What Makes Some Popular Music Canadian or, Is Neil Young Canadian?

Initial aside: This paper was originally presented at IASPM US and Canada in Boston, MA in April 2007. See also the paper’s handout, at the bottom of the rest of the text. The originally presented version included audio clips, and you may be able to find the things mentioned below on YouTube or elsewhere.

English Canadian culture—including its music and music-making—stands adjacent to such distinctive cultures as the US, the UK, and Quebec. Thus, musicians from Canada have often pursued at least some career activities in the US or elsewhere. Neil Young, k.d. lang, the Tragically Hip, and Stompin’ Tom Connors provide contrasting case studies for how some performers have dealt with this. Canadian popular music often brings together such styles as folk, country, blues, and/or rock ‘n’ roll into a “roots”-oriented aesthetic. However, those styles all emerged in places other than Canada, and they then moved much too fluidly across national boundaries to provide solid interpretive markers. Lyrics thus arguably provide the most suitable starting-point for exploring national identity.

The condition for the Canadian Content (or “CanCon”) regulations is that at least two of a song recording’s four main categories must be shown to be “Canadian.” However, the term in this case means nothing but citizenship or location. The specific categories are music, artist, production, and lyrics, which spell “M-A-P-L” (pronounced, of course, “maple”). To explore the implementation of CanCon on commercial radio, I surveyed a five-hour play-list from Toronto, ON’s classic rock station Q107. The station played exactly the required daytime hours of 35% Canadian songs, and the artists were 33% Canadian, 32% American, 24% British, and 11% “other.” By comparison, the top artists on Modesto, CA’s classic rock station The Hawk were 60% American, 30% British, 5% “other,” and also only 5% Canadian. However, despite this evidence of CanCon as a successful survival tactic against American hegemony, the regulations also ghettoized many Canadians. For example, of the fourteen Canadian artists played during the period of my Q107 survey, probably only the Band, Neil Young, the Guess Who, Rush, and Bryan Adams would be played at all on commercial US radio stations. Also, those five artists emerged internationally either before or despite the arrival of the CanCon regulations in 1971.

Neil Young was born in Toronto in 1945 and retained his Canadian citizenship, but as of early 2007 he had worked and lived almost exclusively in the US (and almost exclusively with Americans) for 41 of his 61 years. His 1500-acre ranch is in San Mateo County, CA. His music veers restlessly from introspective singer-songwriting and country-rock to angst-ridden, hard rock. For example, his nostalgic 2005 album Prairie Wind demonstrates the former aesthetic and his “Iraq was a big mistake” 2006 album Living with War exhibits the latter aesthetic. As a solo artist, he had three US Top 40 hits, including “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” from 1972’s Harvest. By 2006, he had sold about 25 million copies in the US of his various solo albums, but that is actually a fairly modest number for someone considered a major star. Young won five Canadian Juno awards, and the related Canadian Music Hall of Fame inducted him in 1982. He won no US Grammy awards, but the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him in 1995 and again in 1997 as a member of the 1960s’ folk-rock group Buffalo Springfield.

In 1976, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and the Band (who were also mostly Canadian) performed Young’s song “Helpless” at the Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco. Cultural commentators frequently cite that song (which he originally recorded in 1970 with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and its opening line (“There is a town in north Ontario”) as evidence of Young’s Canadianness. Technically, the small town in which Young reached his teenage years is in central-eastern Ontario, but the fact that it lies along the Trans-Canada highway did also later surface in several of his songs. In surveying the lyrics of Neil Young’s 386 recorded songs, I found that he briefly refers to Canada in only 15 of them (4% of the time) and that specific references to the US appear about six times more frequently than that. Also, most of Young’s Canadian references are hidden away in relatively obscure album tracks and non-album tracks.

In the first half of 2005, Neil Young suffered a brain aneurysm (which was successfully treated with surgery) and his father Scott Young (a well-known Canadian writer) died. Those “brushes with mortality” both happened while he was beginning to prepare his new album, Prairie Wind, and they strongly contributed to its introspection and nostalgia. For example, a pair of songs refer to Manitoba’s Red River or Cypress River—the latter being where Scott Young was born in 1918. In addition, Scott and Neil both moved to Winnipeg with their mothers, in 1932 and 1959 respectively. Much of Prairie Wind is country-music-flavoured, including lyrical and musical references to Nashville, TN—where it was recorded and where his Ryman Auditorium show was filmed for the 2006 movie Neil Young: Heart of Gold. The song “Far from Home” includes references to Canada geese and to biographical-sounding elements. Musically, it fuses gospel-influenced piano and backing vocals with big-band horn stabs, harmonica licks, and slide guitar into something like a “rootsy” white version of soul music. [PLAY excerpt] Verse 2 refers to walking down the Trans-Canada highway, which Young metaphorically suggests leads to Nashville. The later line about “going far” in a “promised land”—i.e., the US—also reflects the attitude of Young and of many other Canadian-born artists.

During my classic rock play-list survey, Q107 played one Neil Young song, which was the early version of “Old Man” from the 2007 release of a 1971 concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall. The album provides a fascinating study of how studio recordings can sometimes alter an artist’s original song conceptions. In this particular concert, Young played entirely solo (acoustic guitar and voice or piano and voice) in an intimate style that belied the more elaborate orchestrations espoused in the more familiar (usually later) versions of these songs. Conversely, the album includes a very sparse version of “Helpless,” shortly after the CSNY original. In it, Young adds instrumental breaks between his half-verses and, because he cannot accompany his own vocals, does not merge Verse 2a with the chorus. This differs from the original 1970 studio version and from the instrumentally-ornate 1976 live version with Joni Mitchell and the Band.

k.d. lang was born in 1961 in Edmonton, AB, but she grew up in a small village several hours south-east of there. In the 1980s, she pursued an eccentric country-pop stylistic hybrid. She was initially inspired by early-1960s’ US “countrypolitan” singer Patsy Cline, portrayed her on stage, named her subsequent backing band the Reclines, and then had one of her late-1980s’ albums produced by Cline’s producer, Owen Bradley. lang’s style was rather outside the mainstream for a female in country music (such as her short hair, androgynous clothing, and “campy” approach), and it would have surprised very few of her dedicated, cult-like fans when she came out as a lesbian in 1992. In fact, her 1990 vegetarian stance against eating meat was much more controversial, especially given her origins in Canada’s best-known beef-producing region. In the 1990s and early 2000s, she then applied her blues-inflected, but also romantic-sounding voice mainly to an updated version of traditional pop music. However, in 2006 she released an anthology of earlier songs and in 2007 tours with US singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett. This suggests that she also still wished to connect with her earlier “alternative country” fan base.

lang’s four Grammy awards echo her several different stylistic approaches. The first was for her 1987 country-oriented cover version with US singer Roy Orbison of his 1962 hit song “Crying.” (The remake was used in the 1987 US teen-oriented film Hiding Out.) lang’s second Grammy was for her 1989 alternative country album Absolute Torch and Twang (which included the hit “Full Moon of Love”). However, her third one was for the 1992 pop song “Constant Craving,” which was her only US Top 40 hit, at #38. Similarly, lang’s fourth Grammy award was for her 2003 “traditional pop” duet album with US singer Tony Bennett. Her US album certifications suggest total American album sales from 1987 to 2007 of about seven million—which, after accounting for the 53% shorter time period, is arguably about half as successful in the US as Neil Young. lang previewed her pop style in one song for a 1991 tribute album to US songwriter Cole Porter and contributed music and/or songs to a number of mainly US movies between 1993 and 2006. She also won eight Juno awards (plus a special award in 1990 as one of three Canadian Artists of the Decade for the 1980s), but as of 2007 the Canadian Music Hall of Fame had not yet inducted her. Of 111 lyrics for songs recorded by k.d. lang (originals and cover songs), only three referenced Canada, and two of those references were within cover versions of songs by Canadian-born artists Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

lang’s 2004 album, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, features cover versions of songs by six Canadian-born singer-songwriters—two each by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Jane Siberry, plus one each by Bruce Cockburn and Ron Sexsmith. The “49th parallel” referred to in the album title is the borderline between much of Canada and the US, but the vast majority of Canadians actually live south of that latitude. Despite the album’s title, the songs are not religious (although three use Judeo-Christian imagery), and it is also hard to imagine songs being “of” a borderline. In her version of Young’s folk-like song “Helpless,” lang bridges her country and traditional pop vocal styles, but by singing it in his key and range she also produces a effect much more resigned than nostalgic. The song arrangement largely follows the structure used by Young in his 1971 solo live version, except with the interesting additions of a tonic guitar pulse and of a romantic-sounding string section arranged by Brazilian-born US musician Eumir Deodato. [PLAY excerpt] Chorus 2 includes vocal harmonies reminiscent of the CSNY original. lang’s vocal performances on this album often arguably resemble the original versions too closely, but the album probably also introduced many Americans to internationally lesser-known artists such as Siberry, Cockburn, and Sexsmith. Thus, the album somewhat redresses lang’s fascination with the US, but in fact she recorded it quite far from the 49th parallel—at a studio on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. She and her partner also live in the Hollywood Hills.

A successful rock band that never achieved much of an audience outside of Canada is the Tragically Hip (a.k.a., “the Hip”). The group formed in 1983 in Kingston, ON, where most of its members were born between 1962 and 1966. The band named itself after a skit in the 1981 movie Elephant Parts, starring former Monkee Michael Nesmith. The Hip had three Canadian Top 40 hits in the 1990s, plus a number of additional Canadian radio airplay hits in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the Hip never charted in the US at all, and it also had no US album certifications. The Canadian media frequently painted the Tragically Hip as “Canada’s band,” probably due to a combination of the group’s frequent Canadian lyrical references and the ironic cultural cachet of its relative lack of popularity elsewhere. By 2007, the group had won twelve Juno awards, which was the same number as Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette, and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Only Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, and NS-native Anne Murray had won more. In 2006-07, the Hip’s concert venues ranged from large arenas in Canada (such as Vancouver, BC’s General Motors Place and Toronto, ON’s Air Canada Centre) to much smaller clubs and theatres in the US (such as Chicago’s House of Blues and Boston’s Avalon).

The Hip’s studio versions tend towards a classic, electric guitar riff style (featuring two guitarists) but sometimes with elements of alternative pop-rock, something like an Anglo-American “roots rock” combination of the Rolling Stones and R.E.M. In fact, R.E.M.’s 1994 song “Circus Envy” is musically a somewhat grungier version of the Tragically Hip’s 1992 song “Lionized.” [PLAY excerpts] The Hip’s live song performances are often much more expansive and chaotic than its studio versions. This includes the onstage antics and extemporized (but accompanied) poetic rants of lead singer and lyricist Gordon Downie. Downie’s live approach somewhat resembles the frenetic style of US musician (and former Talking Head) David Byrne. However, the Hip’s improvisations, extended live songs, and audience interactions also somewhat resemble the context of the US neo-psychedelic band Phish.

Across its eleven studio albums from 1987 to 2006 (130 songs), the Tragically Hip references Canada in 26 songs (20% of the time) and occasionally even in a song-title. This is five times more frequently than Neil Young’s four percent and also from a much shorter period of time (19 years vs. 43). The Hip also makes a similar number of specific references to the US or elsewhere, but its Canadian references include explorers, writers, artists, nature, small towns, and … hockey. The Hip was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and during my Q107 play-list survey the group was one of the five Canadian artists played twice. The band’s 1989 song “Blow at High Dough” was used as the theme song for the 1998-2002 Canadian TV comedy series Made in Canada; the band appeared in the 2002 Canadian movie Men with Brooms (about the sport of curling); and Downie appeared in the 2006 Canadian comedy Trailer Park Boys: The Movie. The band also contributed to a 2003 tribute album to Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot.

The Tragically Hip’s 2006 studio album, World Container, was recorded in Toronto, Vancouver, and Maui, and it was produced by Winnipeg-born Bob Rock. Rock was a Canadian popular music star and Juno winner himself in the 1980s (especially with the Payola$), and he then became an internationally-famous engineer and record producer and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the April 2007 Juno Awards in Saskatoon, SK. World Container often evokes the Hip’s scrappy, chaotic live approach, but within concise, studio-recorded songs. However, the song “Fly” originated within Downie’s live rants in 2004 in the middle of performances of the group’s US-themed 1992 song “At the Hundredth Meridian.”

The live rant section of “At the Hundredth Meridian” is 63% faster than the original studio version of that song, and its already cathartic patter-like section is thus sublimely fast in this version. [PLAY excerpts] In addition, the rant is 30% faster than the later studio version of “Fly,” which is also major and diatonic rather than modally-mixed and riff-based. Early elements of “Fly” included a reference to Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury and to that British band’s 1975 song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” [PLAY excerpts] Verse 2 of the completed studio version of “Fly” references the actual places: “Mistaken Point, Newfoundland and Moonbeam, Ontari-ario.” This bizarre pronunciation of the province’s name originated in 1967’s technically-innovative and Oscar-winning Canadian short subject film A Place to Stand. The film was made for the Ontario Pavilion of Montreal’s Expo ’67, and its theme song features the hook: “A place to stand, a place to grow, Ontari-ari-ario.” Moreover, Moonbeam actually is a “town in north Ontario,” and (with further apologies to Neil Young) it is also on the Trans-Canada highway and (with apologies to k.d. lang) almost exactly at the 49th parallel.

The Tragically Hip’s Canadian references extend considerably beyond what Neil Young or k.d. lang would probably consider appropriate from their vantage points in California. The group’s interests in “roots”-oriented genre influences and in small towns and nature would probably make sense to them, though, as these are certainly well-entrenched within the history of Canadian music and culture. However, even the Tragically Hip is quite tame in these respects compared to Canada’s eccentric, country-oriented singer-songwriter “laureate”—Stompin’ Tom Connors. Connors (who was born in St. John, NB in 1936) refers to Canada within nearly all of his roughly 300 songs, argued that the nation’s music industry had become far too American, released his music on a succession of independent record labels, and never once toured in the US. He and Young have both been recognized with honourary doctorates from Canadian universities, in 1988 he wrote a song in praise of lang, and as with lang he has been inducted as a member of the Order of Canada. However, only Stompin’ Tom Connors would have an entire song about a trucker named “Bud the Spud” delivering a load of potatoes from the “bright red mud” of PEI. [PLAY excerpt] The opening chorus appears three subsequent times, and the song’s three verses contain a total of a dozen Canadian references, meaning that this one song alone has almost as many Canadian references as Neil Young’s entire output.


Selected Studio Recordings and Song Performances

  • Neil Young – “Heart of Gold” (Harvest, 1972)
  •      “Old Man” (Harvest, 1972; Live at Massey Hall 1971, 2007)
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) – “Helpless” (Déjà Vu, 1970; written by Neil Young)
  • Neil Young – “Far from Home” (Prairie Wind, 2005)
  • k. d. lang and Roy Orbison – “Crying” (1987; written by Melson/Orbison ca 1962)
  • k. d. lang – “Full Moon of Love” (Absolute Torch and Twang, 1989; written by Preston/Smith)
  •      “Constant Craving” (Ingénue, 1992; written by lang/Mink)
  •      “Helpless” (Hymns of the 49th Parallel, 2004; written by Neil Young)
  • The Tragically Hip – “Lionized” (Fully Completely, 1992)
  •      “Blow at High Dough” (Up to Here, 1989)
  •      “At the Hundredth Meridian” (Fully Completely, 1992; That Night in Toronto, 2004-05)
  •      “Fly” (World Container, 2006)
  • Stompin’ Tom Connors – “Bud the Spud” (Bud the Spud and Other Favourites, 1970)

“Far from Home” (Neil Young, Prairie Wind, 2005)

Introduction / Verse 1
When I was a growing boy, a-rocking on my daddy’s knee,
Daddy took an old guitar and sang: “Bury me on the lone prairie.”
Uncle Bob sat at the piano. My girl cousins sang harmony.
Those were the good old family times that left a big mark on me.


Bury me out on the prairie, where the buffalo used to roam,
Where the Canada geese once filled the sky, and then I won’t be far from home.
Bury me out on the prairie, where the buffalo used to roam.
You won’t have to shed a tear for me, ’cause then I won’t be far from home. Instrumental

Verse 2
Walking down the Trans-Canada highway, I was talking to a firefly,
Trying to make my way to Nashville, Tennessee, when another car passed me by.
Some day I’m gonna make big money and buy myself a big old car,
Make my way on down to that promised land, and then I’m gonna really go far.

Instrumental / Chorus / Instrumental

(written by Neil Young; k. d. lang, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, 2004)

(CSNY’s original arrangement differs slightly from lang and Mink’s version, shown below.)

Introduction / Verse 1
There is a town in north Ontario, with dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go. All my changes were there.
Blue, blue window behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise,
And big birds flying across the sky, throwing shadows in our eyes, leaves us:

Helpless, helpless, helpless. Helpless, helpless, helpless. Instrumental

“Verse 2a”
Baby can you hear me now? The chains are locked and tied around my door.
And baby, will you sing with me somehow? Chorus (twice) / Instrumental

“Verse 2b” = Verse 1b
Blue, blue windows behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky, throwing shadows in our eyes, leaves us:

Chorus (twice, plus ending)

“Fly” (The Tragically Hip, World Container, 2006)

Introduction / Verse 1
Seventy days to cross the ocean,
seventy nights where no one’s gonna hear me fall.
Freddie Mercury: “I’ve sometimes wished I’d never been born at all.” That’s right!
I remain un-photographed, yeah. I don’t exaggerate my intelligence.
I might turn a broom into a tree, but I’ll never be one of them. That’s right!

Chorus 1
I fly, ’cause there’s no why in getting beaten up by a guy who cries before he fights.

Verse 2
I don’t want ’em to see me like this,
the way they like to kick people when they’re down.
You said: “Please stop worrying ’bout this.
They stop kicking once you’re down.” That’s right!
There’s Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. There’s Moonbeam, Ontari-ari-o.
There are places I’ve never been and always wanted to go. That’s right!

Chorus 2
I fly, ’cause woe betide a guy who just lives to fight.
Fly. Love is to try and die trying.

Fly. Yeah, that’s right. Fly. Yeah, that’s right.
Try. Love is to try and die tryin’. Guitar Solo

Verse 3
Coastline rising out of the ocean, coastline rises like a pair of glowing thighs.
There’s something down deep inside me says: “Where ya been all my life?”

Choruses 3-4
Fly. Turn your back, get your face in the sky.
Fly. Love is to try and die trying.
Try. Left to right, across your mind. Try. Love is to try and die trying.


“Bud the Spud”
(Stompin’ Tom Connors, Bud the Spud and Other Favourites, 1970)

[truck sound]

It’s Bud the Spud from the bright red mud, rollin’ down the highway, smilin’.
The spuds are big on the back of Bud’s rig. [twice:] They’re from Prince Edward Island.

Verse 1
Now from Charlottetown or from Summerside, they load him down for the big long ride.
He jumps in the cab, and he’s off with the pride Sebagos.
He’s gotta catch the boat to make Tormentine, and he heads up that old New Brunswick line.
Through Montreal he comes just a flyin’, with another big load o’ potatoes.


Verse 2
Now the Ontario Provincial Police don’t think much o’ Bud. [siren sound]
Yeah, the cops have been lookin’ for the son of a gun that’s been rippin’ the tar off the 401.
They know the name on the truck shines up in the sun: “Green Gables.”
Then he hits Toronto, and it’s 7 o’clock when he backs ’er up agin the terminal dock,
And the boys gather round just to hear him talk about another big load o’ potatoes.

Chorus / Instrumental

Verse 3
Now I know a lot of people from east to west that like the spuds from the island best,
’cause they’ll stand up to the hardest test, right on the table.
So when ya see that big truck a-rollin’ by [air-horn sound], wave yer hand or kinda wink yer eye,
’Cause that’s Bud the Spud from old PEI, with another big load o’ potatoes.

Chorus (variation):
It’s Bud the Spud from the bright red mud, rollin’ down the highway, smilin’,
because he’s got another big load
[spoken, with no accompaniment:]
of the best dog-gone potatoes that’s ever been growed,
[a tempo / normal:]
And they’re from Prince Edward Island. They’re from Prince Edward Island.


[fades, then truck sound and faint air-horn]

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