Manitoba History: Review: Mike Ford, Canada Needs You, Volume One. Toronto: Maplemusic Recordings, 2005
by J. M. Bumsted
One of the worst-kept secrets in contemporary popular culture is the impressive resurgence of popular history. From historical novels to historical thrillers to historical fantasy, from history television to feature-length movies to live historical re-enactments, from the success of the Beaver Magazine to the appearance of a new Popular History Festival in Cambridge, England, history is hot.
Not surprisingly, popular music in various historical dimensions has been part of the recent growth trend. Perhaps the most common form of the relationship between pop music and history has been the impressive number of books, television programmes, and internet sites dealing with the history of the genre. Some of the television stuff has moved well beyond the older productions usually about rock and roll that tied film clips together with a bit of simplistic narrative. Ken Burns’ history of jazz both probed the origins of the form, and used the occasion to argue a major historical thesis: that jazz had been almost exclusively the creation of the black community in the United States. The number of published books about pop music has grown exponentially over the last twenty-five years. When I first started teaching a course in the social history of popular music about a quarter-century ago, scaring up a decent reading list on the topic was no easy matter. Today, the problem is more about making choices among many excellent studies.
Other relationships between history and music are possible. One is to use the music of the past in an illustrative sense, by resurrecting popular music of a particular era to emphasize its ambiance and aesthetic. Another is to recover and perform historic songs about events in the past, such as the songs of the Riel Rebellion or the establishment of Confederation. Perhaps the best-known performer of such material was the late Alan Mills. Yet a third possible way of connecting history and music comes by writing popular songs today inspired by the events of the past. This last at first glance may seem a bit off the wall, until we think about the number of North American popular songs that evoke history. Certainly one of the top song on the CBC’s Canadian Top 50 Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage” falls into this category, as does Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, not to mention Robbie Robertson’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Another recent illustration of writing pop songs about the past comes through the work of Mike Ford, a member of the Canadian pop/folk group Moxy Fruvous, who has released a CD entitled “Canada Needs You Volume One” composed almost entirely of history songs. Ford has written these songs for performance before groups of Canadian junior high and high school students. The topics of the songs range from the Canadian Identity (“I’m Gonna Roam”) to the First Peoples (“Thanadelthur”) to the rebellions of 1837 (“La Patriote” and “Turn Them Ooot!”) to Sir John A. Macdonald (“Sir John A You’re O.K.”). Four of the songs are especially relevant to Manitoba: “Thanadelthur,” “Les Voyageurs,” “Louis & Gabriel,” and “Canada Needs You,” this last about the recruiting of immigrants for the prairies. Whether it is significant that there are as many or more songs about Manitoba and Manitobans as about any other province is an open question, although it may well be argued that Manitoba is absolutely central to much of the first layer of mythology of Canadian popular history.
The big question, of course, is: are the songs any good? The answer is, I think, yes and no. For the purpose that they are intended, which is to bring Canadian history to a younger audience in the schools, they are absolutely splendid, fulfilling their task perfectly. Teachers can certainly use them as springboards for in-class discussions. But in several senses their pedagogical purpose probably tells against them as candidates for the CBC’s Canadian Top 50. In the first place, the lyrics while clever are fairly complicated, full of one specific historical fact and social studies reference after another.
Two lines of “I’m Gonna Roam” read:
Three lines of “Louis & Gabriel” go:
When we compare these songs with the best work of Stan Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot, and Robbie Robertson, one of the first points we appreciate is that their lyrics are both far more allusive and far simpler.
Perhaps even more to the point, the music to which the lyrics are set comes for the most part from the genre perhaps best labelled “Kid’s Music.” That is, it is the sort of well-arranged derivative stuff written for “Sesame Street” or “Carmen San Diego,” vaguely familiar but mostly not memorable. Such music is designed to provide a framework for the words, and the words are all-important, just as alphabetical letters and numbers or racial tolerance are what “Sesame Street” songs are really all about. A lot of the songs are mainly in singspiel with an attempt at a catchy chorus. I doubt kids come out of the performance hall humming most of this material. The catchiest song on the CD is the only one not written by Mike Ford. It is titled “I’ve Been Everywhere,” a Canadian adaptation of a Johnny Cash song ripped off from the Man in Black and credited on the album notes to one Geoff Mack. The transferral of the credit line from Cash to Mack tells us more about popular music than about Canadian history, but the kids need to know about Commodification as well as Confederation.
Most of the historical “facts” in the lyrics are accurate, although “Louis & Gabriel” has two errors. It claims that Riel “gave Manitoba its life and name,” which is not true. The Canadian government named Manitoba. Riel wanted the new province called “Assiniboia.” And Gabriel Dumont did not spend his last days in a Wild West show. On one level these mistakes are no big deal, but on another level they are as serious as the number of misspellings in the lyrics available online. On the whole, however, Mike Ford is to be congratulated, at least for his pedagogy.
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