On October 24th, I joined the masses gathered on Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, to honour Gord Downie by singing his songs. Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman (aka “DaBu”), the founders in 2011 of the weekly drop-in singing group, Choir! Choir! Choir! in Toronto, organized and led what was a communal hootenanny. Most everyone knew the music and lyrics by heart; the rest of us sang along using words we’d downloaded from the internet. It was a very stirring event.
I went because I knew so little about the man and the band which has become a national phenomenon. I needed to fill the gap. The Tragically Hip is a familiar name. When they played the Dawson City Music Festival years ago, I knew that my sister had hosted the band in her home at the after party. Gord Downie’s actions, since his diagnosis with a brain tumour in December 2015, quite properly made him a national hero. I admired the Secret Path graphic book and also the album designed to tell the story of Chanie Wenjack’s tragic escape from an Indian Residential School, and promoted on the Hip’s last national tour. All proceeds from the Gord Downie/Chanie Wenjack Foundation go to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
For all that, I knew very little about Downie’s music over time; neither the tunes which made him and the band popular nor the lyrics which often read like poetry. I’m not alone. I’ve since learned that many of my cohort are equally oblivious to the impact he had on younger people, especially on those now in their late thirties or forties. People like the Prime Minister.
I now appreciate why his work has been so appealing. “I am a stranger… on a secret path,” the lead poem/song on his Secret Path album, released in tandem with the graphic book, is haunting and emotional. “Bobcaygeon,” where he “saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time,” resonates among those who know the north. “Ahead by a Century” speaks to who he was and what he stood for. “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Wheat Kings” speak of that which is familiar in ordinary life: “Bourbon blues on the street,” “hands in the river,” “Sundown in the Paris of the prairies,” “wheat kings and pretty things wait and see what tomorrow brings. “Late breaking story on the CBC.” “You can’t be fond of living in the past, Cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re gonna last.” “Courage” sings of the human condition: “No simple… explanation for anything important… . Any of us do and yeah the human… Tragedy consists in… the necessity Of living with… The consequences Under pressure. Courage… it didn’t come… it couldn’t come at a worse time.”
Mike Downie spoke to the crowd about the Downie Chanie Fund. In Gord’s honour, Don Kerr adapted “Fiddler’s Green for Gord.” The lyrics can be downloaded online. Beautiful.