Song­writ­ers share sel­dom-sung Canuck tunes

Cockburn, Light­foot and rocker-turned-MP An­gus sing praises of ob­scure tunes

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - PETER GOD­DARD Peter God­dard is former mu­sic critic for the Star. Spe­cial to the Star

Canada’s 150th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions bring back the defin­ing mu­sic in our his­tory such as Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon Pays,” Bach­man-Turner Over­drive’s “Takin’ Care of Busi­ness” or, of course, the Hockey Night In Canada theme song, writ­ten in 1968 by Dolores Cla­man.

This mu­sic is our com­mon ground. But then there are the unique pieces that sum­mon up our feel­ings about the coun­try. Maybe they never made it on the hit pa­rade or had only a short life be­yond one con­cert hall per­for­mance, but they have a spe­cial some­thing — a melody, lyric or mood — con­nect­ing us with Canada in some deep-rooted way.

We con­tacted a num­ber of the coun­try’s lead­ing mu­si­cians and mu­sic-con­scious non­mu­si­cians to hear about their own pri­vate choices of mu­sic that helped de­fine the coun­try as it de­fined the mu­sic.

You might call it the Fab­u­lous Lit­tle-Known Hit Pa­rade of Great Cana­dian Mu­sic. We start with Bruce Cockburn, Char­lie An­gus and Gor­don Light­foot. BRUCE COCKBURN His pick: “The Black Fly Song,” by Wade Hemsworth

“The sum­mer I was 15, I was work­ing as a pot-washer at Camp Ah­mek on Ca­noe Lake in Al­go­nquin Park. It was my fourth sum­mer there, “says Cockburn. “I had an elec­tric gui­tar. I’d been play­ing for about a year. There was a kid named Jay Some­thing-or-other who had a Martin acous­tic on which he did rudi­men­tary fin­ger­pick­ing. Tum tiddy tum tiddy tum tiddy tum tiddy. He played ‘The Black Fly Song’ with that rhythm. The lyrics res­onated strongly in that Lau­ren­tian Shield rock, wa­ter, jack pine and no-see-um at­mos­phere. The song still res­onates as a per­fect ex­pres­sion of what for me was an ar­che­typal Cana­dian ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Edi­tor’s note: Hemsworth is ar­guably the least pro­lific song­writer in Cana­dian his­tory, with just some 20 songs in over 50 years. Orig­i­nally from Brant­ford, he spent much of his life liv­ing, work­ing and just plain sur­viv­ing in the north.

“The Black Fly Song” says ev­ery­thing about his love/hate re­la­tion­ship with the land he loved best. “I’ll die with the black fly a-pick­ing my bones/ In north On-tar-i-o-io, in north On-tar i-o-i-o.” CHAR­LIE AN­GUS His pick: “Fire in the Mine” by Stompin’ Tom Con­nors

An­gus, now an MP cur­rently bid­ding for the lead­er­ship of the New Demo­cratic Party, has decades of com­mu­nity ac­tivism — and writ­ing mu­sic about it — be­hind him in Toronto and Tim­mins.

A bassist, he co-founded the Clash-in­spired band L’Étranger with An­drew Cash and later helped start Griev­ous An­gels, the punky folk group he still ap­pears with.

“When I was a kid, ‘Fire in the Mine’ was as pop­u­lar on Tim­mins ra­dio as the Bea­tles,” An­gus re­calls. “Stompin’ Tom recorded the sin­gle for lo­cal CKGB ra­dio in the wake of the huge un­der­ground fire at the McIn­tyre gold mine. At the time he was break­ing at­ten­dance records at the Maple Leaf Ho­tel. Tom took the sto­ries told to him by the mine res­cue crews and wrote an an­them of heartache and hero­ism. As a kid that song elec­tri­fied me, not only be­cause my grand­fa­ther worked at the mine, but be­cause it was the only song I had ever heard that spoke about where I was from. It made me feel as if we mat­tered.”

Edi­tor’s note: To­day, Con­nors is an icon of Cana­dian mu­sic but, at the time, he was an out­lier. The pop in­dus­try was openly dis­dain­ful of this singer who wrote about to­bacco pick­ers, nickel min­ers and potato haulers. But a post-punk gen­er­a­tion re­dis­cov­ered Con­nors as the ul­ti­mate in­die grass­roots Cana­dian hero.

(An­gus’s ver­sion of “Fire in the Mine” with Griev­ous An­gels is on YouTube.) GOR­DON LIGHT­FOOT His pick: “Red Vel­vet” by Ian Tyson

Part of his con­cert reper­toire for years, Light­foot fi­nally recorded “Red Vel­vet” in 1998, feel­ing it was a great song that dis­tils Canada’s coun­try/ur­ban di­vide into a lament for a failed ro­mance.

“It’s the kind of song where a guy gets in­volved with a city girl, but won­ders how do you keep a beau­ti­ful woman. It’s about that un­re­quited-love sit­u­a­tion,” Light­foot says.

The Tyson lyric goes: “Should have known I couldn’t hold her, liv­ing out of far from town, and the nights to come were long, slow to go/ Well, if I’d only known be­fore we kissed that you can’t keep red vel­vet on a poor dirt farm like this.”

Edi­tor’s note: Re­leased ini­tially by Ian & Sylvia in 1965, “Red Vel­vet” was cov­ered by Natchez Trace in 1972; Johnny Cash per­formed it over the years.

For Tyson, Light­foot’s de­ci­sion to record “Red Vel­vet” was a form of pay­back. Tyson’s duo with his then­wife Sylvia had recorded his “Early Morn­ing Rain” and “For Lov­ing You” much ear­lier. “He had all those hits in the ‘70s,” Tyson says in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “The Long Trail: My Life in the West,” “and I al­ways felt he should have re­paid the per­sonal debt by do­ing one of my tunes.”


“Red Vel­vet,” by Cana­dian folk/coun­try mu­sic leg­end Ian Tyson, left, is Gor­don Light­foot’s pick.

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