Hip and History: Canada's Band Exhibit
  Hip and History: Canada's Band Exhibit
Museum Entrance

Lyrics &
Backing Vocals

Search by Song

Search by Reference

Song Info

Exhibit Hall

Hip and History: Canada's Band It is the summer of 2002, I am 22 years old and I couldn’t be more downtown Chicago. The House of Blues is feet from the city’s famed canals, just six blocks from the Billy Goat Tavern and literally in the shadow of the iconic Wrigley Building. It is getting late and it is getting hot. There are 1200 people squeezed in tight amidst three tiers of undulating balconies. There are rumours that one of Chicago’s favourite sons, Dan Aykroyd of Ottawa, is in the building among us. We are waiting for a band to take the stage. We are sweaty, we are becoming impatient and I decide it is time for collective karaoke.

From my spot below the stage, the front row standing position I claimed two hours before, I turn back towards the throng behind me. I begin to sing. I begin to sing loudly. By the time I am eight-words deep into the lyrics, the wave of Chi-Town heat is singing with me. Downtown Chicago is absolutely emoting the Canadian national anthem, word for word. I knew they would. We are not singing because we have to, the way school children drone their obedience. We are singing the way men of my age sing O Canada before the national team plays an important hockey game. More accurately, we are singing in the fashion of those who’ve just witnessed the national team win an important hockey game. We are full-throated, full-throttled and shouting it from the housetops.

By the time the sing-along reaches its penultimate crescendo of “stand on guard for thee,” the screaming, stomping and clapping has the speakeasy on North Dearborn actually shaking. It may as well be the Regent in Picton or the Misty Moon in Halifax. We are a strong diaspora of Canadians who have ventured south to plant the Maple Leaf on American soil. We are in hot pursuit of our favourite band, The Tragically Hip. The lights dim, the drums pulse and the horde erupts at the first sight of Gord Downie. Now, and for the next two hours, a true word for word sing-along will reveal itself one lyric at a time.

The title of “Canada’s Band” is debatable. Many musical acts reference our demurring Dominion in song. Our nation has produced an incredible array of musical talent across genres as diverse and dispersed as the nation itself. Yet, none have so harmonized the Canadian identity as The Tragically Hip. Founded in Kingston, Ontario during the height of the New Wave 1980’s, The Hip, like early Canada itself, eschewed populism and instead borrowed from the more enduring British or American ideals. The blues and rock influences of the band were the Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding and Muddy Waters. The band established themselves by travelling the country. Rocking the country. The goal was to play blistering sets, and so many of them, so as to leave no doubt about which band was greatest in the land.

The immense musical talent of Gord Sinclair, Rob Baker, Johnny Fay and Paul Langlois, all led by the apoplectic charisma of Gord Downie, allowed The Tragically Hip to do something incredibly difficult in Canadian music: stand out and be noticed. Yet, only after a few years of sustained radio play and consistent crowds was the bands true inviolate light made clear; they were not only of Canada: The Tragically Hip were about Canada.

Whereas Neil Young emerged singing about Ohio and Robbie Robertson’s The Band romanticized the American south, The Tragically Hip would reflect Canada back to Canadians. Instead of lyrics about Presidents or misfits on the Mississippi, we heard songs on the radio about Prime Ministers and explorers of the St. Lawrence. As a teenager discovering his identity in the 1990’s, growing up in a nation often pre-occupied with doing the same, hearing Canada come through my radio was a refreshing beat beyond the usual.

These impressions of our fisherman’s paradise –a term Downie used to describe us– came quickly and irreverently within various Hip songs. My friends and I noticed. Authors Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider put it perfectly in their 2001 book Have Not Been The Same: The CanRock Renaissance: "The Canadiana references became guide posts into a song's depths, the resulting marriage of language and music became an invigorating experience that had never been so directly aimed at young Canadians."

Invigorating it was. By the time I stood with my chest against that stage in Chicago, The Tragically Hip had awakened me to many aspects of Canadian history and culture I may not have otherwise known. Any contemporary Canadian knows that it is hard to find what Glenn Gould called “the idea of north” in our pop culture. Like so many of my generation, I was raised on American television, movies and music. My first exposures to Tom Thomson, Hugh MacLennan and Bill Barilko were all via The Hip. The songs Three Pistols, Courage and Fifty Mission Cap contain an intriguing depth. They are but only three of the many Hip songs full of terms and references asking to be further examined.

In the pre-Google era, discovering why someone or some place was mentioned in a song meant allowing Gord Downie’s voice to lead me towards actual books, significant literature and powerful poetry. Believe it or not, I was learning things from the music and I wanted to learn more. It wasn’t just Canadian information either. I sought out works by William Shakespeare, Raymond Carver, Wallace Stevens and Francois Truffaut all because they were mentioned in the songs of The Tragically Hip. However, it was the Canadian content in their art which served as most effective siren. It drew me in. I felt compelled to learn more about where we were from, The Hip and I. It was easy to do. When Peter Mansbridge called the band “the musical chroniclers of our time,” I knew exactly what he meant.

Since 1987, The Tragically Hip have released 15 studio albums. On those records, there are 291 references to people, places, things and historic events. Some Canadian highlights are listed here for your further listening and exploring pleasure:

Canadian People

Barilko, Bill
"Fifty Mission Cap" Fully Completely (1992)

Canadian Prime Ministers
"Wheat Kings" Fully Completely (1992)

Cartier, Jacques (French, but linked to Canada obviously)
"Looking For A Place To Happen" Fully Completely (1992)

Cormier, Dottie
"All Tore Up" In Violet Light (2002)

Daredevils of Niagara Falls
"Daredevil" Day For Night (1994)

Frye, Northrope
"Luv(sic)" World Container (2006)

Gillespie, Charles
"Fiddlers Green" Road Apples (1991)

MacLennan, Hugh
"Courage" Fully Completely (1992)

Medicine Men - Aboriginal healers
"Opiated" Up To Here (1989)

The Men They Couldn't Hang (Toronto band circa 1990)
"Bobcaygeon" Phantom Power (1998)

Milgaard, David
"Wheat Kings" Fully Completely (1992)

Mitchell, Joni
"All Tore Up" In Violet Light (2002)

North American Aboriginals
"Looking For A Place To Happen" Fully Completely (1992)

O'Meara, David
"Leave" In Violet Light (2002)

Orr, Bobby
"Fireworks" Phantom Power (1998)

Royal Canadian Mounted Police
"38 Years Old" Up To Here (1989)

Snyder, Dan
"Heaven Is A Better Place Today" In Between Evolution (2004)

Thomson, Tom
"Three Pistols" Road Apples (1991)

The Toronto Maple Leafs
"Fifty Mission Cap" Fully Completely (1992)

Trudeau, Pierre Elliott
"An Inch An Hour" Day For Night (1994)

Wheat Kings
"Wheat Kings" Fully Completely (1992)

World War II mariners
"Nautical Disaster" Day For Night (1994)

World War II pilots
"Fifty Mission Cap" Fully Completely (1992)

Canadian Places

Algonquin Park, Ontario
"The Bear" Music@Work (2000)

Athabaska River, Alberta
"The Depression Suite" We Are The Same (2009)

Attawapiskat, Ontario
"Goodnight Attawapiskat" Now For Plan A (2012)

Bobcaygeon, Ontario
"Bobcaygeon" Phantom Power (1998)

Calgary, Alberta
"Take Forever" Now For Plan A (2012)

"Last Night I Dreamed You Didn't Love Me" World Container (2006)

Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador
"Silver Jet" In Violet Light (2002)

Cemetery Sideroad, Kingston, Ontario
"Cemetery Sideroad" The Tragically Hip (1987)

Churchill, Manitoba
"Thompson Girl" Phantom Power (1998)

Clayquot Sound, British Columbia
"Silver Jet" In Violet Light (2002)

Etobicoke, Ontario
"Ultra Mundane" IVL Bonus Track (2002)

Golden Rim Motor Inn, Golden, British Columbia
"The Luxury" Road Apples (1991)

Hazeldean Road, Ottawa, Ontario
"Greasy Jungle" Day For Night (1994)

Highway #401, Ontario
"Titanic Terrarium" Day For Night (1994)

Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, Ontario
"Bobcaygeon" Phantom Power (1998)

The One Hundredth Meridian
"At The Hundredth Meridian" Fully Completely (1992)

Isle Aux Morts, Newfoundland and Labrador
"The Dire Wolf" In Violet Light (2002)

Lake Memphremagog, Quebec
"Problem Bears" In Violet Light (2002)

Millhaven Maximum Security Prison, Millhaven, Ontario
"38 Years Old" Up To Here (1989)

Mistaken Point, Newfoundland and Labrador
"Fly" (2006)

Montreal, Quebec
"Montreal" Unreleased Road Apples track (1991)

Moonbeam, Ontario
"Fly" World Container (2006)

New Caledonia, British Columbia
"Are We Family" In Between Evolution (2004)

Niagara Falls, Ontario
"Daredevil" Day For Night (1994)

Paris of the Prairies, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
"Wheat Kings" Fully Completely (1992)

Regent Theatre, Picton, Ontario
"All Canadian Surf Club" The Tragically Hip (1987)

Rideau Canal, Ontario
"Skeleton Park" We Are The Same (2009)

Sarnia, Ontario
"In Sarnia" Man Machine Poem (2016)

Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
"Born In The Water" Road Apples (1991)

Skeleton Park, Kingston, Ontario
"Skeleton Park" We Are The Same (2009)

Speed River, Guelph, Ontario
"Speed River" We Are The Same (2009)

Springside Park, Napanee, Ontario
"An Inch An Hour" Day For Night (1994)

Thompson, Manitoba
"Thompson Girl" Phantom Power (1998)

Toronto, Ontario
"Queen of the Furrows" We Are The Same (2009)

Canadian Things or Historical Events.

1972 Canada vs. USSR Summit on Ice
"Fireworks" Phantom Power (1998)

"A Whale For The Killing" by Farley Mowat
"Scared" Day For Night (1994)

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
"Wheat Kings" Fully Completely (1992)

Cholera epidemic of 1832
"Lake Fever" Music@Work (2000)

Christie Pits riot
"Bobcaygeon" Phantom Power (1998)

Cold War
"Fireworks" Phantom Power (1998)

Corduroy Roads
"At The Hundredth Meridian" Fully Completely (1992)

The Crown
"Trickle Down" Up To Here (1989)

"Don't Forget" by Martha Wainwright
"World Container" World Container (2006)

Fifty Mission Caps
"Fifty Mission Cap" Fully Completely (1992)

"The Luxury" Road Apples (1991)

Free Trade Agreement/North American Free Trade Agreement
"New Orleans Is Sinking" Up To Here (1989)

Gwen Jacobs court decision, Ontario
"Poets" Phantom Power (1998)

Heritage Minutes
"Freak Turbulence" Music@Work (2000)

Ice storm of 1998
"Something On" Phantom Power (1998)

"It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken" by Seth
"It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken" In Violet Light (2002)

Language Laws in Ontario (in response to the Meech Lake Accord)
"Born In The Water" Road Apples (1991)

"Lost in the Barrens" by Farley Mowat
"The Depression Suite" We Are The Same (2009)

"Love Tara" by Eric's Trip
"Put It Off" Trouble At The Henhouse (1996)

Montreal Massacre
"Montreal" Unreleased (1991)

“O Canada” by Calixa Lavallée
"Country Day" We Are The Same (2009)

Pro Set Hockey Cards
"Fifty Mission Cap" Fully Completely (1992)

Caribou quarter dollar
"Long Time Running" Road Apples (1991)

Remembrance Day
"Three Pistols" Road Apples (1991)

Residential schools apology
"Now The Struggle Has A Name" We Are The Same (2009)

"The Spirit of the Haida Gwaii" by Bill Reid
"The Last Recluse" We Are The Same (2009)

The Stanley Cup
"Fifty Mission Cap" Fully Completely (1992)

‘Toonie’ Two Dollar Coin
"Heaven Is A Better Place Today" In Between Evolution (2004)

"The Watch That Ends The Night" by Hugh MacLennan
"Courage" Fully Completely (1992)

With so much of Canada mentioned, mourned or celebrated in song, it is easy to see why such a connection formed between furtive musicians and fellow citizens. Historians could find intrigue in the Lake Ontario cholera epidemic of 1834 (Lake Fever, 2000) or the East Coast mining disasters of the mid Twentieth Century (Fire in the Hole, 1994). Sports fans recognized Bobby Orr (Fireworks, 1998) and Dan Snyder (Heaven Is A Better Place Today, 2004) while also reveling in the myth and mystery of Bill Barilko (Fifty Mission Cap, 1992). On a single album (In Violet Light, 2002) Poet David O’Meara metaphysically mingles with musician Joni Mitchell near the Lake Memphramagog summer home of author Mordecai Richler. Just give it a few years and literary critic Northrup Frye (World Container, 2006) could join them to debate the extraction of oil near the Athabaska River (We Are The Same, 2009).

Canada, its history and culture, are presented without gloss. The whole country is portrayed, fully and completely and often in view of a critical eye. For all the flag waving (and admittedly, anthem singing) which attaches itself to live performances by The Tragically Hip, the band has actually distanced itself from negative nationalism. The idea that “we” in Canada are better than “them” (anywhere else, but really: the United States) is not something the band encourages, in fact, it’s just the opposite. Before a raucous 1992 Canada Day crowd in British Columbia, Downie introduced himself proudly. “I am Maurice Duplessis!” he growled. It was hard to tell if anybody grasped that particular reference. In 1996, Downie explained his position to Charles Foran of Saturday Night magazine. “I was watching as nationalism began to metamorphose into something creepy and affiliated,” Gord said. “Too much ill will was being generated by nationalistic feelings. I had to bail out." The Hip’s front man sardonically told a later July 1st crowd that Canada Day was “a tool of oppression the man uses to keep us down." Downie seems content to stay away from fist-pumping Canadian clichés. The band does not bluntly write hockey or prairie songs for the simple sake of their Canadianess. The Hip acknowledge such aspects of the Canadian fact using historical reference and allusion. These winks to Canadian culture are found within songs that often carry a deeper message, or many messages intertwined.

These songs touch on events and individuals who represent both the positive and negative marks on our history. The wrongful conviction of David Milgaard is explored in 1992’s Wheat Kings, a song Milgaard himself told the band sounded appropriately “hurtin.” The 1933 race riot at Toronto’s Christie Pits park is referenced in 1998’s Bobcaygeon. Canada’s greatest shame, the inequitable status and overt apathy shown our Aboriginal peoples is central to 1992’s Looking For A Place To Happen, 2009’s Now The Struggle Has A Name and 2012’s Goodnight Attawapiskat.

Yet it was the musical Canadian myth making which cemented The Hip as Canada’s Band. If they didn’t invent that process, if Gordon Lightfoot preceded them in harmonious Canuck hagiography, then Gordon Downie and company perfected it.

1991’s Three Pistols proved the tipping point. During a live performance of the song in the spring of ‘91, Downie introduced the number with “here’s one of many Canadian myths, that like many Canadian myths, just happens to be true.” It tells the story of love and loss and mixes in some Edwardian imagery of Algonquin Park. However, it’s the Tom Thomson reference that endears the Canadian listener to the song:

Tom Thomson came paddling past/I'm pretty sure it was him
And he spoke so softly in accordance/With the growing of the dim
He said, "Bring on the brand new renaissance/Cause I think I'm ready
I've been shaking all night long/But my hands are steady."

These lyrics graced the wall of the National Gallery of Canada during their 2002 retrospective on Thomson. They tell the tale of the popular Thomson ghost story, the one pertaining to eyewitness accounts of the artist’s spirit forever canoeing the lake where he died. The song then poeticizes an actual anecdote Mark Robinson explained to author William T. Little in 1970’s The Tom Thomson Mystery. Thomson was legendary for wanting to capture an entire natural event in one image. He would become anxious; even physically twitch if he felt he was missing something he should be painting. Robinson recalled such an incident. As he was speaking to Tom, he began to notice that the artist was fidgeting and peering over his shoulder. Robinson could see, through a window opposite, that a winter storm was commencing. Thomson, still feigning interest in their conversation, began to nervously tap his fingers on the table before finally interrupting the one sided conversation and explaining to Robinson that he just had to paint what he was seeing. He went out into the cold and painted the storm. That graceful, even elegiac image of Thomson, creating art amidst his elements, is the landscape that emerges every time I hear Three Pistols.

1992’s Courage: For Hugh Maclennan continued the task of highlighting great Canadian artists to a generation wholly unaware of their work. The song, often misinterpreted through its power chords, actually comes from a darker place in Downie’s song writing repertoire. It is about the low point in author Hugh Maclennan’s life, the late 1950’s period where amidst depression and anxiety he wrote The Watch That Ends The Night and contemplated suicide. Downie explained to the Have Not Been The Same authors that he was reading The Watch as the band toured to support their Road Apples effort.

Courage, my word, it didn’t come it doesn’t matter
Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time

These lyrics read like a personal nod of thanks from all those influenced and inspired by Maclennan, who in 1957, was still yet to produce one of his seminal works. The so called “courage,” Downie’s word, required to take ones own life never came, and we’re all better for it. The lyric represents genuine appreciation for a life, sometimes in painful progress, that was allowed to continue, overcome, and produce lasting art.

The songs most poignant and earnest lyrics are lifted straight from page 274 of The Watch. Every Hip fan knows them by heart. When the song is played live, as it was that night in Chicago, the band eases into estinto. Gord Downie draws from the genius of Hugh Maclennan and the crowd sings along.

There's no simple explanation
for anything important any of us do
and yea the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
under pressure, under pressure.

The stereotypes that surround rock musicians and their fans fall away during that affecting moment in Courage. It’s a collective, for some unknowing, moment of recognition for an author whose words still ring true for a generation that can only know the anxieties and questions of the post modern world. Courage may have earned Hugh Maclennan some small measure of additional fame, but more than likely: it brought new eyes to a national treasure.

For all of the art, creation and contemplation in Three Pistols and Courage, the bands best-known and beloved tribute is saved for a hockey player. 200 years from now, when hockey rinks are floating up beyond the flight paths, in the only space cold enough to keep ice, 1992’s Fifty Mission Cap will be serenading power skaters with the tale of Bill Barilko. Perhaps it is the bands most famous anthem because it is their most direct. Despite the interwoven titular reference to a Second World War aviators cap, the song plainly tells the story, revealing more and more detail in the backing vocals, of how the tough guy from Timmons, Ontario scored the biggest and last goal of his life:

Bill Barilko disappeared that summer
he was on a fishing trip
The last goal he ever scored
won the Leafs the cup
They didn't win another til Nineteen Sixty Two
the year he was discovered
I stole this from a hockey card
I keep tucked up under
My Fifty Mission Cap

It’s all true and it actually was chronicled on the back of a 1991 Pro Set hockey card. Barilko scored in overtime, against Montreal Canadiens goalie Gerry McNeil. Later that summer, while flying to a fishing hole near Cochrane, Ontario, the 24 year old Barilko perished in a crash. His body could not be immediately located in the dense northern Ontario brush.

After his disappearance in death, his world champion Toronto Maple Leafs experienced an eleven year losing streak in a six team league. Some suspected that the mighty Leafs were cursed against the Cup until Bill's body could be found. Fifty Mission Cap is the reason Barilko’s story is now so well known beyond the realm of hockey lovers. In 2001, The Tragically Hip participated in a centre-ice ceremony held by the Leafs to honour Barilko. The band themselves were acknowledged for immortalizing the defenseman. For more than twenty-five years now, people wearing #5 Barilko jerseys have populated the crowds at Hip shows. Another lasting honorarium made in music.

Not all the lyric references are so easily deciphered. To this day, people hear the story of the Canadian military tragedy at Dieppe, France in 1994’s Nautical Disaster.

I had this dream where I relished the fray
and the screaming filled my head all day.
It was as though I'd been spit here, settled
in, into the pocket of a lighthouse on some
rocky socket, off the coast of France, dear.
One afternoon, four thousand men died in
the water here and five hundred more were
thrashing madly

Downie explained to Barclay, Jack and Schneider that the song was, in fact, about the doomed German battleship Bismarck. Since 2005, I’ve maintained a website that chronicles the Canadiana within songs by The Hip. At least twice each year, someone will e-mail me claiming they are certain Nautical Disaster is about Dieppe, and they can prove it! My response is always “if it’s about Dieppe to you, then it’s about Dieppe.” People want to hear Canada in the music of The Tragically Hip even when it’s not there.

Most questions regarding the inspirations for Hip songs pop up for two main reasons. First, the band often speaks in a veiled and imaginative manner. This avoids abrupt and inelegant music. It is an artsy and appreciated trait, but it doesn’t always lend itself to easy explanations. Second, The Hip are reluctant to simply glorify their surroundings. The references, Canadian and otherwise, can be swift before a song veers off to take a critical look at art, history or modern life.

Many of the songs mentioned herein were played that humid night in Chicago. I know, because after the show ended, I leapt up on stage and ripped a set-list from beneath Gord Downie’s microphone stand. I’ve done that a few times at various concerts. When I look over Gord Sinclair’s handwritten short forms on those lists, I see the stories of Canada; “Pistols,” “Fireworks,” “50MC,” “Wheat,” “BobC,” “Looking,” “NewO” and “Courage for Hugh.” I, and all other Hip fans, know exactly what those abbreviations portend. Tonight, we sing along. Every lyric, every reference and every person, place and thing. Every time The Tragically Hip take the stage, we ferment myth, we spread histories and we nation-build. We also listen intently for the emergence of new stories, anecdotes and clips of Canada that will be shaped into future songs.

Recently, there has been reason to be sad. The opportunity to join together and belt out these unlikely anthems about our often unheralded home may be coming to an end. As long as there are long Canadian roads and warm summer nights through which to drive, as long as there are downed windows and throbbing car speakers, as long as the favourite lyric about a favoured part of the world is tantalizingly close, we will never lose our collective karaoke with The Tragically Hip. When you hear that music, and maybe those unfamiliar karaoke voices, float from windows rolling by on Yonge, Barrington, Victoria, Robson or St. Denis, know that you are hearing Canada through Canada’s band. I’m going to keep singing those lyrics because, like no other songs, they speak to me. Indeed they speak to all of us.

Fans of other acts experience radio recognition, of course. After hearing a line in a song, identifiable images or recollections emerge. That’s the power and beauty of music. But there is something undeniably ours, some knowing nod, at the mention of the “forget your skates dream,” the “late breaking story on the CBC,” a “bemused Trudeau” or the fact that “you can see your breath down in Springside Park.”

The Tragically Hip invite us to indulge. Beyond the riffs and crashing symbols stands a museum of citation, saga and society. From the stage, Maclennan’s passages flow into reminisces of the wrongly convicted. Hockey players, labour rights songstresses and renaissance men rise again. The names of our artists, authors and athletes mix with melodic movements of pounding bass and ringing rhythm.

The Tragically Hip are Canada’s band. They are our band. For those who follow them, at home and abroad, they command in all of us our true, patriot love.