 30-second “K-Tel” audio commercial. For anyone unaware of what I mean by a “K-Tel” commercial…back in the 1970s and early 80s, there was a record company called K-Tel. Their thing was releasing compilation albums. Thus, whenever there was an advertisement for the latest record they were releasing, they would play thirty seconds or so of music composed of short segments of some of the songs appearing on the album, with an hyped up announcer speaking over top of it all. For our assignment, I had to use 6-8 songs, edit them together in some coherent fashion and then lay down a voice-over track on top of the music. I was able to do this and was fairly pleased with my product which I called, “K-Tel presents: Rock of the Commonwealth”! It was music from the British Commonwealth of nations. It started off with “Everything She Does Is Magic” by The Police (out of England). I followed that with “Cuts Like a Knife” by our own Byran Adams. I remember using “Six Months In a Leaky Boat” by New Zealand’s Split Enz somewhere in there, too. I think I got a B- for it and I was ok with that as it was the very first time I had ever worked with audio tape and the editing process.

As we went through the class and listened to everyone’s “K-Tel” effort, all were reasonably good. Some were a little better than mine. Some were not quite as good. But all were satisfactory, at least. Then it came time to listen to the tape from Ron Nelson. Ron was a quiet, unassuming kind of guy when we first met. But he was friendly and willing to work with anyone. That was important to a shy guy like me. While we were never best friends or anything, he was one of the first people to willingly sit beside me and talk with me, which meant a lot. So, anyway, we were all sitting in class listening to these K-Tel tapes when the professor came to Ron and asked for his. As shocked as I was when I received that 69% in writing class, I was just as shocked now in audio class but for the opposite reason. Ron’s K-Tel tape was brilliant! It was stunningly good! In fact, there were so many things going on in the foreground, the middleground and the background of his thirty-second tape that we actually listened to his tape multiple times just to try to catch everything that Ron had done. When it was finished, the professor asked Ron to walk us through how he had created such a masterpiece. So, I sat there, slack-jawed, as Ron Nelson began to reveal his magic. His tape turned out to be a forerunner of Hip Hop sampling which was to explode in popularity as the 1980s rolled along. But, at that time, it was relatively unheard of in Canada and it completely blew our collective minds! I still remember listening to Ron dissect his tape and re-assemble it. There was an “aw-shucks” aspect of his presentation but there was also a glimmer in his eyes that I will never forget. The only time I can recall anything like it was when I watched the movie, Amadeus and, in particular, the scene toward the end of the movie when a dying Mozart asks his rival Salieri to record his Requiem March for him because he is too weak to do it himself. In agreeing to do so, Salieri is given a peek inside the genius that was Mozart’s mind. *(You can watch that scene here). I felt that way as I listened to Ron Nelson speak that day. I felt as Salieri must have, too. For I knew after listening to Ron Nelson that I could never do what he had just done. His skill was at an unobtainable level for the likes of someone like me. It was a moment of reckoning.

I remember returning to my dorm room that night and realizing that I would never be a star in the broadcasting business. I had just witnessed a real star in action and the only future for me was to strive to be competent at best. To be, as Salieri lamented, a mediocrity. That was not an acceptable life goal for me. So, at that very moment in my first year of the Radio and Television Broadcasting course, I decided to switch to Plan B, which was to become a teacher. I decided to stick with the broadcasting course and see it through because having a degree was a prerequisite to get into Teachers College. In some ways, tempering my broadcasting ambitions made the next two and a half years more tolerable and enjoyable. The pressure melted away. I learned a lot. I kept up my marks and, lo and behold, a few years later, I was accepted into the Education Programme at the University of Western Ontario. Many of the skills I learned at Ryerson translated well to the classroom. Consequently, I was always comfortable being in front of a classroom filled with children. As life has turned out, I believe that being a teacher was my true calling after all. I am very proud of my career and of being able to spend time with so many incredible children, families and staff over the years. But, no matter how far from the world of broadcasting I strayed, I always kept an eye out for my pal, Ron Nelson. For, unlike me, Ron had a lot of ambition when it came to his future. He ended up achieving a form of greatness that I am happy to acknowledge. Here is his story and why it matters.

My Ryerson classmate Ron Nelson on air at CKLN with his Fantastic Voyages show.

When I was in my first year of university and was learning such life skills as doing my own laundry properly and being able to cook basic meals, Ron Nelson was creating his own radio programme called Fantastic Voyages that aired weekly on the Ryerson campus radio station, CKLN. This radio station was more than the usual campus radio station because of its geographic location in the heart of downtown Toronto. So, even though it was primarily run by Ryerson students such as Ron, it broadcast to a potential audience over one million people. Fantastic Voyages was a radio show that was dedicated to the emerging genre of Hip Hop and, as such, it was the first show of its type anywhere in Canada. In order to provide some context as to how fresh and original Ron’s idea was…this was a full three years prior to Hip Hop supergroup Run-DMC teaming up with rockers, Aerosmith, to record a funked up rap version of the song, “Walk This Way”. That video gained lots of airplay on music video stations such as MTV (in the US) and Much Music (in Canada) and really helped introduce Hip Hop into the mainstream of the music world. But, years earlier, my classmate Ron Nelson was introducing Hip Hop to Canada’s biggest city while I was learning how to not burn my Kraft Dinner. The response to Fantastic Voyages went through the roof. For a while, ratings for Ron’s show were strong enough that they showed up with those of existing AM and FM stations throughout the city. That had never happened before to CKLN nor has it happened since. Buoyed by the positive reaction his programming was receiving, Ron began extending his reach by organizing local Hip Hop concerts and “Battle of the Bands”-type affairs. In a world where representation matters, Ron Nelson was giving people of colour in Toronto a chance to listen to their own history being put to music, to see successful people of colour singing songs about their own struggles and aspirations and, most importantly, he was giving wannabe rappers a venue for them to practice their craft and refine their skills. In doing so, Ron helped launch Hip Hop as a musical form in Canada. Not long after graduating from Ryerson, Ron opened his own recording studio. The first Canadian HIp Hop stars such as Maestro Fresh Wes and Dream Warriors recorded there. As the 1980s and 90s rolled on, Ron worked with everyone involved in Canadian Hip Hop, as well as many huge US acts such as Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, Eric B. & Rakim, Ice Cube and Queen Latifah. It is not for nothing that many people refer to Ron Nelson as “The Godfather of Hip Hop” in Canada.

The talented rappers behind the song, “Northern Touch” with their Juno Award for Rap Song of the Year.

This brings us to today’s song, “Northern Touch” by Vancouver-based Hip Hop stars, Rascalz. I have often been critical in my music posts about modern Hip Hop being needlessly explicit (in a sexual sense), often times profane for the sake of being profane and also being steeped in misogyny. As the new century dawned, Ron Nelson, too, grew disillusioned with the state of Hip Hop (especially in the US) and allowed Fantastic Voyages to come to a close. He kept his hand in the game by producing a radio show dedicated to reggae music, which was also close to his heart. But, for a while, the Canadian Hip Hop scene grew quiet. Almost a decade or more went by between the original hits of the Dream Warriors and Maestro Fresh Wes and the next wave of Canadian Hip Hop artists to emerge. Of those who did, most were Vancouverites or else, they hailed from the Greater Toronto Area. The song, “Northern Touch” was written by Rascalz but was always intended to be a collaborative effort between as many of the main players in the Canadian HIp Hop scene as was possible. As a result, verses were personally written and performed by artists such as Choclair, Thrust, Kardinal Offishall, as well as Checkmate. The result is the banger track, “Northern Touch”. This song ended up winning many Rap-oriented Juno Awards. It was also used as one of the theme songs for the Toronto Raptors basketball team the year before they won the NBA Championship in 2018. *(Watch the Kardinal Offishall remix here). For many, “Northern Touch” has become the official anthem of Canadian Hip Hop and has been widely praised for its swagger and positive energy.

Ron Nelson had many methods of creating a market for Hip Hop in Canada. One was through the creation of compilation mix tapes such as the one above.

You never know when a moment is going to come along and change your life. For me, one of the most significant was Ron Nelson’s little K-Tel compilation tape and his explanation of the creative process behind it. His genius allowed me to quickly see that my own creative talent and passion would be better served elsewhere. I do not take that as a failure on my part. Instead, I am grateful to Ron for allowing me to pivot early enough in my life so that I could start helping children sooner. Ron Nelson has no idea that he had a role in the direction of my life but he did. We don’t always get to choose our own destiny; oftentimes it is destiny that chooses us. I was destined to help children and tell stories that bring pleasure to others. Ron Nelson was destined to change the face of Canadian music in a culturally significant way for so many people who had been under-represented before his arrival on the scene. Yet, for a short time, he and I sat in the same chairs in the same rooms working on the same assignments. Whenever I hear from a former student about something special going on in their lives, I smile and feel as though I traveled along the path that was meant for me. Whenever I hear a great song like “Northern Touch”, with all of the confidence and pride and swagger it entails, I believe that Ron Nelson traveled down the right path for him, as well. To do so is about all one can hope for in life. Congratulations, Ron, for everything you have accomplished in life. For what it is worth, I am proud to know you even in the small way that I do. Thanks for bringing your best to all that you have done….starting with that K-Tel project for Professor Keast. 🙂

The link for the video of the song, “Northern Touch” by Rascalz, Checkmate, Kardinall Offishall, Choclair and Thrust can be found here.

The official website for Rascalz can be found here.

The official website for Checkmate can be found here.

The official website for Kardinal Offishall can be found here.

The official website for Thrust can be found here.

The official website for Choclair can be found here.

The official website for Ron Nelson can be found here.

The official website for radio station CKLN in Toronto can be found here.

Finally, the song, “Northern Touch” namedrops the city of Vancouver so, the official website for the city of Vancouver can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post should be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

The Great Canadian Road Trip: The Stories Behind Canadian Songs That Mention Canadian Places…

One of the real perks to living anywhere in any town or city for a certain length of time is that you come to know where the true gathering spots are located. These are the places that have doors that always seem unlocked and a spirit inside that envelops you the moment you enter. These buildings may be dank and dark but they glitter like jewels to the regulars who regard them as a second home. A good watering hole will tell you all that you need to know about a community. Its chairs and stools will have a worn, lived-in look, its walls decorated with posters of local bands that have played there, the floor probably doesn’t shine any longer, either and is beer-soaked and tacky to the touch. But, it is a palace that regularly draws a crowd. And, not just those who can afford to pay a membership fee or exorbitant cover charge to get in. Every town has a place or a bar or pub where the weighty problems of the world are debated, blood is sometimes spilled, championships are celebrated, and on occasion, two bodies can be found joining together to share the space of one. This post is the story of one such place and the fight to keep it free from the wrecking ball’s swing. Welcome all to the Plains Hotel in Regina, Saskatchewan, and in particular, to Good Time Charlie’s Lounge.

The Plains Hotel, Regina, Saskatchewan.

The Plains Hotel was built at the intersection of College and Albert Streets in downtown Regina not long after WWI. In the early days of the Plains Hotel, it was a convenient source of affordable accommodation for soldiers returning from the war, as well as workers passing through on their way to the oil fields of Alberta, the endless wheat fields of the Prairies, or else the potash mines of the north. For about $20 a night, a traveler could get a clean room upstairs at the hotel and a hot meal downstairs at Good Time Charlie’s Lounge. The Plains Hotel sported a modern-looking “weather tower” on top of its roof. This tower was composed of lights that lit up with certain colours depending on the nature of the weather. It was just one of many reasons that folks in Regina were always drawn to the hotel, whether it was to stay there, to go to Charlie’s for a drink after work, or simply to check the weather at a glance.

In time, other, newer and more modern chain hotels came to Regina and the tourists started drifting away from The Plains Hotel. In their place, clients with far more modest incomes became the new regulars, and in fact, for much of the 1970s and beyond, The Plains Hotel found itself as home to low income renters who paid for their rooms by the month and dined in the Lounge below. As this transition took place, The Plains Hotel became more of a community with members whose faces and personalities were so familiar to each other that they became a type of family. Like characters from a novel, these renters were given nicknames that reflected their character and/or their habits. The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge became the center of their world.

The other thing that The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge became known for was as a venue for live music. The stage at Charlie’s was always available for local bands to showcase new songs, as well as singing covers of those songs favoured by the regulars. On occasion, a big band with a national reputation would be coming through and would stop by. That always caused a stir. But mostly, it was local bands playing a form of authentic Blues that only comes from those who have lived lives of sweat and toil. Many a night, passersby would pop in for a cold one, just to catch whichever band was playing at the time. The beer was always cold and the music was always hot. The regulars sat in their spots and sang and drank and talked. The visitors would occupy whatever seats were left and would drink and dance. Good Time Charlie’s Lounge was a place that welcomed all and on most nights, all felt welcomed inside those doors that never seemed to be locked.

Because The Plains Hotel had a full house of monthly tenants, there was a steady source of revenue for the owners of the building. However, as we all know, the cost of doing business rarely stays steady for long and never seems to go down. So, as inflationary times came to Regina, the cost of running and maintaining The Plains Hotel increased while the revenue stream stagnated. In time, the price of doing business started becoming too much for the owners. Occupying a prime corner of downtown Regina as it did, The Plains Hotel had long been on the radar of real estate developers. They had visions of convention centers and condominiums. To them, The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge was an eyesore and a poor return on investment. So, while the hotel was in its heyday, the real estate moguls were kept at bay, but as the hotel started experiencing financial stresses, they began to circle. Eventually, The Plains Hotel was put up for sale. One proposed plan was to knock it down, and in its place, build a new hotel/condo tower twenty-five stories tall. If that were to be the accepted plan, then those people who called The Plains Hotel their home would be cast out into the street. Those bands and their fans who viewed Good Time Charlie’s as a cultural mecca would be out of luck, too. So, a grassroots effort was made to save The Plains Hotel. That effort revolved around a music contest sponsored by the CBC.

In 2009, a call was put out by Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, for original songs from every province and territory in the country. Each province and territory would have a local competition complete with live performances and on-line voting. The winners of each provincial or territorial competition would win a cash prize and would earn a spot on a CD entitled, “CBC Songquest”. The criterion for entering was that each song had to reflect the essence of the geographic region it was from. It that way, the CBC was hoping to be able to release one CD that captured Canada in all of its glory from coast to coast to coast. Those who were involved in the effort to save The Plains Hotel saw this as an opportunity to memorialize this important community gathering spot in song and to shine a spotlight on their cause. It helped a great deal that a local band called The Deep Dark Woods agreed to write a song about what Good Time Charlie’s meant to them. The Deep Dark Woods were one of the local Folk-Rock bands that played the bar circuit in Regina and Saskatoon and throughout the Prairie provinces. They relied on places like Good Time Charlie’s for their livelihood. They also knew how important such bars and pubs were as community centers in the towns and cities in which they were located. The song the band created was called “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down”. The reason for calling their song this was because, not long after the Songquest contest was announced, Regina City Council approved the sale of The Plains Hotel to a new developer. The twenty-five story hotel/condo plan was given the green light. The fight to save The Plains Hotel was lost.

The Deep Dark Woods.

At that point, the CBC Songquest competition became something other than a game to be won. It became a race against time to honour a building that played such an integral part in the life of downtown Regina. It was also a race against time to do right by the regulars who had called The Plains Hotel home. Many of these people had been in poor health for many years, so when it became apparent a decade or so prior that it was becoming financially unfeasible to continue as they had, the owners of The Plains Hotel made a decision that says a lot about their character and about how those who frequented the establishment were viewed. As the regular tenants became unable to live on their own any longer and were moved by the province to long term care homes, their former rooms were closed down and not rented out any longer. If a regular tenant passed away and no family members were nearby, the folks at The Plains Hotel stepped in to ensure their friend was buried with dignity and respect. Eventually, the final regular tenant found a new place to live. The rooms at The Plains Hotel were now all empty. Meanwhile, “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” ended up winning the CBC Songquest contest. The final thing that the local community wanted was a stay of execution, if you will, so that The Deep Dark Woods (who were touring at the time) would have time to come back home and play the final concert ever at Good Time Charlie’s Lounge. Unfortunately, this story is bereft of fairy tale endings. The Deep Dark Woods have never known a king’s ransom from their music so they could not afford to abandon their tour and fly home. The developers of the new condo project did not wish to wait. The wrecker’s ball swung in 2011 and The Plains Hotel, complete with its iconic weather tower and along with Good Time Charlie’s Lounge, was no more.

The ironic thing is that almost immediately after knocking The Plains Hotel down, the new developer ran into financial difficulties of his own. As you read these words, nothing stands on the corner of College and Albert Streets in Regina. Nothing but an empty lot and silence. In a very short time, a new generation of citizens will grow up in Regina not knowing that anything of value ever existed at that street corner. Perhaps they will hear “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” one day on the radio and they will realize all that was lost. The lesson in all of this involves prioritizing the things that truly make a community what it is. While it is naive to think that money isn’t a significant factor in how the world operates, at some point, trading those precious places where people gather in exchange for trinkets and baubles has to stop. To my way of thinking, music is more important than silence. Community has more value than emptiness and loneliness. That sense of caring for each other that comes with being part of a family, regardless of bloodlines, is a treasure whose value is incalculable. I think of that whenever I listen to this song.

The link to the video for “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” by The Deep Dark Woods can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Deep Dark Woods can be found here.

The link to the official website for the city of Regina, Saskatchewan can be found here.

The link to a video for a news story about the history of The Plains Hotel can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post is the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be re-blogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022 tommacinneswriter.com

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Canadian Songs About Canadian Places…Song # 3/250: One Great City by The Weakerthans

I lived in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia for the first eighteen years of my life. During that time, I did so within the warm social embrace of a good community. I was well served by my teachers in the schools I attended. My parents both had good jobs. I lived in a good house on a safe and friendly street. I had friends who liked and accepted me as I was. Glace Bay is still the place I mention whenever I get asked where I come from. And yet I left…of my own accord…like so many others of my generation. We all answered the siren call of better lives lived elsewhere. The lure of bigger cities with fancier shops and restaurants was strong. Better-paying jobs with rosier futures awaited somewhere far from the rocky shores of home. So, at the age of eighteen years, I packed a steamer trunk with as many childhood memories as would fit, boarded a train bound for Toronto and have lived away from Glace Bay ever since. My time in Glace Bay now comprises barely one third of my life.

As a teen, many of us couldn’t wait to get away. As great as it actually was to live there, we regularly called Glace Bay a “hole”. We were bored with our lives there. There were no great prospects for us back home so we were happy to get out…to cross that Causeway that connects Cape Breton Island to the rest of Canada. The pull of a life lived somewhere else was the fuel for our childhood dreams. Everything would be better if we could only just get out. So, I left. Many others did, too. We built lives for ourselves in Ontario and Alberta or anywhere else that offered us money and steady employment. So, here we stayed and here we lived…in homes on cul-de-sacs with manicured lawns, dreaming of what it would be like to live by the Sea. As it turns out, I go home every chance I get. But, I am hardly recognized by anyone who stayed. I have become a tourist in the town of my birth, with a voice that now sounds like it belongs to someone from away. I still go back to the place I couldn’t wait to leave. Because, after all, it is where I am from. It is part of who I am, regardless of where my house sits. It is home.

I grew up believing that the outward migration of youth from Cape Breton Island to the rest of Canada was something that was unique to us there. But, as time has proven to me, the love-hate relationships that people have with their hometowns is fairly common and quite universal. Our hometowns are a mirror that we hold up to ourselves; sometimes we look pretty spiffy and we like what we see. At other times, that reflection is filled with wrinkles and grey hair and spare tires in places we would prefer were hidden from view. Today’s song, One Great City by The Weakerthans, mines this emotional seam as well as any song ever has. The Weakerthans were a band that grew out of the burgeoning music scene in Winnipeg, Manitoba, back in the 1980s and 90s. One Great City is about Winnipeg, but in reality it could just as easily have been written by someone like me about Glace Bay. There are lots of references to actual points of interest from Winnipeg, such as the Golden Boy statue that sits atop the Legislative building,as well as the band, The Guess Who, who were big news a long time ago, and the Winnipeg Jets hockey team, which had left town to play in that hockey hotbed of Atlanta at the time this song was written in the early 1990s. The chorus to One Great City consists of one line only: that line being, “I hate Winnipeg”, which is something only actual Winnipeggers are allowed to say. John K. Samson, who wrote this song and most of their other great tunes, calls One Great City a love song…an ode, if you will, to the city he grew up in and left and came back to. A place that those who live there all believe is slowly dying, yet there it stands as a place where people live and work and call home.

The Weakerthans no longer exist as a band but, in their day, many of their songs read like poetry. In the links below, I am going to leave you with two songs to enjoy. The first one is the subject of today’s post, One Great City. As mentioned, it is about Winnipeg and the love-hate relationship Winnipeggers have with their city. The second song is my favourite Weakerthans song, Left and Leaving. It is also about Winnipeg, although the name of the city is never mentioned. The song is told from the point of view of someone who couldn’t wait to get away, but like the prodigal son, keeps returning…a little more changed as a person, to a city he recognizes less and less each time he returns. I feel as though John K. Samson and I have shared much in common in our lives as far as how we have come to view the idea of home.

The truth of the matter is that your house is where you live but your home is where your heart resides. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the two. Sometimes the place you call your home only exists in old photographs and faded recollections of familiar places and familiar faces. At other times and in other ways, the idea of home as a destination is smokey and wisp-like when, in fact, its essence is most often found in the arms of those you hold dear. So, here I sit…in a house with a manicured lawn, thinking about the Sea but realizing that I am where I am meant to be. I am with those whom I love and who love me in reply. In other words: I am already home.

The link to the video for the song One Great City by The Weakerthans can be found here.

The link to the video for the song Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Weakerthans/John K. Samson can be found here.

***Just a reminder that all original content contained in this blog post is the sole property of the author. This post shall not be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author…(who is a nice guy and will probably allow you to share this post, but just the same, wants to be asked first). ©2022 TomMacInnesWriter.com

The Great Canadian Road Trip: The Stories Behind Canadian Songs That Mention Canadian Places…Song #1/250: The Night Pat Murphy Died by Great Big Sea.

This past Saturday, I participated in my very first Jane’s Walk. This walk was held to honour the memory of a lady named Jane Jacobs. During her life, Jane Jacobs was one of the pre-eminent experts of urban planning and, in particular, ensuring that communities were made livable for the citizens who lived there. Jane Jacobs was a champion of the idea that neighbourhoods needed to be vibrant, open spaces where people could move freely and safely. Such spaces, Jacobs argued, gave people a sense of community and personal identity within a collective framework. So, this past Saturday, my family and I, along with about one hundred other citizens of my town, went for two walks. We learned the history of those particular areas, along with making commitments to help preserve the unique heritage found there so that future generations could also come to share that same space in a knowing and thoughtful way.

The idea of community has always been an important part of my life. I was born and raised in Nova Scotia during a time when many people left their doors unlocked at night. At my home, our door was always open and our teapot was always filled with water and at the ready should there come a knock upon our door. And there were always knocks upon our door. Knowing our neighbours as well as we knew our relatives was part of the culture in Glace Bay, where I grew up. In the evenings, as a teen, we gathered downtown along Commercial Street, which was the main street of our town. Many nights, nothing of consequence happened there…..we just hung out together and talked and had fun. Some times, though, there was romance or the odd fight. There was usually music and chip truck french fries. But mostly, we simply appreciated having a place to gather and be with each other. It may sound lame to today’s generation to know that I spent some of the happiest moments of my teen years standing around downtown Glace Bay doing nothing in particular, but that is what happened. I feel confident in saying that those who stood there with me look back on those times with fondness and affection, too.

But that is not how it is today in many parts of our country. People are not encouraged to gather together in large numbers. In fact, there aren’t many places for people to gather together casually in crowds of any size and simply just be together. Urban planning these days tends to view public spaces as being lost revenue, and as such, so many of our green spaces are being plowed under and paved over so that land developers can build as many homes, as tightly packed together, as they can manage. The end result of this is that subdivision dwellers tend to live inside of their homes instead of outside, in yards that host gatherings. Even shopping is different now. Downtown cores have long battled the lure of shopping malls. Well today, even shopping malls are changing: closing down in favour of big box store plazas where all stores are separate buildings and all entrances lead outside. So now, we drive in our cars to these plazas, go directly into the stores to do our shopping and then we retreat back into our cars and return home, usually going straight inside. These days, our contact with others tends to be through the screens of our phones or computers. Entire generations of young people are growing up with the notion that living lives of compartmentalization is how life is meant to be. But, in fact, that is not how life is meant to be. For what it is worth, I believe that life is a journey that is meant to be shared.

And so, I begin the Great Canadian Road Trip series in one of the friendliest, most welcoming and happening communities in all of Canada…..St. John’s, Newfoundland. I am not sure if it is an East Coast-thing or not, but when you travel to the eastern part of Canada, you find many centres where you can tell those in charge of urban planning have put the needs of humans before the wants of the almighty dollar. Places like Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia have both done a fabulous job of developing the area along their waterfront as public spaces. There are lots of restaurants, small businesses and many cultural events there….and always, lots of music. In St. John’s, NFLD, there is a street called George Street, which is home to a seemingly endless stretch of bars, pubs and restaurants. George Street is usually closed to vehicular traffic so it is a safe place to wander about…..to see and be seen, as it were. The powers that be have also decreed that, although sales of alcohol are cut off at 1:00am, the restaurants may stay open all night and, as such, it is common for music and dancing to go on until morning.

This atmosphere was captured very well in today’s song entitled, The Night Pat Murphy Died by one of Canada’s most popular bands, Great Big Sea. Newfoundland has had a long tradition of celebrating their history and culture through music. There are scores of songs about the sea, about fishing, about the harsh climate and, just as many again, about acts of community and brotherhood/sisterhood that often involve romance and/or drinking and/or singing and other shenanigans. I grew up listening to bands from The Rock such as Ryan’s Fancy and Figgy Duff. In the 1990s, Great Big Sea was the main band. They passed the torch to other bands such as Hey, Rosetta! and many others. Regardless of when the songs were sung and who was doing the singing, music has always been a large part of the social fabric of the communities that dot the Newfoundland coastline. Because of that fact, urban planners purposely created spaces where people could gather, songs could be sung and good company kept all the while. This sort of purposeful direction from local Town and City Councils goes a long way to giving the place where you live, a sense of community. This is reflected in a song such as The Night Pat Murphy Died.

The Night Pat Murphy Died is a song whose origin stretches back into the murky fog of history so much so that no one can say for sure who actually wrote the tune. But, it was when Great Big Sea recorded it for their 1997 album, Play, that the popularity of the song spread beyond the island of Newfoundland, to the rest of the country. Great Big Sea are no longer together, but in their heyday, during the years between 1990 and 2015, they were one of the biggest and most popular bands in Canada. Lead by vocalists Alan Doyle and Sean McCann, Great Big Sea had a string of Top Ten hits including When I’m Up, Mari Mac, Ordinary Day, Lukey and Consequence Free. They earned eleven Gold records and went Platinum multiple times. They have won numerous Juno Awards, as well as winning the award for “Group of the Year” six times in a row at The East Coast Music Awards. However, despite the popularity of their “hit” songs, Great Big Sea were always most well known for their live shows. At these shows, the band often sang more traditional Newfoundland songs such as England, Excursion Around the Bay or today’s song, The Night Pat Murphy Died. These songs were always crowd pleasers and often provoked a reaction within their audiences that saw people dancing and singing and having the time of their lives.

The Night Pat Murphy Died is a song about an Irish wake. As often happens in Newfoundland songs, there is plenty of crossover between the experiences of those in Newfoundland and those who came to it from across the sea in England, Scotland or Ireland. So, The Night Pat Murphy Died revolves around the antics of those who came to honour the memory of their friend, Paddy Murphy, who had passed away. Needless to say, much drinking and rabble rousing ensues. The party, turned celebration of life, spills out of Pat Murphy’s former house and onto the streets of St. John, eventually landing at a real pub on George Street called The Sundance Saloon. It is at The Sundance Saloon that the revellers stay until sunrise before laying their friend to rest. As songs go, The Night Pat Murphy Died is a hoot and a holler. It is a great sing-a-long song. Furthermore, I defy you to keep your toes from a-tapping.

That’s how they showed their respect for Paddy Murphy,

That’s how they showed, their honour and their pride.

They said it was a sin and a shame

And then winked at one another

Every drink in the place was full

the night Pat Murphy died.

There are numerous videos on YouTube of Great Big Sea performing this song live. Any one of them will make for awesome viewing. The Night Pat Murphy Died is one of those songs that is hard to sing poorly. I believe that the reason for this is because songs that honour people are part of the cultural DNA of the entire population of Newfoundland and when you build your world around the values that real people hold dear, you do right by them. That mutual love is reflected back in the form of a strong sense of community so that every time you watch Great Big Sea perform The Night Pat Murphy Died, it seems as though you are watching a party happening between the band and several hundred/thousand of their closest friends. Sometimes, music is more than chords and notes. Sometimes, music is in our blood and our hearts. This is the case here.

So, without further delay, here is Great Big Sea with The Night Pat Murphy Died. Enjoy. See you all next time on this musical journey we call The Great Canadian Road Trip. Bye for now. 🙂

The link to the video for the song, The Night Pat Murphy Died, by Great Big Sea can be found here.

The link to the official website for Great Big Sea can be found here and here.

The link to the video for a cover version of this song by German “Speed Folk” band, Fiddler’s Green can be found here. This is a punked-up version that is rawer than that of Great Big Sea and which, also, has a terrific second half and an awesome ending. I know this version will be right up the alley of a few of my faithful readers. Enjoy this one, too. It is great!

The link to the official website for Jane’s Walks can be found here.

***Please note that the content of this post is the sole property of the author. It cannot be shared, re-posted or reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022, TomMacInnesWriter.com

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #100: Ahead By A Century by The Tragically Hip.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #100: Ahead By A Century by The Tragically Hip.

As I type these words to you today, we are having a major snow storm roll through my area. All schools have been cancelled which means that for the children in my town, today has been declared as a “Snow Day”. I can remember the joy that I felt, as a child, whenever we would have a “Snow Day”. It meant freedom! It meant fun! It meant a complete break from the regular humdrum of everyday life. It was a glorious feeling. So, as I type these words to you this morning, I do so knowing that my own children lay asleep in their warm beds; blissfully unaware of the joy that awaits when they awaken. It isn’t quite same as Christmas morning but, it is close. Childhood should be a time of magical moments such as these. Yet, far too often we ask our children to bear the burden of adult decisions. Each time we do, we borrow from their bank of childhood innocence, robbing them of treasure that is rightfully theirs. But, on a day like today, we get to give our children a little of their precious childhood back.

We are 400 songs in on our countdown of the best songs of all-time and I can’t help but think that today’s song…..Song #100 on the list…is the perfect song for today. “Ahead By A Century” by The Tragically Hip, is a song whose premise is built upon the notion that there is beauty and magic and wonder in the innocent exploration of our world by children. By the time, “Ahead By A Century” came to be recorded and released, The Tragically Hip were on to their fifth studio album already. It was an album called, “Trouble At The Henhouse”. By this time, many of the members of the band (singer, Gord Downie, guitarists, Rob Baker, Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair, along with drummer, Johnny Fay) were becoming fathers themselves and were well-versed in the worlds that very young children inhabit. So, who better to tell that tale than a man whose poetic version of Life became the lens through which so many of us, as Canadians, came to view life, too? Gord Downie was a story teller of unparalleled grace. He could make demands of our intelligence with his lyrics but, he could, also, touch our hearts, seemingly at will. And so it was when he came to write the lyrics for “Ahead By A Century”. This is a song that, for my money, has one of the best opening verses ever written. It is a masterclass in the #1 rule of story writing, which is: “Show. Don’t tell”. This is Gord’s take on childhood:

First thing we’d climb a tree

And maybe then we’d talk

or sit silently

and listen to our thoughts.

With illusions of someday

Cast in a golden light.

No dress re-hears-al

This is our life“.

“Ahead By A Century” went on to be The Tragically Hip’s first #1 song in Canada and it became a staple of all of their live shows. It is a song that is easy to love and to feel thus, it was, also, the most appropriate choice as the final song that The Tragically Hip ever sang together live.

In 2015, a news conference was called to announce that lead singer, Gord Downie, had developed a rare form of brain cancer and that, worst of all, his cancer was not curable. He was given less than a year to live…..if he was lucky. If we were lucky. In a Herculean feat for the ages, Gord Downie willed himself to go out with the band for one last, small tour of our country. It was a tour to say, “Thank you” to everyone who had been involved in the journey of the five guys from Kingston, Ontario. This tour involved all of us, as Canadians and united the country in a manner not seen since Terry Fox tried running across this great land using only one good leg. In Canada, our heroes rarely come Hollywood Handsome. In Gord, we had a man with a balding head and a sock, for warmth, wrapped around his neck. For this tour, he often wore a t-shirt with the shark from the movie, “Jaws” pictured on it, along with silver pants. He was quite a sight but we couldn’t have loved him more.

Before Gord could even think about touring, he had to re-teach himself his own songs, as brain surgery had impacted his memory. He, also, had to submit to a battery of fitness and other health-related tests each day in order to keep the liability lawyers and insurance agents at bay; each of whom was worried that our national hero might collapse from the strain of performing and actually die on stage in front of us all. His bandmates each told him that they would put down their instruments and walk off the stage at a moment’s notice….all he had to do was give them the word that he had had enough and couldn’t go on anymore. But, Gord kept on. He kept on all the way through ten shows in ten cities; culminating in one final concert in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario.

At this point, the mythic nature of what Gord had accomplished gave way to the personal. That final show was televised commercial-free by our national television broadcaster, the CBC. It was a Saturday night as Canadians gathered in arenas, in local parks, in basements and backyards….not to watch Hockey Night in Canada but, to watch Gord….one….last….time. We watched in groups that varied in size but, in reality, we watched alone; savouring each and every song that The Hip played….counting them down, marking them off our mental set-list until it came time for the final song which was, “Ahead By A Century”. A song written about the magic of childhood innocence became a song transformed into an anthem of gratitude and a new national hymn. To the crowd that assembled in that hockey rink in Kingston, Gord waved and made eye contact with as many as he could. The boys in the band played on. Then it ended. The boys embraced each other. Gord kissed them all. The crowd cheered and cried. I cheered and cried. Then we all went home.

Gord Downie died not too long after that night in 2016. In life, as in death, Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip always meant more to Canadians than simply being a rock n’ roll band. Whether it was their songs or their musicianship or the seemingly ordinary way their lived their lives as scandal-free, family men who gave back to their fellow musicians as easily as they gave back to us, as fans, The Tragically Hip were special. We knew that because we felt that. Our lives are meant to be lived as joyfully and as artfully as possible. Gord’s final tour was an example of what each of us are capable of. It was self-actualization on display for all to see. It was said by those who loved and admired him that he now walks among the stars. I believe that to be true.

I will play a number of videos below. The first will be the official video for “Ahead By A Century”. The second video will be one that I have shown before, on my own social media pages. It is the one that MacLean’s Magazine put together that showed people from all across Canada watching Gord and the boys play that final song. I will, also, play two videos that show how “Ahead By A Century” lives on after Gord’s death. The first is a TikTok video created by guitarist Rob Baker of The Hip in which he plays the chords to the opening verse of “Ahead By A Century” and invites viewers to submit videos of themselves singing the lyrics. It is wonderful. The joy is very real in all submissions. Finally, regular readers of these posts may be familiar with a man who makes these posts better with his insightful comments, Mr. Ian Jack. In 2016, Ian was teaching at a school not too far from here. He, along with some of his colleagues at the school, managed to record his entire school singing “Ahead By A Century” in tribute to Gord and the band and in recognition of how their music had touched all of our lives. That video went viral and became, what Ian describes as, “one of the highlights” of his life. I will play that video, too, with his kind permission.

As I end this post, I can hear some of the neighbourhood children beginning to head outside into the blizzard to play in the snow that is still falling in copious amounts. I can hear the sound of squeals and of laughter. That sounds like music to my ears. I will wake my own sleeping children in a few moments, too. I am looking forward to witnessing the happiness on their faces at the turn their world has taken for this day. Childhood should be filled with more feelings like that, don’t ya think? It’s a “Snow Day”! It’s, also, Tragically Hip day in the countdown.

Here they are, with a cast of thousands to follow, with their #1 hit song, and the final song they ever played, “Ahead By A Century”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Ahead By A Century” by The Tragically Hip, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip, can be found here.

The link to the video by MacLean’s Magazine, showing Canadians watching Gord Downie sing “Ahead By A Century” one…last…time, their final concert in Kingston, Ontario, can be seen here. ***Be forewarned……I have watched this video countless times and I always, always am moved to tears.

The link to the video that shows guitarist Rob Baker’s TikTok tribute to “Ahead By A Century”, can be found here.

The link to the video for “Ahead By A Century”, as covered by the staff and students of Newcastle Public School, under the musical direction of Mr. Ian Jack, can be found here.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #1: Abbey Road Medley by The Beatles.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #1: Abbey Road Medley by The Beatles.

It feels very much like the last day of school. For thirty years, I had the absolute pleasure of being a classroom teacher and of spending a year of my life surrounded by tiny humans, all members of an extended family, affectionately known as “my kids”. Every year was special and every year was different and yet, every year was the same because our time together always ended on the last day of school. This day feels like those days. Our journey has come to an end and it has done so after fourteen months together. Fourteen months of celebrating the very best music, in multiple genres, from multiple eras. I wouldn’t have wanted to have spent these past fourteen months in the company of any other humans than all of you. But, like all things in life, everything comes to an end eventually. And so, our musical countdown list must come to an end, too. It does so with a suite of songs that have come to be called, “The Abbey Road Medley” by The Beatles. I will talk a bit more about these songs and why they were chosen, in a moment. But first, let’s talk about the nature of “Best of-” titles and why that doesn’t really apply to songs.

If we were all being honest, we’d know that there is no such thing as one perfect song. If this countdown has proven anything, it is that there is a vast wealth of incredible music out there and, more importantly, that music means different things to each of us. You have to look no further than to our Honourable Mention songs…which came from all of you and which held meaning for all of you…..to recognize the diversity of important music out there in the world. From that small list of 24 songs, we had Punk music, Pop ballads, a song from WWII, a Blues song, several classic rock songs, a Folk song and on and on it goes. Who am I to select one song from amid such a smorgasbord and proclaim that as being the “real” best song. All throughout this countdown, my goal was inclusionary, not exclusionary. The most important music in the world is that which makes your heart happy. There is no one anywhere that should ever tell you that what makes your heart happy has less value than something else. Who cares?! Enjoy what makes you smile. Life is too short to do otherwise.

So, if there is no definitive “Best of-” song, how did I go about choosing how to end this project? Well, let me tell ya…..it wasn’t easy. However, as soon as I came to understand the story behind the Abbey Road Medley, I immediately knew it was the right choice for me. I knew it in the same way that I knew my wife, Keri, was the right one for me when we first met. Sometimes, everything just all falls into place and you just know……ya know? So, here is why I changed my #1 choice from “Imagine” by John Lennon to the “Abbey Road Medley” with over 200 songs still to go in this countdown.

Several times over the course of this countdown, I have mentioned the TV documentary about The Beatles that aired on the Disney Channel, called, “Get Back”. Watching that documentary was a transformative experience for me. First of all, coming into it, I knew of The Beatles as much as one could, I suppose. I knew their discography. I knew the basic timeline of their career. I knew the biographies of the main players and so on. But, up until “Get Back” aired, The Beatles were always two-dimensional figures in my mind. But, the documentary changed that for me. One of the great pleasures I had watching it was that it unfolded over the course of four or five weeks of real time. Thus, we were all given the luxury of watching things unfold slowly. We live in an age of instant gratification so, to suddenly be able to watch a creative process at play that was not working magically and that was, in fact, strained and floundering, at times, and that had to keep going, regardless….well, that was incredible to watch. As I watched it all unfold, the members of The Beatles all became humanized. They turned into real people who were, by turns, bored, frustrated, relaxed and sipping tea and so on. There were glimpses of the magic that had always been there, as well as, the joy of the camaraderie that they always shared (especially when they played together on the rooftop). All four members also had lives that existed beyond the studio walls; factors that seemingly accelerated the demise of the band and served as distractions while the recording process was going on.

But, as I watched it all, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experiences as a classroom teacher. Watching The Beatles in studio was exactly like watching the kids in my class: how they interacted with each other, were distracted by events in their own lives and how they enjoyed the magic that happens, every once and awhile, when it all comes together and good work is done by all and everyone feels great. In a classroom, given the luxury of time over the course of an entire school year, you build routines and expose the students to skill-building opportunities every day; day after day, until growth occurs. The same process took place with The Beatles on screen. They went round and round on some of those songs. For awhile, I thought to myself if I heard fragments of “Get Back” one more time, I was going to scream. But, that is how the creative process works. It is work. It doesn’t come out in finished form, all at once, very often. And it didn’t for The Beatles then, either. The grand experiment that was their band was coming to an end in front of our eyes. It was beautiful to see those happy moments, when they occurred but, the magnitude of the loss that was coming was more emotional than I was prepared for. I saw it most in Ringo’s puppy dog eyes that seemed to mirror his heart which beat for a shared past that was slipping away.

When the “Let It Be” album was finished (that was what The Beatles were working on in the documentary, by the way), the band went their separate ways and that appeared to be it. However, from those recording sessions, there were scraps and fragments of several other songs that were laying around and in need of attention. So, despite all of the acrimony, the band reassembled one last time…..to “play like we used to”, as Paul said. That last time together….when was spread over several weeks, was their last time together as a band and out of those sessions came the “Abbey Road” album. “Abbey Road” is known for George Harrison’s break out songs, “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun”. The album, also featured the songs, “Come Together”, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and Ringo’s contribution, “Octopus’ Garden”. But, “Abbey Road” is, also, known for how it closes on Side #2. On that side of the album, there exists a seven-song medley that is simply known as the “Abbey Road Medley” or “The Long One”, as it was nicknamed during the recording process. What is noteworthy about this medley is how seven song fragments were able to be lovingly stitched together to form a musical tapestry, of sorts. The songs in the medley are: “You Never Give Me Your Money”…..which was about manager Allan Klein, “Sun King”, “Mean Mr. Mustard”, Polythene Pam”, “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”, “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight”, “The End”….which contains one of the most iconic lyric lines in the entire Beatles canon and then, a gap of twenty seconds, followed by “Her Majesty”, which was a song cut out of the middle of the medley and then saved and re-inserted as a “hidden track” at the very end.

This “Abbey Road Medley” has been described as a “Hymn to Love”. Ringo Starr is on record as stating that he felt it was a masterpiece and the best thing they had ever done. What the Medley really is, is a snapshot of those things that the band held dear. It is about compassion and empathy and sharing but, most of all, it is about Love and Brotherhood. If you exclude the “Hidden track”….”Her Majesty” for a moment….the Medley ends with a snippet of music called, appropriately enough, “The End”. That song fragment contains the line that comes from my heart to all of yours…….”In the end, the Love you take is equal to the Love you make“.

Those were the final words of the final song that The Beatles ever recorded and released. When I heard those words and, the story behind them, I knew I had found the closer to this countdown. If the “Abbey Road Medley” is good enough to speak for The Beatles then, it is good enough to speak for me, too.

In the video for this song, you will see the shorter, abridged version of the Medley. It is from a concert put on my George Martin and Paul McCartney a few years ago. One of the things that makes the “Abbey Road Medley” a bit magical is that, despite their differences, John, Paul and George still concluded their career together in a show of solidarity. As the Medley progresses, there are sections where all three members trade off guitar solos. So, in the video, watch for this. George and John are dead and gone by the time this concert was held so, in their places are the Devil incarnate, himself, Eric Clapton, standing in for his friend, George Harrison….along with, Mark Knopfler, from Dire Straits, standing in for John…Phil Collins sits in for Ringo. The entire Medley is glorious and joy-filled and wonderful to watch. It fills me up. I trust it will for you, too.

And when it ends and the applause dies down……our musical countdown journey ends, too. As all things in life do. This is it. Just like on the final day of school, when that bell rings at the end of that day and the kids all head for the door that one last time, a chapter in all of our lives closes. So, as I type these last few words, know that I am grateful for having spent this time with each of you. It has been very satisfying to share this celebration of music together and being able to watch you grow. Now off into the sunshine you go. It is time.

The link to the video for the song, “Abbey Road Medley” by The Beatles, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Beatles, can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #133: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #133: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper.

If I was being completely honest, I would have titled this post: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Robert Hazard because, surprise, surprise…..this song was originally written and recorded by a man. So, let’s give him his due first. The song that we all know….the one that speaks to female empowerment…was not at all the original intent of the song when it was written by Hazard. Robert Hazard was a dance hall DJ back in the 1970s. His version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was written from a male perspective and, in particular, a male perspective of hoping to find girls who ‘wanted to have a little fun”, if ya know what I mean?! In Hazard’s hands, the song becomes an anthem for misogynistic male behaviour and, if truth be told, it is kinda creepy. But, he is the original author and, without his sleazy take on the song, Cyndi Lauper would never have come along and decided that this was a song that needed to be flipped on its ear. So thanks, Robert Hazard, I guess.

The original version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was released in 1979. Cyndi Lauper recorded her version in 1983. The Cyndi Lauper version is, of course, the one that became famous and helped to make her the star that she is today. However, that she is known most for songs such as “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “True Colours”, “Time After Time”, “We Drove All Night” and many more, doesn’t tell the whole story of who Cyndi Lauper really is. Those songs, as popular as they were, comprised only the first third of her career. Since the 1980s, Lauper has made Broadway history by becoming the only solo female to ever win the Tony for Best Musical Score for the show, “Kinky Boots”. She has, also, been inducted into The Blues Hall of Fame on the basis of a Blues project in 2010 called, “Memphis Blues”, which reached #1 on the Blues charts and stayed there for over three months; earning her the Grammy Award for Best Blues Album of the Year. She has sold over 50 million albums over the course of her career and has been inducted into the songwriting category of The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to her career in the Arts, Lauper is, also, well known for her advocacy of causes related to “Gay Rights”. She champions numerous causes related to the LGBQT community. All in all, Lauper has made good on the promise of a brighter, more self-directed and self-actualized future for women that she sang about, way back in the early 1980s, when we first laid our eyes and ears on that brightly-hued, squealy-voiced girl with the funky hair and dance moves to match.

When Cyndi Lauper first came across the song, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in its original form, she was as turned off by Hazard’s leering intentions as most women would be, I assume. The genesis for how she transformed the song was simple: Lauper simply turned the song around and stated her desire to be able to go out to a club (or anywhere else, for that matter), as a woman, and have fun as freely and easily as a man could. That was it. That was equality. The simple notion of women being able to do what men do….without fear of harm or sexual harassment. Lauper’s transformation of the song helped turn it into something that struck a chord with many women and, as a result, it became a feminist anthem. But, Lauper, being the clever woman that she is, took things one level higher. In the video for this song, she went to great lengths to cast “ordinary women” in all of the main roles to eliminate the notion that it is only super-model-types that men harass sexually. Sexual harassment happens to all women, regardless of age, hair colour, body type, profession and so on. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is a song that makes an important political point, all the while in the guise of something fun and bright and cheery and uplifting. The video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was the very first video honoured on MTV for “Best Video by a Female”. As if this all wasn’t enough already, in the video, the role of her father was played by a character from the World Wrestling Federation named Captain Lou Albano. Because of his inclusion in this highly successful music video, Lauper got to become involved in the WWF and actually appeared in several matches as Albano’s ally in the drama that unfolded in the squared circle where the wrestling took place.

Overall, Cyndi Lauper has had a career that has made a difference to many; all because of her intelligence, her creativity, her positivity and her compassion. She has helped advance many progressive causes and, as a result, has touched countless lives for the better. She has much to be proud of. And to think, that it all became possible because of a sleazy song written about hunting for women in a club. Thank goodness for Cyndi Lauper and her take on “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”! Here she is! The one who made “thrift-store chic” a fashion choice! The one who threw her arms in the air like she just didn’t care! The Queen of the Blues! The Belle of Broadway! The pride of those in the margins of society! Here is Cyndi Lauper…..enjoy!

The link to the video for the song, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!” by Cyndi Lauper, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Raise You Up” by Cyndi Lauper, from the Broadway play, “Kinky Boots”, can be found here.

The official website for Cyndi Lauper, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for always championing the rights of women to live their lives, free from misogynistic songs and the messages they contain. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Honourable Mention Song #21: We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger (as Nominated by Jan Fluke).

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Honourable Mention Song #21: We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger (as Nominated by Jan Fluke).

The marriage of songs and their singers is one that stretches way back for thousands of years. In fact, in some cases, a song, and those who sing it, is actually, History, itself. This is the case for the song, “We Shall Overcome”. It is a song that has existed for several centuries and which has evolved to suit awhile host of singers at various times of crisis; including those caught at sea in storms, people caught under the yoke of racial oppression in the U.S. and elsewhere, those fighting religious and/or political persecution in Northern Ireland, the shipyard workers attempting to unionize at the Gdansk Shipyards in Poland and a myriad of other places and times when people have been in need of a beacon of Hope to guide them forward in their struggle. “We Shall Overcome” is a song that exists to serve, rather than to entertain and, as such, its’ success and importance is not measured in record sales nor performance chart positions. The success of this song can be found in its’ ability to stiffen the resolve of those in need of courage and to help bring together those whose cause requires a unity of purpose. As such, the story of the song, “We Shall Overcome” is one that chronicles the Historical record of our lives. Here is that story.

The musical structure and lyrics to the song that has become, “We Shall Overcome” has existed for centuries and has evolved over time to be what it is today. The earliest evidence connecting this song to its’ past can be found in a 17th Century song of the sea entitled, “O Sanctissima” or, “The Sicilian Mariner’s Hymn”. This hymn was published in a variety of books containing hymns and, as such, was passed down through many Church organizations throughout the world over the years. The next notable historical connection comes from a man named Reverend Charles Tindley of Philadelphia who modified “O Sanctissima” into a new hymn entitled, “I Will Overcome Some Day” in 1901. Rev. Tindley’s hymn was written in a style that we would recognize today as Gospel inspired. It was a song that was meant to rouse the passions of those who sang it. *(As a bit of trivia…..Reverend Tindley wrote dozens of published Biblical-inspired hymns; the most noteworthy of these was the original version of the song, “Stand By Me”, which many of you may know, was made famous half a century later by a man named Ben E. King.) It is not surprising that a few decades later, “I Will Overcome Some Day” began showing up in times of trouble that existed outside of the church. For example, in 1909, there was a recorded incident during a Mine Workers Strike in which an organizational meeting for workers was closed with the singing of “I Will Overcome Some Day”. The song appeared again in 1945 during a tobacco workers strike but, this time, the lyrics had been modified slightly and the song was simply called, “We Will Overcome”. This new iteration was felt to be an important step in the evolution of this song because, by changing “I” to “We”, it changed the focus from an individualized pursuit to a collective one.

The most famous use of the song, now entitled, “We Will Overcome”, happened during the US Civil Rights Marches of the 1950s and 60s. However, that Movement didn’t materialize overnight in response to the Birmingham Bus Boycott or various lynchings and other acts of repression and violence that characterized the times. The Civil Rights Movement evolved over time and was built upon a foundation of much organization and training by those who would put their lives at risk in the name of racial equality. As part of this organization process, a school for activists was established in Tennessee called “The Highlander Folk School“. This was not a school for children but, instead, it was a school that trained adults in the politics of voter suppression, in how to register voters, all about Jim Crow laws and much, much more. Needless to say, a school for political activism tended to attract likeminded people. So it was that one day the musical director of The Highlander Folk School, a person named Zilphia Horton, taught “We Will Overcome” to a white union organizer and singer named Pete Seeger. *It should be noted that one of the mandates of The Highlander Folk School was to unify the races through music. Thus, a white man, like Seeger, was welcomed into the school with the belief that learning from one another was an essential part, going forward, of the goal of achieving racial harmony.

Pete Seeger was a political activist who spread his message of worker’s rights and civil rights, through song. He published a magazine called, the “People’s Songs Bulletin” and then, travelled across the country, banjo in hand, and sang these songs for his audiences. Many authorities at the time viewed Seeger with suspicion; labelling him as a Communist during the McCarthy Witch Hunt days. In any case, the final bit of tweaking to the song, “We Will Overcome” came when Seeger, a trained singer, noted that changing the word, “Will” to the word, “Shall” caused the singer’s mouth to open wider and, as such, it gave the sentence more power when sung. So, Seeger re-wrote the traditional song, changing the lyrics slightly and coming up with the version that we know today as, “We Shall Overcome”. Pete Seeger introduced his new version of the song at The Highlander Folk School. One of those in attendance that day was a young, fiery Church Minister named Martin Luther King. King was impressed by Seeger’s changes and the final version of the song. He advocated for it to become one of the standard hymns sung at all Civil Rights rallies and marches from that point onward. And so, the song “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem to those in the Civil Rights Movement. Singer Joan Baez sang the song during the March on Washington, just prior to Dr. King giving his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.

As mentioned at the top of this post, some songs are meant to entertain and some songs are meant to serve. “We Shall Overcome” is definitely one of those songs that has served those in need, going back hundreds of years now. It is a song of defiance and solidarity that has helped steel the resolve of many who toiled under the oppressor’s whip, fist and boots in the U.S. and around the world. “We Shall Overcome” was sung at the inauguration of U.S. President, Barack Obama, the first Black man to ever reach and hold that Office. It is, also, a song that has been inducted into The Library of Congress as a song of “cultural significance”.

So, thank you Jan Fluke, for nominating a song like “We Shall Overcome” that has resonated so loudly and clearly on the side of justice over the years. It is an important song whose story was a pleasure for me to tell. I have to say, folks, that I am not surprised that Jan would have nominated such a song. We have known each other for many years; as writers and an educators. All through those years, I have always known Jan to be someone who stands up for those in need. She isn’t hesitant, in the slightest, to voice her concerns and fight for causes that she believes are right and just. That she would hold a song such as “We Shall Overcome” near and dear to her heart speaks volumes of her character. My wife and I feel fortunate to know Jan and look forward to sharing many more cups of tea with her in the years to come. ***Just fyi, Jan’s most current project is as an author of children’s books. I will include a link to her website below.

So, without further delay, here is Mr. Pete Seeger…..folk singer, union organizer, political activist, communist (apparently)….with the seminal classic song, “We Shall Overcome”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Pete Seeger, can be found here.

The link to the official website for “The Story Snuggery”, Jan Fluke’s website, can be found here.

KTOM: The Top 500 Song in Modern Music History…Honourable Mention Song #13: Fifty Mission Cap by The Tragically Hip.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Honourable Mention Song #13: Fifty Mission Cap by The Tragically Hip.

In our previous Honourable mention Song post about the song, “Egg Man” by The Beastie Boys *(which you can read here), I introduced you all to one of my wife’s best friends, Jackie Pepper. Well today, you are going to meet the third member of their “ladies who lunch” trifecta and that is a woman named Siobhan Percolides. My wife met Siobhan and Jackie when our children were toddlers. All three ladies enjoyed each other’s company and have been able to be there for each other as their children have grown up (all three families have two children each). As well, all three women are married and, as couples, we have been able to share some enjoyable evenings of good food and good conversation together that, in these pandemic times, allow us all to feel as though we still have a bit of a social life outside of our homes. But, for the sake of this post, the third thing that Jackie and Siobhan share in common is that they both have a similar taste in music to me, rather than to my wife…..which amuses me. Siobhan, in particular, shares with me a love of the Canadian band, The Tragically Hip. We have both seen The Tragically Hip live several times and still enjoy listening to their music, even though they stopped releasing new material in 2016, with the death from cancer, of lead singer and songwriter, Gord Downie. So, when I put out the call for Honourable Mention songs, it didn’t surprise me at all that Siobhan came back with a Tragically Hip nomination which was, “Fifty Mission Cap”. Here is the story of a song which, in itself, tells a story that is as Canadian as could possibly be. Here is “Fifty Mission Cap” by The Tragically Hip.

When most people evaluate the legacy created by The Tragically Hip, one of the most common responses about the band is that they known for celebrating 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, also, 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. *(For those unaware, my wife is not a sports fan. Prior to meeting her, I was a hardcore fan who watched every game, kept track of player point totals, participated in sports pools and so on. Then, I met Keri and all of that changed. *You can read about how I knew Keri was the one, here. It is a sports-related post with a sweet twist).

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 use 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. In doing so, they begin to tell the story of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman, Bill Barilko, who scored the winning goal in 1952 that helped my Leafs to win the Stanley Cup as champions of the league. That very summer, he was killed in a plane crash. His body wasn’t found for almost a decade.

“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.”

***A tiny bit of Tragically Hip trivia: Bill Barilko’s plane crashed in a deeply wooded area in the northern reaches of Canada. He was headed for a fishing lodge which was known as a fly-in lodge, accessible only via an airplane. Flash forward thirty years, when the band travelled up to Attawapiskat for a benefit concert, *(which you can read about here), they flew over the exact location where Bill Barilko’s plane had crashed. Do with that bit of trivia what you will. 🙂

Gord Downie adds an extra layer of Canadianna to “Fifty Mission Cap”, when he informs us that he “stole” the story of Bill Barilko from a hockey card that he kept tucked away in a cap. Collecting hockey cards was a huge part of my childhood. I spent every quarter I ever got for my weekly allowance (for doing chores around the house) at the convenience store at the end of my street buying Opee-Chee hockey card packs. They went for ten cents a pack and always came with eight hockey cards and one stick of rock hard pink bubble gum. The smell and feel of those freshly opened hockey cards is one of the things that most defines my childhood. And while I never had a Bill Barilko card, like the one shown to the right, I did have lots of other memorable cards, such as Wayne Gretzky’s Rookie Card, which is now worth several thousand dollars but, to me at the time, it was just another card to trade and play with and, eventually, to lose like it was no big deal. In fact, the story linked above about my wife and hockey is about a hockey card. It is one of my favourite stories of all time. Well worth checking out, if you haven’t read it already.

In closing, I am always grateful to live in a country like Canada. I live a safe and peaceful life here. I am safe and free to roam around without restriction or limitation. I, also, live in a country with a tremendous history of Art and Culture that takes many forms. One of the forms I like the best…..and Siobhan, too……is listening to storytellers like Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip. So, Siobhan, I thank you for nominating “Fifty Mission Cap” as your Honourable Mention Song. It fills me with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, on multiple levels. I, also, want to thank you for all of the stories shared and comments made all throughout this musical countdown journey of ours. Your input was gratefully appreciated and helped make things way more interesting for me as this process unfolded.

So, without further delay, here is the classic Canadian song, “Fifty Mission Cap” by Canada’s own, The Tragically Hip. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Fifty Mission Cap” by The Tragically Hip, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip, can be found here.