I often tell people who are not enamored with the current climate of country music or those just looking for something different to go back rediscover the Tragically Hip. I say rediscover, but for many below the 49th parallel, the word should be discover.
Today marks the one year anniversary of Gord Downie’s passing where he ultimately succumbed to glioblastoma brain cancer on October 17th, 2017. That was shortly after the Hip’s final concert on August 20th last year in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario which was viewed on broadcast TV and internet by a whopping 11.7 million people. But for so many, especially in Canada but also die hard American fans, Downie and the Hip’s words and music will live on forever.
Many people turn to country for authenticity and storytelling. And while the Hip would probably be considered more of the blues rock genre, there was never a shortage of storytelling or authenticity. That's not to say Downie and the Hip didn't have their share of texturally country licks, because they certainly did as evidenced in songs like “Boots or Hearts,” “Wheat Kings,” and “Fiddler’s Green.”
In fact, there is just so much music to get into from the band’s 14 albums plus Downie’s 6 solo album projects.
That authenticity and storytelling was always present and forefront in songs like “Bobcaygeon,” named after a small town in Ontario in the Kawartha Lakes region. But the beauty of “Bobcaygeon” though, which Downie referred to as a “cop love song” at times, was it really could be about any small town in North America. That sure sounds like country music, right? Even the opening verse of the song mentions “it could have been the Willie Nelson… could have been the wine.” And many suggested that Downie chose Bobcaygeon as the town subject because of how it rhymed and flowed in the chorus with “...I saw the constellations.”
The song “Bobcaygeon” also had an important secondary theme addressing racism and anti-Semitism. In fact, Downie loved to weave themes together and create lyrical mashups. One of the Hip’s genius, yet simple, rock anthems is a pure mashup of ideas in the song “Fifty Mission Cap.”
In “Fifty Mission Cap,” Downie and the band tells the story of legendary Toronto Maple Leafs forward Bill Barilko who scored the game winning goal in overtime to win the Stanley Cup in 1951 and then mysteriously disappeared. After the win, he went on a summer fishing vacation and was never seen again until they found the plane crash remains in 1962. Oddly, the Leafs didn't win the cup again until ‘62 - the year they found Barilko - for the first time since ‘51, before Barilko disappeared. But Downie weaves that info that he “stole this from hockey card, I keep tucked up under my Fifty Mission Cap.” The idea of the Fifty Mission Cap came to Downie when visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum where he would encounter the cap worn by American World War II pilots that completed fifty missions. He wrote of pilots who wanted to live to fly fifty missions and combined that with the story of Barilko who died after the one flight on vacation.
Clearly, the impact of Downie and the Hip were felt largely throughout Canada. Songs like “At The Hundredth Meridian” have become more than just a song title serving as the namesake for Toronto based brewer Mill Street’s amber lager “100th Meridian.” The band won countless awards in Canada including 16 Juno Awards. The Canadian Olympic duo of Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue honored Downie at the skating gala to close out the Pyeongchang Olympics when they skated to the Hip's "Long Time Running."
So why were they not bigger in the States? Some could point to the band’s never ending commitment to be authentically Canadian, but that’s part of why their music was so good and so real. And it’s not to say they didn’t address America in their music, because they often times did with songs like “New Orleans Is Sinking.” Besides, the majority of their music carried themes universal to all of us, all while remaining honest and true to themselves. Their shows were electric and while they would fill theatre size rooms in the US, they sold out arenas in Canada. Their music was played nonstop in hockey team locker rooms. To their fans, they were icons.
But what always struck me more with the Hip and Gord’s music was the melodic flow and wide range of themes. From the somber infectious groove of “Bobcaygeon” to their uptempo rock staples such as “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” and everything in between like the dronic jam “Lake Fever,” the Hip delivered a body of work that is worth exploring and listening at more length. And as good as the music is, the stories behind the songs are just as interesting. So do yourself a favor, go back and (re)discover the Tragically Hip and Gord Downie. Start with their double album collection Yer Favourites and then see where it takes you.
Now, for some of my favorite Hip songs. First, the aforementioned "At The Hundredth Merdian" where the band reference the 100th meridian west line of longitude separating the east from the west and where the Great Plains begin.
In the song "Courage (For Hugh MacLennan), the band interprets the story of Canadian author Hugh MacLennan's book The Watch that Ends the Night.
Below, the Hip performs "Lake Fever" live at the Fillmore in San Francisco back in 2000.
At the same show as above, the Hip performing their anthem "Wheat Kings."