Canada: Home of the beaver

July 1, 2015

It is, once again, Canada Day: the 148th anniversary of Confederation in 1867. We’re definitely on the homestretch to our sesquicentennial in 2017.

As I write this—true to form—it’s raining. So far, it looks like it’s shaping up to be the rainy, drizzly kind of Canada Day rather than the bright warm kind that is punctuated during the day by a brief but heavy downpour. (I’ve never known a July 1 where it didn’t rain in Ottawa at some time.) Either Way, of course, it won’t affect the spirits of the massive block party happening on or near Parliament Hill.

Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was a Canadian poet of English and Mohawk descent. She was born on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario. As an adult she had a profitable stage and literary career; however, as much of her fame rested on her performances, her reputation declined considerably after her death, although in recent years her significance has been re-evaluated.

Today, Johnson’s claim to fame arguably rests on one poem in particular, although in a different form that should be nonetheless recognizable to many Canadians, particularly those who spent time in the Scouting movement. The Canadian folk song, “Land of the Silver Birch” has, after all, been sung in the round by many a Cub, Scout, or Girl Guide around a late-night campfire.

The lyrics are perhaps more romantic than nationalistic, as they idealize living in the wild at harmony with nature. (As Johnson loved canoeing and the outdoors, however, it may betrue to her own experience.) Also, the repeated refrain of “Boom diddy-ah da” tends to rob the lyrics of some of their dignity. Nonetheless, “Land of the Silver Birch” also serves as a gentle reminder that the Canadian notion of two founding peoples—English and French—is really a myth. There were peoples here before us, and all of us are equally Canadians: as another of Pauline Johnson’s verses put it, “one common Brotherhood / In peace and love, with purpose understood.”

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Chris Squire (1948-2015)

June 29, 2015

Chris Squire, longtime bassist for the British progressive rock group Yes, has passed away at the age of 67, six weeks after being diagnosed with acute erythroid leukemia.

Squire’s playing, which had a growling, melodic style, was an essential part of Yes’ sound, as you can hear in their track “Long Distance Runaround” from 1973’s Fragile:

Yes has recorded 21 studio albums since 1969, and over their rather tumultuous history has had about 20 different members and as many different personnel lineups. Squire was the single constant element throughout. With his passing, none of Yes’ founding members remain in the band (longtime guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White joined in 1970 and 1972, respectively).

The music world has lost a major talent. Rest in peace, Mr. Squire.


And now . . . this – Nov. 6/14

November 6, 2014

This one goes out to Phil Rudd.


Canada Day 2014

July 1, 2014

Happy 147th birthday, Canada! We’re definitely on the home stretch to our sesquicentennial celebration (150 years) in 2017. Absolutely true to tradition, this Canada Day is a muggy scorcher, threatening later in the day to break into thunderstorms. (In fact, as I write this, Ottawa is even under a tornado warning.) Fortunately, the buses are free, as I will be heading downtown this evening to view the fireworks with a friend, who has a perfect view from his balcony.

My blog posting has been sporadic in recent years, but unlike many of my more ambitious plans, I have always made sure to post something on Canada Day every year since 2004. My habit—though, after 10 years, I think I’m right in calling it a tradition—has been to showcase a Canadian patriotic song each year.

I discovered Stan Rogers 8 years ago—in fact, it was while researching my Canada Day post for 2006, in which I wrote: “It is said that the best recording [of “Farewell to Nova Scotia”] is that of the late folk singer Stan Rogers, although I have not heard it.” In fact, I still haven’t. Even YouTube (which hardly existed back then) hasn’t managed to come through yet. Now I’m actually skeptical the recording even exists (curse you, Wikipedia!). However, the lack of one particular, fabled recording hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the rest of Rogers’ music over the years.

In his first trip to the North in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to Rogers’ 1981 song “Northwest Passage” as Canada’s unofficial national anthem. The lyrics parallel the search for the fabled Northwest Passage across North America to the Pacific Ocean, with Rogers’ own trip west. Like many Canadian patriotic songs, it makes numerous references to history, mentioning several explorers directly or indirectly:

  • John Davis was a sixteenth-century English navigator, who led several voyages during the reign of Elizabeth I to find the Northwest Passage. Davis Strait, between Greenland and Baffin Island, is named after him.
  • Henry Kelsey (“brave Kelso” in the song) was a seventeenth-century English fur trader and explorer for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was likely the first European to see present-day Saskatchewan.
  • Alexander Mackenzie was a Scottish explorer, the first man to cross North America to the Pacific north of Mexico, in 1790. The Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories is named after him: he travelled to its mouth hoping it would lead to the Pacific, but named the river “Disappointment” when it opened into the Arctic Ocean.
  • David Thompson, who worked as a fur trader and surveyor for both the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies, mapped nearly four million square kilometers of the North American west: one-fifth of the continent.
  • The Fraser River is named after Simon Fraser, the Scottish fur trader who charted much of present-day British Columbia, and in 1808 explored the Fraser River from Prince George to its mouth.
  • Sir John Franklin sailed on four Arctic exploration expeditions. The final one was to travel the theretofore unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. Both ships and all hands of the expedition were lost in 1845 when they became icebound in the Arctic near King William Island.

Stan Rogers died at the age of 33 on June 2, 1983, when a fire aboard Air Canada Flight 797 forced an emergency landing at Cincinnati Greater Airport. Seconds after landing, a flash fire killed Rogers and 22 passengers who had not yet had time to evacuate the plane. His legacy is a small library of wonderful recordings, and a deep influence on Canadian music.

Happy birthday, Canada.

Previous Canada Day songs:


Canada Day 2013: “sing God save the land we love the best”

July 1, 2013

For the tenth time in this blog’s history: Happy Canada Day!

Today is the 146th anniversary of Confederation, and, as usual, Canadians temporarily cast off their restraint and display unbridled patriotism. This is, of course, most evident here in the nation’s capital, where the streets surrounding Parliament Hill become one very crowded block party for the day, culminating in a stage show and the annual 10 pm fireworks. The first Canada Day I attended, back in 1995, featured performances by Burton Cummings and Spirit of the West. This year, though, it’s Carly Rae Jepsen and literally no one else I’ve ever heard of, so I think I’ll skip the stage show (though I do have an invitation to see the fireworks from a well-situated downtown balcony).

This is also the 140th anniversary of Prince Edward Island, which joined Confederation on July 1, 1873—the eighth province or territory to do so. In honour of the anniversary, I devote this year’s customary patriotic song to PEI’s provincial hymn: “The Island Hymn.”

This song dates back to 1908. The lyrics were written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, best known of course as the author of Anne of Green Gables, that quintessential Canadian redheaded orphan:

Fair Island of the sea,

We raise our song to thee,

The bright and blest;

Loyally now we stand

As brothers, hand in hand,

And sing God save the land

We love the best.

Upon our princely Isle

May kindest fortune smile

In coming years;

Peace and prosperity

In all her borders be,

From every evil free,

And weakling fears.

Prince Edward Isle, to thee

Our hearts shall faithful be

Where’er we dwell;

Forever may we stand

As brothers, hand in hand,

And sing God save the land

We love so well.

The music was composed by Lawrence Watson specifically for this hymn. I’ve heard one recording of “The Island Hymn,” and in my opinion, the lyrics deserve better. In fact, when I first read the lyrics, I mentally matched them to “Olivet,” the Lowell Mason tune to which “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” is usually sung. “The Island Hymn” was officially declared as PEI’s provincial hymn in 2010.

2013 is also a sadder milestone, as it marks the passing of Stompin’ Tom Connors at the ripe old age of 77 in March. Connors was a Canadian patriot, with many of his best-known songs referencing Canadian culture, history, or folklore. Appropriately for today, his first single, and arguably his best-known, was “Bud the Spud,” a lighthearted ballad about a PEI potato trucker who raises the ire of the police.

This being my 10th Canada Day blog post, I thought it only fitting to go out with a twofer. Happy July 1, everyone.

Previous Canada Day songs:


Storm Thorgerson (1944-2013)

April 18, 2013

Last month was the 40th anniversary of the classic Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon. Today, Storm Thorgerson, the key figure of the graphic arts group Hipgnosis and the designer of Dark Side‘s iconic album cover, died at the ripe old age of 69.

Thorgerson was the designer of the majority of Pink Floyd’s covers, but also designed the artwork for albums by Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Dream Theater, the Cult, and many others. Doing a quick count down the list in Wikipedia’s entry on Thorgerson, I counted 19 albums that I owned featuring his artwork.

Thorgerson’s designs were more than just something to make an album look attractive in the record store. They were an integral part of the experience. As often as not I would have the album in my lap as I listened.

Of course, with the shift from LPs to CDs and now downloadable music, the graphics have arguably become redundant. I wonder whether we will see the likes of another Storm Thorgerson again.


Shine on you crazy diamond

March 24, 2013

With all the posting I’ve been doing this year about the 30th anniversary of all the pop music released in 1983, I actually came close to forgetting that there are other musical milestones that I wanted to highlight as well. Fortunately, Google Calendar has reminders for that, and a couple days ago, one of them popped up to remind me:

March 24, 1973—40 years ago today—one of the most groundbreaking, influential, and best-selling rock albums of all time was released: Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.

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