There’s a rock group called Flin Flon. They once put out an EP called Swift Current. Their 1998 album contains songs called “Red Deer”, “Moose Jaw”, “Kamloops”, “Medicine Hat”, “Odessa” (it’s a town in Saskatchewan), and more. You can probably guess where they’re from—Washington, DC. Perhaps you’ve got to be American to be inspired by Odessa.
Songs about Canada—that is, specific places on the Canadian map—are relatively rare. There have been some over the years—Stompin’ Tom Connors and the Guess Who made sure of that. But compared to the USA, north of the 49th tends to get short shrift from the recording industry.
It’s only logical that there would be lots of songs about America. Aside from having 10 times our population, the United States is home to the biggest and most vibrant entertainment industry in the world. And, with California being the centre of that industry, the state and its various burghs come in for more than their share of minstrelsy. The Golden State is a place where it never rains, where you’ll find a sinister hotel, and a surfing mecca. Is there a California town that has yet to inspire a tunesmith? Bakersfield, Lodi, Tehachapi—the Doobie Brothers had a song about Ukiah, for goodness sake.
There’s a song for almost every wide spot on the American road. But Canada? Musically we barely qualify as fly-over country. They’re all flying over places further south. Even Flin Flon, that apparently Canada-obsessed band, turns out to be the exception that proves the rule. None of their songs named after Canadian towns have anything to do with them, or with Canada in general. The titles are just names plucked from the map and randomly assigned to various tracks. They could just as easily have been named for items on a Burger King menu.
So where are the songs of Canada? There have been passing name-checks in some big international hits. The mysterious figure in Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” briefly flies a Learjet up to Nova Scotia. Way back in 1960 Johnny Cash sang about the “Girl in Saskatoon”. Liberace once recorded “Canadian Sunset”. That was special.
It may stand to r eason that Canada has not inspired as much popular music as our southern neighbour. But does it matter whether our cities and towns are celebrated in song? Popular culture does teach us what to value, what is worthy of attention, and music is a big part of that. The idea that a domestic music industry can help reinforce a sense of national identity is what inspired the institution of Canadian content regulations for radio in 1971. Those regulations did help to create a thriving Canadian music industry. But even if you lead Canadian artists to radio, you can’t force them to sing about home, especially when everyone involved knows the lucrative American market does not take kindly to strange foreign references (case in point: the countless country songs that include obligatory shout-outs to Confederate states).
Still, some Canadians have made a point of singing odes to our Dominion over the years. The Guess Who gave us perhaps the definitive Prairie roadmap in their 1972 hit “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” (which makes mention of Red Deer but, unlike the Flin Flon song, actually means it). The Tragically Hip offered a panoply of Canadiana, from “Bobcaygeon” to “” to “Wheat Kings” (the name of Brandon, Manitoba’s hockey team). Tom Cochrane threw a reference to “Vancouver’s lights” into his 1991 smash “Life is a Highway”. More recently Drake has made a point of establishing Toronto on the modern musical map with plenty of references to his hometown. The Weeknd also has an ode to Montreal, which fits the established hip-hop tradition of rapping about where you came from.
There may be no greater Canadian civic anthem than the Weakerthans’ backhanded ode to Winnipeg, “One Great City!” As they sing it: “The Guess Who suck, the Jets were lousy anyway… I hate Winnipeg.” (The Jets no longer suck of course but the song was released in 2003. As for the Guess Who, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs adored them, but opinions can certainly vary.) Perhaps it helps if your town has a name that just sounds great in a chorus. Feist made Mushaboom, Nova Scotia an unforgettable destination courtesy of her 2004 hit.
Canadian themes are still the exception, though. Take international pop superstar Grimes. She was raised in Vancouver and later lived in Montreal, but you wouldn’t know that by her last big-hit album, Art Angels. The album does have a song called “California”, though. That’s probably inevitable. Musicians are bound to sing about the international capital of the entertainment industry, a magnet for ambitious artists everywhere. Which is why the ultimate Canadian rock song may be one that doesn’t even specifically mention this country.
Winnipeg’s Neil Young has dropped Canadian references into songs like “Helpless.” But on the title track from his second album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, this California resident is heard reminiscing about the cool breezes and lazy pace of home. “Everybody seems to wonder what it’s like down here,” he sings, before explaining: “Everybody knows this is nowhere.” There it is, from someone who’d know—stop dreaming about Tinseltown. You’re better off in Winnipeg.
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