I’ve enjoyed the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot during much of my life. It spoke to me in many ways about my youth and that of our vast country. About the great effort it took to unify a land that not only necessitated the invention of time zones but actually has six of them. I worked in the woods for three plus summers and can attest to the hard work that takes. Still, now that I’m older and possibly wiser, I find myself thinking of these lyrics in different ways. But before I start in on that I want it to be clear that I am a Lightfoot fan: though it took me weeks and I never did it well I learned “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on a guitar with a green arborite top as a youth (the guitar worked well as a cheese cutter though). And I think that songs such as “Sundown”, “Carefree Highway”, “Rainy Day People” and “If You Could Read My Mind” are some of the best songs written anywhere and anywhen.
So background. Well you can read that for yourself but it seems that the song itself was commissioned for a CBC “special broadcast on January 1, 1967, to start Canada’s Centennial year”. Interesting: I’ll get back to that. So, I’ll quote from the lyrics below but they’re easy to find on the net if you to look at them yourself.
I would object that the mountains or dark forests were alone or too silent long before the white man or the wheel. Was the wheel tossed in there as a nod to our aboriginal brothers and sisters? There is evidence that they also invented the wheel around 1500 BC on these two continents so I don’t get it. What does ‘too silent to be real’ mean anyhow? A beautiful and useful idea to paint with words but that has nothing to do with what’s real. It’s so anthropomorphic to think of forests, or mountains for that matter, not to have sound just because no human or ‘white’ human is there. Until ‘they’ came to this verdant country. Back to knocking Canada’s aboriginal heritage. And verdant? That really means ‘green grass’: sounds more like modern day Ireland to me.
What about time having no beginnings? It has tons of beginnings. And middles and ends. All that, like history having no bounds, is all purely a matter of context.
Gord goes on to say ‘they built the mines the mills and the factories for the good of us all’. I don’t buy that. ‘They’ built those for their own European economic self interest and certainly not for us all. Ask those who had to work in those mills about how good they were to work in. The ‘young growin’ land’ is all about colonization once again.
I agree with the part about ‘tear up the trails open ‘er heart let the life blood flow’. That’s a fitting way to talk about the colonial western European impact on North America nature. Of course, if it hadn’t been done then I wouldn’t be here, or most of me anyhow; the way I figure it I’m 12.5% native. That’s approximately my head and one of my legs. The rest is, I tink, français, eh?
Anyway. I still like the song: I just don’t think it represents Canada very well. Maybe that’s why it was a centennial thing which is also a colonial thing. So perhaps it should be the Colonial Railroad Trilogy instead. Remember where the word ‘Canada’ came from. The Huron-Iroquois ‘kanata’ which was supposed to mean ‘village’ or ‘settlement’ was first introduced to the white man in 1535 by the two Aboriginal youths talking to French explorer Jacques Cartier. To them it meant the village of Stadacona where the City of Québec now stands. In my opinion, Bruce Cockburn’s “Stolen Land” is a more realistic representation of our country’s history though they both share very catchy tunes.