Note: The following is in response to “The Music Never Dies” by David Olinger, a blog post that explores the impact of The Tragically Hip’s music on Canada.
Although the Tragically Hip will no longer tour or perform following the death of frontman Gord Downie, the power of the band’s music, combined with the brilliance and poignancy of Downie’s lyrics will never be snuffed out. I cannot—and will not—dispute Downie’s brilliance as a poet, lyricist and wordsmith. To call him Canada’s chronicler is certainly not stretching the truth whatsoever.
Another Canadian who, in my opinion, was equally brilliant and never really given his full due is the late John Mann, front man for Spirit of the West (SOTW). If you delve into SOTW’s lyrics, there are criticisms of mining companies’ exploiting workers in the name of profits (“Mum’s the Word“) or turning renters out onto the streets during Expo 86, all in the name, again, of turning profits (“Profiteers“). Mann even wrote about Paul Rubens’ pornography arrest (“Bone of Contention”), penning verses of clever wordplay and puns about Pee Wee Herman.
He pulled and pulled
till someone pushed him
and he fell on the front page of America
It’s the bone of contention
that has all our attention
They’re going to burn the Playhouse down
In “The Music Never Dies”, Olinger makes a valid point about music’s being timeless. What Canada felt about Downie’s passing I felt upon the passing of Pete Seeger. I knew Pete Seeger long before I knew—and fully appreciated—Pete Seeger.
I, like many children around my age, learned of Seeger through my parents, who came of age at the pinnacle of Seeger’s career. My first introduction came in the form of a Sesame Street album on which he was featured, along with Brother Kirk.
Then came “This Land is Your Land” and, over the years, several songs I could sing from memory but never attributed to Seeger (or the Weavers, Woody Guthrie or the Almanac Singers) until much, much later. I became determined to learn all I could about Seeger’s activism, his political views, his being blacklisted and so on. It provides so much more insight when taken in the context of the times. He really did shape, at least in my opinion, the thoughts and views of a generation. And so much of what he wrote of, still holds true. Why else would people still unite in resounding call and response choruses of Seeger’s songs-cum-anthems?
Although Seeger was of a generation before, I felt something rip from me when I learned of his passing. Maybe as visceral as what people felt upon Downie’s passing. Perhaps my parents felt something similar when the icons of their generation died, to be immortalized some years later. As Olinger writes
In his 1971 song American Pie, Don McLean is said to be drawing reference to hearing of the untimely deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson with the words … the Day the Music Died.
It’s not for me to speculate or make false equivalences, but I do submit that lyrics—as much as music—play an unequivocal role in chronicling the zeitgeist of a particular era.