MY B-LIST OF SONGS FOR CANADA DAY

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Well, hello there, Canada. Another birthday, eh? Dominion Day is my favourite holiday of the year, a time for us all to set aside those petty differences over just about everything the you-know-who gang does in Ottawa, and celebrate being Canadian. My Canada includes a Prime Minister who loves hockey and gets excited about finding Franklin’s ships up north. It doesn’t include an ugly monument to “victims of communism” beside the Supreme Court of Canada, nor a massive Mother Canada statue scarring Cape Breton’s beautiful Highlands National Park, nor…(fill in 50 blanks here)….but never mind. Happy Dominion Day! What’s that? It’s now called Canada Day, you say? Pity!

I usually celebrate Canada Day with a list of good old songs that best exemplify the spirit, history, beauty and character of this grand land of ours. The usual suspects are always at the top: The Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Northwest Passage, Four Strong Winds, Sudbury Saturday Night, Let’s Go Bowling, Ontario-ari-ari-o, and so on.

This year, I’m opting for something different. Being the kind of obscure guy I am, herewith my list of 10 fine songs about Canada that you may not know. They are compiled from my own collection of vinyl, CDs and cassettes (alas, no 8-tracks). So you will notice there are no relatively recent songs evoking where we live, such as Sam Roberts’ fierce Canadian Dream or Joel Plaskett’s bittersweet True Patriot Love. Folk, of course, looms large. Apologies for not being more tragically hip, and additions gratefully acknowledged. But it’s my list, and I’m sticking to it.

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  1. Stan Rogers: Free in the Harbour. A lovely, evocative song about the heartbreak of having to leave the fading outports of Newfoundland for the “riches” of Alberta. A way of life gone. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbjEmEifZp4
  1. The Band: Acadian Driftwood. The timing of the expulsion of the Acadians is a bit off (history is hard), but there are references by the boys from southwestern Ontario to the Plains of Abraham, cold fronts and the lure of winter. A terrific Canadian version of The Band’s big hit, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=te7KW4K-00E
  1. Spirit of the West: The Crawl. Could there be a more Canadian song than this rollicking combination of sea shanty and drinking song? Become an expert on the geography and pubs of West and North Vancouver. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2N37oQmdlrU
  1. James Keelaghan: Stonecutter. A powerful tale of the stonemasons called out of retirement to help rebuild the Parliament Buildings, after they burned down in 1916. The fledgling young apprentices had all been called to war. No video, but here are the lyrics. Well worth the iTune purchase. http://lyrics.wikia.com/James_Keelaghan:Stonecutter
  1. Barra MacNeils: The Island. Anthemic tribute to the history and enduring lure of Cape Breton. I guess it is pretty well known back east, but not out here in this parched part of the country. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apD1IuE5Lwo
  1. Stringband: Dief Will Be The Chief Again. Written by my good friend Bob Bossin, this is certainly the best song ever written about John Diefenbaker, and maybe about any Canadian politician. “Everyone’s happy back in ’57, and nobody’s happy since then.” Available right at the end of this Bossin jukebox compilation. http://www3.telus.net/oldfolk/jukebox.htm#dief
  1. The Byrds: Blue Canadian Rockies. Yes, by the Byrds, but from their best and one of my most-loved albums ever, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It doesn’t get any better than this. Sorry, Wilf Carter, but Gram Parsons kills on this country classic, written by the legendary Cindy Walker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJkXkvLNs6U
  1. Grievous Angels: Crossing the Causeway. There’s no sadder Canadian tradition than Maritimers leaving “the folks back home” for Toronto in search of work. Few have captured the poignancy better than this song by Charlie Angus (now an MP) and his band. “I wipe my tears on the kitchen wall.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSN_dZB55wg
  1. Sadly, besides suggesting anything from my numerous La Bottine Souriante casssettes, I have little to offer in this list category from Quebec. Robert Charlebois’ Québec Love talks about taking up guns. Yikes. And so on. So I include, instead, by far the best known song about La Belle Province, it’s unofficial anthem, Mon Pays C’est L’Hiver by Gilles Vigeneault. It’s wonderful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH_R6D7mU7M
  1. Finally, no Canada Day list would be complete without Stompin’ Tom Connors, even if The Hockey Song and Sudbury Saturday Night are too well known. Of course, he has a myriad other Canadian classics. I’ve opted, appropriately for his great Cross Canada. Sing it loud. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=012Bo_iihpI

Happy CA – NA -DA Day!

(As a bonus, here’s the Travellers’ maple syrup version of Woody Guthrie’s famous song, This Land is Your Land. We have our own identity, after all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwLyVl11iV4 )

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D-DAY: IT REALLY HAPPENED

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One of the best days of my life was in the spring of 1990, when my mother and I visited the peaceful, hauntingly beautiful Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer in Normandy. It was especially affecting for my mother, a contemporary of those young Canadians who signed up for the fight against Hitler. She’d seen them off, neighbours’ kids and school chums. Not all came back.

As we walked past the graves of those who perished in the early days of the Normandy invasion, we were both struck again by their youth. It’s one thing to know that obvious fact ahead of time. It’s another to be confronted by headstone after headstone of young men, their lives forever frozen in their late teens and early 20’s. When I was that age, I was just a goofy kid with long hair and a big, floppy hippie hat. They had landed on the beaches of France to take on the Nazis.

The breadth of Canada’s contribution was also writ large in their mostly small hometowns from across the country. I found myself surprised by the number hailing from sparsely-populated Saskatchewan, and Quebec as well, given that province’s resistance to conscription. Often, there was a brief, heartfelt inscription about the young man in the grave below. This was a war these youthful Canadian combatants had hoped to survive. They didn’t want to die. But if there is such a thing as a just war, World War Two was it, and they knew it had to be fought.

It was all incredibly moving, and my mother talked about our visit until the day she died, never failing to miss a D-Day commemoration on television. And now it is 70 years since that stormy June morning, when the heroic land assault against Nazi-held France began, with fewer and fewer survivors left to tell their stories. I was fortunate to be able to interview some of them in 2004 for my book, Rare Courage, a collection of 20 oral histories from World War Two vets. Two took part in D-Day, and here is some of what they remembered from that terrible, wonderful day.

ImageMaritimer Huge Neily, who wound up with the East Yorkshire Regiment, was one of the first to come ashore as part of the British landing at Sword Beach.

“Leaving the harbor at night is the one thing in my life that I will never forget. As far as you could see in every direction, nothing but boats. Nobody went to sleep. We were all leaning on the rail, watching….We had a huge breakfast at three o’clock in the morning. Bacon and eggs. A real rarity….

“When the ship stopped, we knew were off the coast of France. Watches were synchronized, checked and re-checked, along with the rifles, the Bren guns, the Sten guns, the ammunition pouches….Day was breaking fast and the waves were very high. We were the first ones to go down. Colonel Hutchinson came on the loud hailer and wished us all luck. He said: I want you to repeat after me: ‘It all depends on me.’ So we all repeated that…

“There was a terrible noise all the way in. Navy boats were firing shell after shell. And planes were going over. If there was a sky, we couldn’t see it…I got my men out, and I dashed forward. Then, flat on the sand. There were no other footprints. We were the first. Within 30 seconds of landing, one of my men went down. I heard someone say, ‘Oh God. Billy’s been shot.’ He was dead before he hit the ground. A bullet right in his head….

“I ran straight forward to where this machine-gun post was. My runner was right behind me, carrying the wire cutters. We cut the wire. We’d practiced this. And I crawled up the dunes. I can still feel those little reedy grasses on my face….Because of the model we’d built, I knew exactly where the machine gun was….

“I crawled up on my belly as close as I could, reached back and got a grenade….It exploded right on the parapet, and immediately a white flag came up. Four fellows came out. They were the sorriest excuse for soldiers I’d ever seen….They stood there with their hands behind the back of their heads. Then they sat down, and we left them behind.”

ImageGordon Hendery commanded a Canadian landing craft.

“We boarded the craft, loaded them in the water, and was it ever rough. It was awful. All of a sudden, every battleship, destroyer, every ship that had a gun started to bombard the beach. The smoke and the flames and the roar were overwhelming….

“It was very, very choppy. Fear and seasickness and everything else all accumulated to make them as sick as could be. They were so happy to have the vomit bags. There were 30 soldiers to a craft. Some had machine guns. All had rifles and 60-pound packs. They must have been terrified, but you know, they were trained for this. They were soldiers.

“On the way in, a wonderful thing happened. A young sergeant got up on the deck beside me and started to sing a song. ‘Roll Out the Barrel.’ Everyone joined in. It was one of the most moving experiences I had during my almost five years in the service. There was fear on everyone’s faces, and he tried to brighten up their spirits. I was in the same fix. I was human, too. And it worked. The fear left our faces….

“The craft got stuck on an obstacle under the water. I hesitated to order ‘down doors’, but it had to be done. They jumped into the water. Some were up to the waist. Two of the shorter lads jumped in and didn’t come up. Terrible…and there was not a damn thing we could do….

“They dashed across the beach. Some fell from machine-gun fire. Some were hit before they even made the beach. We could see all this. Imagine training in England for three years and not even being able to get to the beach before being killed. I don’t think people realize what our boys did.”

RIP, boys. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten.

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