Sunday, July 6, 2014

Track of the Week: Gordon Lightfoot, "Canadian Railroad Trilogy"

America's Independence Day was this last week, but so too was the commemoration of another nation's birth: Canada Day.  I have an unabashed and genuine love of our neighbor to the north.  I have enjoyed her beautiful landscapes, explored her cities, laughed at her many accomplished comedians, loved her many great musical artists (Neil Young, Joanie Mitchell, most of The Band, to name a few), and have had the pleasure to know many of her sons and daughters.  Americans have many stereotypes about Canadian politeness, and while I have run into rude and mean-spirited Canadians, Canada does have a national culture much more humble and muted compared to America's bombasticity.  I still remember being in Montreal with my wife during our honeymoon, which just happened to coincide with Canada Day.  There were lots of people out and about, and fireworks in the evening, but no in your face nationalism.  Even as an outsider and foreigner, I still felt welcome on Canada's national day.

A good example of the contrast between American and Canadian nationalism is Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy."  He wrote it for Canada's centennial in 1967, and it tells the story of the construction of the trans-Canada railway in folk song fashion.  It begins describing the landscape before the railroad, then like a train leaving the station, shifts into a high gear describing the hopes and boosterism behind the railway.  So far, the song could be mistaken for an American anthem, in that it fails to mention the native people living in the railroad's path, and sees it all as a great triumph.  However, the song suddenly shifts into low gear, and a mournful harmonica enters in.  Lightfoot sings from the perspective of the navvies who built the railroad with low pay in tough conditions.  The song goes from being a triumphal ode to Canadian ingenuity to a reflection on the human cost of such endeavors.  This song written for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company, for you in the States) and its celebration of the Canadian centennial.

It is hard to imagine an American television network broadcasting a song this ambiguous for a major national commemoration.  The American disease of historical amnesia seems far less common up north, perhaps it's something we can learn a thing or two from.

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