On Tuesday, Gord Downie died at 53. He was the singer, lyricist, and front man of Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip. A little over a year ago, knowing of his incurable brain cancer, more than 11.7 million people (including myself) watched The Hip’s final concert televised on CBC from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. It was an energetic show covering their classic songs and leaving fans with a bittersweet memory. We will still get to hear some new music from Downie, though, as he has a solo album, Introduce Yerself, due to be released on October 27.
A short time after the final Hip concert, Downie released a project he had been working on and was passionate about. He had written ten poems that became a Juno-award-winning album of songs, with illustrations by Jeff Lemire that became a graphic novel, and it was also turned into an animated film on CBC, all available here. Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Aboriginal boy who in 1966 ran away from the residential school he was placed in and began walking home. Unfortunately, his home was 400 miles away and, in the end, Chanie didn’t make it. Downie wanted to be a part of bringing stories like this to light, to help change the way Canadians see their history.
Residential schools were established by the Canadian government and run by the churches (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and United). In 1883 with the establishment of the first three residential schools, Public Works Minister Hector Langevin stated that, “In order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that.” (Article in Ottawa Citizen) Sounds like a long time ago, but unbelievably, the last residential school in Canada wasn’t shut down until 1996!
The Tragically Hip is one of those bands that every Canadian knows. Downie’s unique voice sang his poetic lyrics in rock songs and bits of Canadiana. Here are just a few of my favourites:
I have great memories of the town this favourite song is set in, memories of bunch of teenagers at a weekend party on a houseboat who seemed to “terrorize” the town with our very presence as we walked along the sidewalk! Downie was a man of unusual rhymes. He chose to sing about this small Ontario town because the name fit the line:
It was in Bobcaygeon
I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves one star at a time
All of us in Canada of a certain age remember Paul Henderson’s goal for Canada against the Soviet Union in the final game of the 1972 Summit Series. With just seconds to go, this goal won the hockey game and the series sparking some serious Canadian pride. The series was such a big deal, that they brought TV sets into all the classrooms in my school so that none of us would miss it!
If there’s a goal that everyone remembers,
It was back in ol’ 72
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember is sitting beside you
Boots or Hearts:
Not about Canada, but a cool acoustic song that brings back good memories of my husband and I singing along to this in the very early days of our marriage. I liked the beat and the turns of phrase as Downie sang about leaving himself on her answering machine and realizing there might be a problem… “Like boots or hearts, oh when they start, they really fall apart.”
There are a lot of great songs and great memories that came from Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip over their more than 30-year history. The Hip will be an integral part of my soundtrack for a good long while.