Songwriters share seldom-sung Canuck tunes
Cockburn, Lightfoot and rocker-turned-MP Angus sing praises of obscure tunes
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.