The most Canadian song
I think the most Canadian of Canadian songs is Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1976) about the sinking of the famous Great Lakes freighter in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. I am old enough to remember both the disaster and the release of the song about it. I don’t think it’s the best song, just the most “Canadian.” I think the best Canadian song might be Randy Bachman’s 1973 hit Takin’ Care of Business. Its opening guitar riff is practically universally recognizable, making it a cultural phenomenon and earning it a place alongside a very select group of profoundly catchy songs - like Rock Around the Clock, and Satisfaction. (Randy Bachman is, in my opinion, one of the world’s Guitar Gods.)
Now, my choice of these songs reflects my age. I grew up in the 1970s. People of different ages will have their own preferences and be adamant about the veracity and objective certainty of their choices. And for many the “best” song might be synonymous with the most representative song. But I like to distinguish the two.
I choose The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald because it embodies so much of what I think characterizes the Canadian personality and environment. Gordon Lightfoot looks and sounds like a deferential, folksy guy - the sort of person who, despite his true talents, accomplishments and demeanor, naturally appears little compared to big, brazen Americans. (Pierre Trudeau said that we are the mouse next to the elephant.) I decided many years ago watching Canadian travelers at Tokyo’s Narita Airport that we are “sweater people” with an affinity for loud, heavy wool sweaters, and Lightfoot is a jeans-and-sweater kind of man with a grandfatherly voice, hanging out at the cottage with his dog and his fishing pole - and his beat up guitar. He’s the kind of guy I imagine working as the head counselor of a YMCA summer camp teaching kids how to paddle a canoe during their summer holidays, leading campfire sing-alongs in the woods as the sun sets pink and orange over the water and the mosquitoes start to flit around your ears while the kitchen prepares hot chocolate with marshmallows. (I always hated marshmallows in my hot chocolate.) His signature song is reminiscent of pioneers or aborigines transmitting oral traditions around the campfire, the potlatch or the long house.
Randy Bachman is a rock ‘n roller whose signature song evokes the urban life of office work, girls in summer dresses and the commuter train crush. Although Canada is a mostly urban society it is nonetheless an under-populated and a largely empty land, which lends itself to The Edmund Fitzgerald’s evocation of the open water, nature, isolation, disaster in the north, hard working men and the shared heartaches that bind a small community. And let’s face it, although Canada is a big country, we are still a small community for whom the idea of North is very important. I think our sense of national identity is still shaped more by an awareness of where we are (North) than whowe are. (Americans excel at the who.)
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call Gitchie Gumee.”
Now, how can you get any more Canadian than that?