For decades, Canada has been invisible to both itself and others within the music industry. We’re talking about the country that didn’t get around to choosing an official national anthem until 1980; 113 years after Confederation. “Many Canadians see this dilemma as unique to their country, caught between their colonial mother and their bullying big brother to the south” (p. 7) At the time that Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip released their debut EP in 1987, Canada was barely an imaginary presence in popular song. Through reading The Never-Ending Present by Michael Barclay, we can see that the prominent Canadian values in Gord Downie’s music and his willingness to stay true to his Canadian Identity allowed him to sing Canada into existence.
The raw, no-frills sound of The Tragically Hip stood apart from typical music of the time. However, it was Downie’s lyrics that truly set them apart. “His words wove tapestries of imagery, with narratives that blurred the lines between personal, historical, and fantasy.” (p. 24) To him, every syllable was important. The Hip released three albums between 1989 and 1992 which became three of only 25 Canadian records to sell more than a million copies domestically. Their most popular album, Fully Completely, was also the album in which Gord Downie’s writing was most explicitly Canadian. His lyrics reference the constitutional referendum, the federal election, Quebec separatism, the Oka Crisis and even the end of the Cold War.
As soon as he started performing with the Tragically Hip, Downie’s Canadian identity was branded on a national level. His subject matter was always broader than he was given credit for. In reality, his American and international references outnumber Canadian ones, but it’s “easier for people to latch onto songs about hockey and “a late breaking story on CBC”” (p. 9). These things provide signposts that can tweak interest in local geography, history and culture and sing a country into existence – especially a country rendered invisible when most of its cultural icons are willingly absorbed into the United States. It wasn’t that Downie elevated Canadian geography and mythology to the level of mystical; it’s that almost no one else did.
Interestingly, the hip were reluctant rock stars, suspicious of celebrity. The entire band valued their privacy, Downie especially. This humility, typically Canadian, is believed to have allowed Downie to write the unadulterated truth. He was not tightly choreographed like Michael Jackson or Madonna, nor was he a strutting peacock like Mick Jagger or Freddie Mercury. Rather, Downie’s appeal as a performer was like the band’s music, enigmatic. It’s something that seems unlikely to work, but it does. “Maybe that’s a Canadian thing. Maybe it’s just the mark of intangible singularity.” (p. 55)
In 2015, Gord Downie suffered from a seizure. An MRI revealed glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer. It was on his left temporal lobe, affecting short-term memory and speech. At the same time, Downie announced his own project called Secret Path, an album that features the story of a young indigenous boy named Chanie Wenjack who passed away while trying to escape from a residential school. Downie wanted to “channel the nation’s sympathy for a rich white privileged rock star and redirect it towards the greatest victims of the Canadian experiment” (p. 476). Downie had touched on many political issues in songs over his career. The wrongfully convicted in “Wheat Kings”, Bilingualism in “Born in the Water”, Environmentalism in “Titanic Terrarium”. But this album was much more intense. Through Secret Path Downie discarded the poetic imagery he had become known for and simply told the truth: his country was guilty of an original sin, that the smug “angel complex” was a lie, that there were evil and corrupt pieces of our past that we’d been trained to ignore. Perhaps this was due to the parallel of Chanie’s tragedy with his own.
Gord Edgar Downie died at 9:15 pm on Tuesday October 17. That day, the flag on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill flew at half-mast. There was a moment of silence in the House of Commons. The carillon bells of Parliament played ‘Bobcaygeon.” Prime Minister Trudeau shed genuine tears during a brief media scrum. Downie will forever be remembered as a kind and talented man who represented his country proudly within an industry that largely ignored Canadian cultures and values. He never allowed his patriotic fans to stop him from writing about the real social and political issues within Canada. To conclude, I’ll leave you with this quote from Downie following the release of Secret Path:
“This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were. […] I have always wondered why, even as a kid, I never thought of Canada as a country… I never wrote of it as so. The next hundred years are going to be painful […] as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – but only when we do can we truly call ourselves ‘Canada’”. (p. 501)