Symons Seminar Series Presents on Music of the Tragically Hip

The Tragically Hip performing at Ottawa Bluesfest 2008. Photo by ceedub13 [CC BY].

When we think of music celebrities – especially in the instance of Canadians – the most notable of examples are that of contemporary origin. Artists such as Drake, Daniel Caesar, or even Celine Dion for her pervasive relevance in radio. But there are few musical professionals that have quite nearly imparted such a profound effect in representing Canada than The Tragically Hip.

As part of the Symons Lecture series, Dr. Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay of the Canadian Studies department gave his take on The Tragically Hip’s influence, and brought forth a discussion on how they carried out their celebrity status. To the same effect, he also mentioned their lack thereof – in his research, he found that there is little academia based on the band’s career and impact. This poses the question: why are we not talking about “Canada’s Band” as often as we should be?

This question stems from a particular instance in Canadian history – the live airing of the band’s final concert in Kingston, Ontario in the evening of August 21, 2016. Nearly 12 million people tuned in to watch the show, with notable figures in the live audience including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It was regarded as one of Canada’s most unifying moments, and emboldened the band’s power as Canadian icons. Since their self-titled debut EP in 1987, the band has performed internationally and has become recognized as a staple not only in the general premises of rock music, but as musicians that represent the inherent spirit and capabilities of Canadian music.

So how could a band that represents Canada to an international audience bear so few pages in our academic environment? Dr. Johnston-Lindsay suggested that we look to what they represented in the songs and albums leading up to the spectacular grandiose that was A National Celebration; how deeply immersive the lyrics that Gord Downie wrote. How they were reflections on Canadian history, politics, and incantations of the future as he saw it. Songs such as “Wheat Kings” – which reflects on the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of David Milgaard, where he served 23 years behind bars. “New Orleans is Sinking” subliminally pokes interests in the political polarities with our national neighbor, the United States. Dr. Johnston-Lindsay recalled instances of profound demonstrations – including the band’s show during the Molson Party Series in 1992, in Barrie, Ontario. Downie protested the failed Charlottetown Accord by suggesting that Canada Day should be renamed “Stupid Day.” This was more-so a jab at Brian Mulroney and his administration, but nonetheless an insightful example of their presence within the circulation of affairs in the country.

In efforts that were closer to the bands concluding shows, Gord Downie introduced The Secret Path, a site to remember and honor the late Chanie Wenjack and the other victims of the Residential School system. It contains the many works that Downie has compiled, including poems, an album, and a full-length CBC film.

I reached out to Dr. Johnston-Lindsay about his inspirations to conduct this research.

“…I’ve benefited greatly from reading the work of Michelle MacQueen, whose analysis of the Tragically Hip’s music as “critical counter-narrative” I continue to return to. However, in the beginning I think it was a lack of convincing academic literature on the band which inspired me, because it gave me the chance to write on a topic that I was extremely passionate about, and which I felt hadn’t been given enough attention in studies of Canadian cultural studies and history. Everything I found was rather limited and basically amounted to the same three sentiments: “They are Canadian. All Canadians love them. America doesn’t know what they’re missing.” Obviously, I don’t find this analysis satisfying and I don’t think many people would either if they really thought about it. What I’ve been trying to argue in my work is that there’s a lot more to the Tragically Hip than being “Canada’s Band.””

In the effort of not only preserving the band’s presence as national icons but making more academic discussions on them possible by including them in modern academic resources, Dr. Johnston-Lindsay continues his work on bolstering this impression. In the meantime, adding a few Tragically Hip songs (or albums) to your playlists is certainly a good start in helping to celebrate Canadian music!