If you’re a Baby Boomer like me (or even slightly older), you have a list of songs from your youth indelibly imprinted in your memory. There’s a good chance some of these were written and performed by Canadian artists. Many of the popular voices of our generation hailed from Canada – think of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot, to start.

Each of these artists has his or her own voice, but there’s also something similar – something deeply Canadian – about them, too. For me it’s a blend of wistful nostalgia, a connection to wide-open spaces and an austere Northern sensibility that ties them all together. This week’s Armchair Explorer will be a virtual musical tour of Canada – our 2020 Campus of the Year – proceeding from east to west. It will feature some very well-known, and some lesser-known, Canadian artists. Each of these artists and their songs connect to a theme in Canadian history, geography or culture.

Let’s start with the Canadian Maritimes and the provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – that hug the Atlantic Ocean. Stan Rogers was a Canadian folk musician who died tragically at the age of 33 in 1983. Watch this short clip from “One Warm Line,” a documentary about Stan’s life. Between remembrances by other musicians, you’ll hear Stan’s rich baritone voice singing “Northwest Passage.” The song’s clear sea shanty and Celtic influences reflect the Maritime culture he so loved. Did you know that the Bay of Fundy – located between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – has the highest tides on earth? Watch this short time-lapse film and see the tide rise by 46 feet in six hours.

We’ll make two musical stops in the French-speaking province of Quebec. The Band, one of the great rock groups of the 1960s and 1970s, included four Canadians and one American. They honed their skills on the rockabilly circuit in the American South, helped Bob Dylan “go electric” and – beginning with “Music from Big Pink” in 1967 – released a series of brilliant albums of their own. Listen to their song “Acadian Driftwood” to learn the sad fate of the French communities that refused to swear oaths of loyalty to the Crown after Britain gained possession of Canada in The French and Indian War. Many were deported and some settled in Louisiana where they became known as “Cajuns.” The video is dark and grainy, but the sound is excellent and – best of all – Joni Mitchell and Neil Young appear as special guests.

The cultural capital of Quebec is Montreal, and Leonard Cohen was Montreal’s troubadour. Cohen was born in the Montreal suburbs and graduated from McGill University – his songs are filled with references to the home he loved. His song “Suzanne” includes the line, “And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor,” a reference to Old Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. Here’s the Google Street View of the chapel. Click on the image and take your own walking tour of Montreal’s old town!

Neil Young was born in Toronto in the province of Ontario, and his song “Helpless” has that pure Canadian spirit. (In this video, Young is backed by The Band rather than the other way around. Listen for another distinctive voice that comes in at the 2:32 mark!) When Young sings, “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,” you may imagine a place that’s cold and desolate – but beautiful. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is one of the great museums of world culture and natural history. You can take a virtual tour of the museum here. Check out the museum’s beautiful beaded moccasins from the Cree tribe in Canada’s plains.

Gordon Lightfoot, best known for his songs “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” has been described as Canada’s answer to Woody Guthrie. His song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” shows off Lightfoot’s unique and resonant voice, while telling the story of the westward spread of white Canadian settlers. As the song cycle slows down and speeds up, you can hear trains doing the same along those hundreds of miles of lonely tracks. This 16-minute video takes you from Toronto to Vancouver by rail and shows Canada’s immense scale – the first glimpse of the Canadian Rockies at the 10:49 mark is spectacular! Along the way, let’s listen to Alberta-born, Saskatchewan-bred Joni Mitchell sing “I drew a map of Canada” in her song, “A Case of You.”

Another world-class Canadian song is “Four Strong Winds,” written by Ian Tyson and performed here by Ian and Sylvia Tyson in their 1986 reunion concert. Tyson once described this song as “a winter weather report and a love song all in one,” and it’s a song that has that unique Canadian feel. To complement it, let’s take a short virtual hike along the edge of Moraine Lake in Banff National Park.

We’ve finally reached Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean. Stompin’ Tom Connors was a Canadian country singer who wrote 300 songs and sold four million records – his song, “The Bridge Came Tumbling Down,” is about 19 ironworkers who were killed when the bridge they were building in Vancouver collapsed. That bridge – now called the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge – carries you into a cosmopolitan Pacific Rim city. A large population of Vancouver is of Chinese descent and the city has a vibrant restaurant scene. Hungry? Let’s sample dim sum at five Vancouver restaurants.

Americans are drawn to Canada because it feels both deeply familiar and strangely different at the same time. The American writer Richard Ford captured this “twin-ness” beautifully in his novel, “Canada.” He says that when we look across the border at Canada, we’re looking into a mirror. Sometimes the reflected image does exactly what we’re doing, but more often it moves according to its own mind. If you’d like to venture deeper into the Canadian psyche, try the strange and magical Deptford Trilogy by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. Then venture north to see this beautiful world for yourself!

Explore Road Scholar’s complete collection of programs in Canada – our 2020 Campus of the Year!

About the Author
Peter Spiers is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach at Road Scholar. He is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Strong, and Happier,” recently selected by The Washington Post as one of the best books to read at every age, 1 to 100 (Peter’s book was selected for age 70). Spiers holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a master of science from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

  • This is great. Thank you. However, I'm surprised you didn't include James Keelaghan, who bases many of his songs on Canada's history. Garnet Rogers has carried on Stan's legacy--and made one of his own--for many years as well. I know you had to draw the line somewhere, though. Lennie Gallant, too. Connie Kaldor from Saskatchewan is amazing, and her two sons are now carrying on with their own music. (I've been a folk music DJ for more than 40 years, and you know how finicky we can be!) I would also encourage your readers to check out the great folk music on the radio in Canada. I know I'm going to miss someone here, but the folk DJs in Canada are outstanding. Tom Coxworth, Steve Edge, Andrea and Arthur Berman, Mike Regienstrief, Tom Powell, and so many more. Love Canada so much! (One more comment: Bonnie Ste. Croix did a CD a couple of years ago when she traveled to all Canadian provinces and wrote/recorded a song about each one. It's great!)

  • well done, like everything you do.

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