Tuesday, February 28, 2006
late breaking story on the CBC

One Song: Perfect Songs for an Imperfect World Nation

download: The Tragically Hip - Wheat Kings

After a recent Stylus article posited that the Tragically Hip's mass appeal on this side of the 49th may be largely due to the fact that they are quintissentially Canadian, I had a debate with a friend of mine on the very subject. She countered that their popularity here might be due, in large part, to the fact that they never caught on South of the border. There's certainly something to that argument. Canucks are apt to distance ourselves from our American brethren in any way that we can. However, there is a significant part of the Hip's catalogue that, in all likelihood, will resonate with the kid from Kingston (Churchill, Prince George, Amherst, etc) more than it will with someone born and raised in Houston or Chicago. "You said you didn't give a fuck about hockey, well I've never heard someone say that before," is a line that probably comes off as some sort of ironic joke in Kentucky. Similar tales of of on-ice legend, historical references, and distinctly Canadian cultural and political themes seep their way into much of Gord Downie's brilliant, often dense, lyricism, producing songs that, for lack of a better phrase, hit close to home for those brought up in the true North, strong and free. "Wheat Kings" is one of those songs.

David Milgaard's wrongful conviction, and his ensuing fight to clear his name, is a drama that is engrained in this Nation's consciousness. And, as with Dylan's chronicling of Hurricane Carter's struggle for justice, "Wheat Kings" creates a snapshot, not only of events, but of how the events fit into the socio-political landscape. There is, however, much more to the song than the history, as Downie's retelling weaves its way around imagery that conjures up, quite fittingly, both the hope and hopelessness that pervades through the expanse of the Prairies. At the same time, whether it be Saskatoon or Toronto (or any place East, West, or in between), "Wheat Kings" is one of those rare tunes that manages to strike an even rarer chord, hitting on the very fragile pan-Canadian sense of identity that, quite infrequently, shows itself. Perhaps I'm at the tail end of the last generation who can relate to walls "lined all yellow, grey, and sinister, hung with pictures of our parents Prime Minister." But, the phrasing still evokes memories of mine: doddling through underfunded public elementary school buildings, looking up at Turner, Diefenbaker, Trudeau, at the time just anonymous old men to me. More than anything, Downie's lyrics create in the listener, the feeling of so many parts that add up to become the natural whole of a typical Canadian upbringing. Those lyrics, however, have always been underpinned by the Hip's collective, very underrated, musicianship.

Without the band, Gord would still be quite the poet. But, if it's his words that draw the picture, it's the instrumentation that fills in the colour. A couple of acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and a subdued recording culled from the prairie wilderness, "Wheat Kings" is remarkable, not for what it does, but what it doesn't do. There is nothing showy. The solo and leadlines are tasteful, adding to, but never overshadowing the whole. The entire peice is so politely restrained. How very Canadian.

now playing: The Tragically Hip - Wheat Kings

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This is a great post. Well done.

By Anonymous vanmega, at 4:30 p.m.  

I'm not much of a Hip fan, but that was an extremely well written post. So good in fact, that I downloaded the song.

By Anonymous Sean, at 6:02 p.m.  

thanks guys.

By Blogger Quinn, at 9:23 p.m.  

I think one of the harder to espouse virtues of the Hip is the Canadian-esque nobility of being content being very, very good at what you do and not giving a shit that you're irrelevant and unappealing to a potential audience 10x the size of Canada.

By Anonymous g, at 3:44 p.m.  

Why is that hard to espouse? O_o

Where's the joy in appealing to the lowest common denominator? If you can make a living doing what you love to do, I don't think there's a lot to complain about...


By Blogger minx, at 4:32 p.m.  

it's not so much appealing to the lcd, there's plenty of bands that appeal to both canadians and americans but I think the reason the Hip appeal to Canadians is that they choose to appeal to Canadians. They make a living doing it but perhaps could have made a living more like Avril Lavigne by choosing to appear more North American than Canadian.

It's hard to espouse because it took me a few minutes of thinking to espouse it...

By Anonymous g, at 3:53 p.m.  

Excellent post, Quinn...I've never been a fan of The Hip, but for some reason this one song always gets to me.

By Anonymous matthew, at 6:31 p.m.  

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writing by Quinn
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