Great songs that mention great Canadian Places.
I hope that you are familiar with the classic TV comedy, Seinfeld. I have always held the genre of comedy in high regard because it isn’t easy to explore the dark, shadowy aspects of our character or of the society in which we live, all the while mining that material for laughs. But good comedic writing shines a light on many social truths. The writers who worked on Seinfeld were masters of their domain, as the joke goes. Their show that was billed as being about nothing was actually laden with insight. For example, one of the running gags that existed all throughout the first five or six seasons of this series involved lead character, Jerry Seinfeld’s wingman, George Constanza. George’s backstory was that he had all the time in the world to hang out with Jerry because he was unemployed and still living in his childhood home with his parents. The joke revealed itself in George’s constant attempts to disguise his predicament by inventing prestigious careers that he pretended to be enjoying such as an architect (he claimed to have built the Guggenheim Museum), a Marine Biologist (he actually ended up being called on his claims and was forced to help a beached whale in one episode), and even a latex salesman (who, at his lowest point, found himself face down on the floor of Jerry’s apartment, his pants down around his ankles). The point being made about George all throughout those early seasons was that his worth as a man was measured by society in terms of how successful his career was. It wasn’t until he found a real job with the New York Yankees that he was shown greater respect by the writers of the show. That we all laughed along with George’s plight says a lot about who we are as a society. The writers of Seinfeld correctly guessed that most of us are quick to judge others and apply value judgements based on superficial reasons. They held that mirror up to our faces each week. We reveled in our ignorance and happily laughed along.
However, the grain of truth that Seinfeld exposed is very real. All throughout my life I have seen the effects of those value judgements being cast in real time. Growing up on the east coast of Canada as I did during the collapse of the cod fishery, I saw and heard many stories of strong, proud men who suddenly found themselves without any means of making a living and providing for their families. This turn in circumstances stung those men and their families. Many of these men proved to be their own worst critics and deemed themselves to be failures because they measured their own worth in terms of being providers for their family. Without a way of earning income, these men felt lost and adrift. Many turned to alcohol, or else lapsed into depression. The stresses felt within families was immense. Some of these men were offered chances to enter training programmes that could possibly lead to alternative forms of employment better suited for newer age economies. But, for many, a life spent working with their hands was what they missed and what they felt most competent in doing, so they sought opportunities for that elsewhere in Canada. For many on the east coast, those hands-on opportunities came in the form of work in the oil and gas fields of Alberta. For those who measured their worth in terms of toil and sweat, migrating to Alberta came naturally. Good wages and jobs a-plenty waited in Alberta. All a man had to do was make the journey. I know from many firsthand experiences being on airplanes heading to and from Cape Breton, that two-thirds to three-quarters of the passengers were men seeking personal valuation in the form of a paycheque earned from putting in a day’s hard work in Alberta.
Gordie Johnson is the lead singer and guitarist for the Canadian band, Big Sugar. While he was born in Ontario, Johnson’s family lived for a while in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Medicine Hat is home to one of the world’s biggest deposits of natural gas. It also lays claim to being the sunniest place in Canada, too. Because he lived there, Johnson was well aware of the draw that the Oil and Gas industry held for many men who made their living by working with their hands. He was keenly aware of the transient nature of a large segment of Medicine Hat’s population and that many of those who worked the gas wells came from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. When Johnson grew up and began his own career as a musician, first as a backing player for singer Molly Johnson and then for the collective known as Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, he got to travel across this land for himself. As a member of Big Sugar, Johnson carved out a reputation for himself as being one of Canada’s preeminent blues-based rockers. Big Sugar have been a band for over three decades now and have had many hits along the way. However, they have never occupied the same rarefied air as fellow Canadian music superstars such as Bryan Adams, Shania Twain or modern stars, Arcade Fire. Instead, Big Sugar have made much of their success by relentlessly touring. They are the name band who will come to your small town. They have become known for playing at local festivals all across Canada. You might just find Big Sugar performing at your town’s watering hole of note, too. It was while playing local gigs in Newfoundland that Johnson got to hear the origin stories of those men who left Newfoundland to work in the gas fields of Medicine Hat when he was a teenager. Johnson saw value in the story of the desire of these men who wanted to provide for their families so badly that they would leave the only home they ever knew to travel thousands of kilometres away, to what they viewed as a better world in Alberta. So, he drew upon his experiences as a citizen of Medicine Hat, as well as a musical citizen of Canada, and he wrote the song, “All Hell For a Basement”.
“All Hell For a Basement” is a phrase that was used to describe Medicine Hat by none other than famous writer, Rudyard Kipling. The story is that at one time in his career, Kipling found himself on a bit of a promotional tour across the northern US. He was in a town close to the Canada/U.S border when he was made aware of a place in Canada called Medicine Hat. Kipling was curious as to what a place called Medicine Hat would look like so he asked to be taken there. When Kipling arrived in Medicine Hat, he was given the VIP treatment which involved the lighting of a gas well on fire for his entertainment. Needless to say, the intensity of the roaring flames made an impression on Kipling, which caused him to utter the famous description that Medicine Hat had “all Hell for a basement”. Citizens of the town wore this description as a badge of honour. There is even a huge mural in Medicine Hat that depicts Kipling’s visit over a century ago.
Gordie Johnson grew up in the shadow of this mural, and as a citizen of Medicine Hat, was well aware of Kipling’s famous phrase. So, Johnson wrote about it in a song that has become an anthem for working men everywhere, but especially the working men of the Alberta Oil and Gas industry. “All Hell For a Basement” describes the circumstances that many men found themselves in when their resource-based industries collapsed and they no longer had the means to provide for their families.
“I am a working man.
But I ain’t worked for a while.
Like some old tin can
From the bottom of the pile
From the bottom of the pile.
I have lost my way
But I hear tell
Of a Heaven in Alberta
Where they’ve got all Hell for a Basement.”
Not surprisingly, “All Hell For a Basement” resonates well with the types of audiences who go to legion halls and local pubs for a cold beer after a hard day in the hot sun. It isn’t so much a song that celebrates dangerous labour as it is a song that seeks to understand and find worth in those whose journey it depicts. It is a perfect song to be performed in a blues-rock style. While not Big Sugar’s biggest selling hit, “All Hell For a Basement” is certainly their most popular.
At its core, comedy isn’t funny. But it often speaks the truth about our world. In Canada, there is a certain segment of the population who identify themselves as being working class people. These people know how hard they work each day for their pay. They are a brother and sisterhood of labourers whose sweat and blood often serve as the glue that binds our country together. However, the history of labour in this country is one that often places workers at the mercy of forces beyond their control, such as natural disasters born of Climate Change, policy failures such as those seen in the collapse of the cod stocks in Atlantic Canada, or else the motives of those seen as the “elites in their ivory towers” for whom the value of labour and labourers only matters in how it affects a financial balance sheet. For those workers who cut their teeth in the cod fishery, only to have it fail, and now to have these same workers in Alberta hear that the Oil and Gas industry needs phasing out because of Climate Change, well, that seems like an attack on the core of their being. It should come as no surprise that there is such a groundswell of opposition in Alberta to the policies of the Federal Government in Ottawa. Of course, there are those who seek to capitalize on this sentiment for political reasons. But, deep down, in community halls and at county fairs and local legions all across the country, there exists a group of people who define their worth based upon the labour they provide and they feel threatened and disrespected. Thus, when Gordie Johnson sings “All Hell For a Basement”, those same people feel seen. This is how a song becomes an anthem.
The link to the video for the song “All Hell For a Basement” by Big Sugar can be found here. ***Lyrics video can be found here.
The link to the official website for Big Sugar can be found here.
The link to the official website for Medicine Hat, Alberta can be found here.
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