Saturday, February 25, 2006
In Through the Muskeg
From Chicago -- the frozen lake, the great black migration, Saul Bellow, electric blues, Wilco, sausages –- point yourself farther north. And back in time, to primeval Canada, "where the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun ... Long before the white man and look before the wheel, when the green dark forests were too silent to be real."
Gordon Lightfoot is, as you know, Canadian. We’ve already touched on some other marvelous Canadians here, most notably Buffy St. Marie and Joni Mitchell, and surely a post on Ian and Sylvia is in the cards. Canadians actually have sort of a strange relationship with many Canadian artists; because of the mandated content rules that require radio and television play and show a high percentage of Canadian material, many of our neighbors to the north feel like they’ve had Brian Adams, Gordon Lightfoot and Margaret Atwood shoved down their throats. And that can’t be pleasant. But Gord, it seems to me, is a dangerously undervalued import here. Have a look at the booklet to the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder bootleg series and you can see Lightfoot jamming with the bard, dressed in a fitting fur-trader-like hat, backstage somewhere. Songs like "Sundown"and "Carefree Highway"offer a fundamentally polite Canadian twist on the got-to-ramble American male ideal. It occurs to me that Lightfoot also provides a transportation theme trifecta with the immense "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"(the implications of which are too many to try and untangle in this post), "Early Morning Rain" with its "big 707 set to go," and this next one. "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" is, among other things, a trilogy (you can sort of hear the sections). You don’t get many of them. Trilogies, I mean. It’s also a Canadian foundation myth. Another rarity. Granted, there are large intact kernels of corn embedded in the surface of this song, and it has a definite connection to the big history-telling round-up songs in "Waiting For Guffman," but greatness can also be stupid, I think.
It’s strange that America, a country so besotted with self-mythologizing, hasn’t come up with more songs about the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary generation, etc. I know, it’s not immediately the stuff of pop songs, but you’d think someone would have tried their hand at it. The best example that comes to mind is "The Shot Heard Round the World" from the School House Rock series. Coincidentally, "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy" evokes the epic bombast of Ween, who covered "Shot Heard Round the World" on a tribute record.
One other thing to mention about "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy." First off, Canada has some of the best place names. Saskatoon, Manitoba, Winnipeg, Medicine Hat. You can’t beat that shit. Lightfoot doesn’t mention any of these, but he does include lyrics on Gaspe and muskeg.