One thing I always try to keep in mind as a writer is to not tackle topics that others can tackle better. Last week was a perfect example of that. This week is too, though for a different reason.
The Tragically Hip are a band I had never heard of until Canadian Twitter exploded with them sometime around when their lead singer, Gord Downie, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Some time after that they played a final concert that the entire country stopped to watch. (No really. The freaking Prime Minister of Canada was at the show.) Shortly after that I keynoted a conference in Canada. Hanging out with the conference organizers and friends the night I arrived, I was treated to a Hip playlist. As every song started one of the guys in the room would look at me and say, "This is a great fucking song."
But that's the extent of my connection to The Tragically Hip. While I understand how my friends feel about the loss (science help me when James Hetfield or Henry Rollins die), I'm not the one to write about the band and the man. So it is here that I hand the blog off to my Canadian brothers and Hip fanatics Jay Nickerson and Ian Landy to talk about what the band means to them and to education.
It’s nearly impossible to capture in words what The Tragically Hip mean to a Canadian. A lot of people have been trying in the past week, because Hip frontman, the whirling poet at the helm, Gord Downie passed away. Though he gave us a long goodbye, performing and releasing music in the year and a half after it was revealed that he had terminal brain cancer, Canada was stunned.
In this last year or so, one of the most remarkable things about Gord and The Hip is the sense of community that grew up around the band. This was Canada’s band, and we were shook to realize that it would no longer exist as we had always known it. The nation came together around The Hip, lining up for tickets for the last tour, openly crying at those shows, and ultimately, coming to a halt when the last show of that tour was broadcast. Inspired by this, two Canadians, from opposite coasts of the country, answered Doug’s call to set the stage for the most Canadian #WeirdEd ever. We’re hope to give some sense of the impact of The Hip, and Gord, and how that impact comes into the classroom.
Gord’s performance style was unique. Words like manic, unhinged, and unpredictable were thrown around. These things made the performances memorable and engaging. Watching him perform, there’s no doubt that many teachers thought, “If I was in a band, I’d do it just like that.” Teaching, well, it’s kind of a similar thing. Downie had fun, he energized and engaged the audience, and he moved and worked with the moment he was in. We do that in the classroom. Do we have weird spontaneous dance moves? Not as regularly as Gord, but yeah. Do we drop entertaining non-sequiturs into the middle of things sometimes? Guilty as charged. Do we care about my audience, and what they’re walking away with? Yes, we do.
The craft of his lyrics was marvelous. These are songs that are steeped in Canadian history and culture, but aren’t jingoistic anthems. They’re unflinching in their nature, revealing, often at the same time, a deep seated pride as well as a struggle with the negative implications of being a country. In his writing, Gord was able to simultaneously specific and vague, present ideas with a foot firmly planted in the concrete and the abstract, making perfect sense, while completely mystifying us. This was a poet, fronting a tight as hell rock band. Rock and roll has never been as literate and accessible at the same time.
The Hip were only too aware that some of their thinking (and singing) was ‘ahead of the curve’. Writing songs ranging from rants about social issues including wrongful conviction to the treatment of our First Nations Communities (Gord’s last song was connected to a graphic novel and an amazing video about Canada’s Residential Schools: The Secret Path https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1ln-izMHpE with larger tv component on one of Canada’s darker pasts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGd764YU9yc
It’s safe to say that it is sometimes tragic to be hip - there is sadness in knowing what should be (what is hip) and what really is. It’s why whether the Hip were playing at a dorm party at the University of Manitoba, at an open air festival, on Saturday Night Live (where they played Grace Too https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d18UWu4dRv4 and Nautical Disaster https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8Fi46BFAF0 ) or performing for a ‘final concert’ for Canada: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOf5t_TzkDbW7yfmz3NrYX7BXHpU12eX7
Gord was always willing to use his medium of creating socially aware, yet consistently great, music to send messages - Wheat Kings https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xIaBcfL6vU told the story of someone (Dave Millgaard) sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. The lyrics artfully bring up the idea and question about what we do when we do something, and then later need to figure out what we should have done differently once we are aware it was a wrong decision.
One of their bigger hits, New Orleans is Sinking https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xIaBcfL6vU is about remaining resilient against ongoing obstacles - specifically that the city of New Orleans has an eroding coast (not including hurricanes) which works against the city - yet it remains enduring and strong - and inspiring us to consider what we do that keeps us “strong”.
At the same time, The Tragically Hip were able to show how a country is made up of many subcultures - Blow at High Dough https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGRNEJiD3PY helps show that even when we have a common history (in this case materials) - sometimes our cultures have sayings and actions that don’t necessarily easily translate to other regions. Ian’s own experience has had friends shaking their heads to me when he supports sports teams that are on the right side of the content (#westcoastbias) rather than teams in Toronto - which according to some would be the Canadian-thing-to-do… (but they usually live on the other side of the Rockies ;-)
The playlist of songs of The Hip is strong and deep - even their ‘greatest hits’ package Yer Favourites doesn’t have them all, but is an easy compilation to hit ‘shuffle’ on. It will bring up songs that make you have to consider how you deal with friends/families/schools that think different - politically, religiously, etc in songs like At The Hundredth Meridian https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCFo0a8V-Ag where an natural boundary can mean the changing of a world….. or the underrated (but often pops up in ‘top 3 lists’) Bobcaygeon which has us wondering - is it better to have an evil in the open, or just below the surface…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6QDjDPRF5c
“Music is also a popular rallying point — at its central core, it’s a way for people to get in touch with the best parts of themselves and to voice the love in their hearts.” Gord’s words speak volumes. For many of us, music is an integral part of the human experience. Watching his courage as he went on that final tour, a tough task at peak health, was inspiring. There was a moment, as Jay was in the audience, the last night in Winnipeg, when it was clear that he was saying goodbye to the people in attendance, which broke every heart in the crowd. The moment this week, as he listened to The Hip in sadness, his oldest daughter, caught up in the music, unconsciously channeling Gord’s stage mannerisms, letting the music take her, hit his heart just as hard, because not only was he gone, but we are left with his music, which will continue to move us.