Editor's note: This is a guest submission from Robert Leroy Fields, a big fan of Canadian music and like your humble narrator, a Canadian wannabe. I asked him to write up some reflections of The Tragically Hip in Canada and the elusiveness of not being well-known outside Canada.
It’s like a secret handshake among Canadians.
The Tragically Hip doesn’t wear its culture on its sleeves like an English band does. Rather, the band expresses itself in the occasional lyric where Canadian elements are subtly referenced. Their songs contain references to Canadian geography, history, mythology, and cultural references (yes, hockey) recognizable to Canadians but unknown to outsiders.
"Sundown in the Paris of the prairies
Wheat kings have all treasures buried/And all you hear are the rusty breezes
Pushing around the weathervane Jesus/Late breaking story on the CBC"
(The Saskatchewan imagery of Wheat Kings)
“'Cause it was in Bobcaygeon,
Where I saw the constellations/Reveal themselves one star at a time”
(‘Bobcaygeon’, a wistful ode to escaping city life, is named after a cottage country tiny town in southern Ontario.)
“There’s Mistaken Point, Newfoundland
There’s Moonbeam Ontari-ari-o
There are places I’ve never been
And always wanted to go” (‘Fly’)
“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 till nineteen sixty two” (Fifty Mission Cap)
(The story of William 'Bashin’ Bill' Barilko, defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs)
“You said you didn’t give a f*** about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr” (Fireworks)
CBC News anchorman Peter Mansbridge called the band "the musical chroniclers of our times."
"The Hip treat their country the way Bob Dylan treats America: as a source of endless poetic fascination and mystery. And as with Bruce Springsteen, the band became a cherished national symbol, even if only to itself in this case." — from Jordan Michael Smith for an article for BBC.
Los Lobos' Steve Berlin recently told Maclean's: "It even took me a while to grasp the idea that this is not just a band, this is a cultural artifact, what the Hip means in Canada.
"There is nobody else like them. I don't think I've ever met a Canadian who doesn't love the Hip. Down here, I can't think of someone on that level that means the same thing in the U.S., not even Springsteen."
"We have pockets in the States where there's great support, but there's also an element of 'every country supports their own'" said Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker to the National Post in 2012. "The problem is when you're an arena band in one market, but you do 2,000-people shows in every other market, people think you're not big anywhere else," he says. "From L.A., up and down the coast, and in border areas such as Chicago, Philly, and Boston, the Hip play to between 1,000 and 3,000 people — it's still success, just not the same level."
When Canada Post started issuing stamps featuring bands in 2013, The Tragically Hip was one of 4 bands chosen.
American Sun, Canadian Moon
American culture burns brightly like the omnipotent sun. Canadian culture is often thought of as a pale reflection, like the moon. Musical light from the same source but only a reflection of our own culture.
The Hip is the one band that shines brightly in the Canadian musical universe. With little help from the world's biggest music market, the band has survived in rock music for 27 years.
The Tragically Hip has achieved massive success in its native Canada, and Canada alone has sustained them. The Tragically Hip bar none is the biggest rock band ever in Canadian history. Just ask any Canadian.
Our cousins from across the pond are represented very well in the American and worldwide music charts. One in every six recordings sold in the world is by a British artist. But there is something we Americans don't seem to get about Canadian rock stars. For every successful Americanized export, there are dozens of Canadian bands unknown outside of their borders.
When you look at the musical landscape, Canada has given us one of the most popular current rappers (Drake), one of music's biggest DJ's (Deadmaus5) and some of rock's greatest singer-songwriters (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen). Yet Canada's most popular homegrown rock band can't find the same success below the 49th parallel.
The Tragically Hip from Kingston, Ontario has released a dozen albums that have gone the Canadian equivalent of platinum (80,000 copies sold) and have two Canadian diamond certification albums (1,000,000 units). They have sold more albums in Canada than global artists such as U2 and are the eighth most popular act in Canadian history in the Soundscan era with over 3.5 million units sold. Not bad for a band in a country with a population of 35 million.
photo credit: Canada Post
video credit: YouTube/TheTragicallyHipVEVO