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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Music”

Neil Young, the Bard of Boring Suburbanites


Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings (2013)

This novel begins with a group of teenagers forming a clique at a summer arts camp and naming themselves “the Interestings,” and then follows the course of their lives into adulthood. (The set-up reminded me, weirdly perhaps, of what I’ve heard about this book, though I haven’t actually read it. I wonder if it mentions Canada….) Jules Jacobson, the central character, is a bit of an outsider in this group (she feels lucky to be included), and her experiences and perceptions are at the heart of the book, though it goes on occasional tangents to focus on other characters.

There are no direct references to Canada as a country, but there are a couple of references to Canadians that seem worth mentioning; they even pick up on figures we have come across before.

1. Leonard Cohen

The first relates to Jonah Bay, one of “the Interestings” and the son of Susannah Bay, a famous folksinger who seems to be loosely modelled on Joan Baez. Barry Claimes, another folksinger and a friend of Susannah’s, has been struggling, and failing, to write his own original songs. He begins inviting Jonah over to his house, where he plies the child with hallucinogens, hands him a guitar and records whatever comes out of his mouth. Claimes then works Jonah’s spontaneous, drug-fuelled compositions into songs, which he presents (or, you might say, “claims” — ha-ha) as his own.

At this point in the novel Jonah has figured out that something is wrong in this relationship with Barry, but Barry keeps phoning him:

Barry called him back a dozen times, and Jonah didn’t realize that he could simply not answer. Each time the phone rang, Jonah answered. And each time, Barry Claimes said he cared about him, he missed him, he wanted to see him, Jonah was his favorite person, even including all the folksingers he had known — even including Susannah and Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and Richie Havens and Leonard Cohen.  (126)

Leonard Cohen, the lone Canadian, simply appears in a list of folksingers; there is no comment on the fact that he is Canadian, or on Canada as a country; we simply notice a Canadian taking his place in that particular pantheon.

To me, however, the reference to Cohen seems a little odd. This scene in the novel takes place in 1970; certainly Cohen had put out albums at that time, and was known as a folksinger, but was he really a figure that people would think of in the same breath, so to speak, as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger? (Contrast, for example, Graham Nash’s reference to him as “Joni’s Canadian friend” in his memoir, which suggests that, to Nash at least, Cohen wasn’t well-known.) Cohen has endured and his reputation has grown over the intervening time, and especially since the 1990s (even in Russia), and I wonder if his appearance here is more reflective of the time the novel was written (2010-2012, presumably, given that it was published in 2013) rather than the time it takes place.

2. Neil Young

The second Canadian reference occurs when Jules is on the phone with her best friend, Ash, discussing Ash’s brother Goodman. At this point in the novel, it is 1976:

From the next room Jules could hear her sister Ellen’s roaring blow-dryer, and the same Neil Young album that seemed to be on autoplay, with the singer’s thin voice now singing, “There were children crying / and colors flying / all around the chosen ones.”  (169)

Jules’ sister, obviously, is listening to After the Gold Rush (released in 1970). I suppose this idea of irritation at a sibling’s taste in music expresses one of the universal truths of human life: I have heard my father make the same complaint about his sister, although in that case it was Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” that she was listening to over and over.

What is interesting here, I think, is the question of what liking Neil Young says about a person. To Jules, Ash and her brother Goodman represent everything she yearns for in life: they live in New York City, their parents are wealthy and sophisticated, and they are brought up in a world of art and culture. By contrast, Jules despises her own life outside New York in an ugly house with her dull sister and widowed mother, which to her is the very definition of everything boring and suburban.

Neil Young’s music is associated with Jules’ sister — that is, with the stultifying absence of culture in suburbia — rather than with Ash and her family in New York City. This Canadian musician, then, represents the dull, middle-of-the-road, and vaguely irritating musical taste of the suburban bourgeoisie, which is what Jules yearns to escape. (This is notably different, by the way, from Neil’s totemic position as a culture hero to current American hipsters.)

There is also an undeniable tone of exasperation in the description: the record “seemed to be on autoplay,” the singer has a “thin voice,” and perhaps most of all, Jules’ sister is listening to it with her hair dryer on (providing a version of the “vacuum cleaner continuo” suggested by another Canadian, Glenn Gould?) — it’s hard to ignore the implication that listening to Neil Young is no pleasure. The fact that he is Canadian is never directly expressed in the novel, but could the American stereotype of Canadians as rather dull and unadventurous lie behind this choice of Neil Young as representative of boring taste in music?

(Alternatively — and if we wanted to try to salvage a bit of Neil’s reputation here — we might observe that Ellen is listening to an album, which originally came out in 1970, in 1976. This might suggest that it is not Neil Young himself whose music is dull and suburban, but only that Ellen’s taste is rather behind the times.)

Regardless of that, the presence of both Leonard Cohen and Neil Young in the novel shows again the extent to which Canadian artists and performers are woven into the cultural texture of American life, something we have noticed before in books by Lorrie Moore and Dave Van Ronk, to name just a couple of examples.

3. The Music

Here is Leonard Cohen live in 1970, to give an idea of what his music sounded like at that particular point in time:

And here is “After the Gold Rush,” with Neil’s voice admittedly sounding thin even by his rather attenuated standards:

Sex, Drugs, Classical Music … and Canada, Of Course


Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (2004)

This is a strange book. I suppose you could categorize it as a memoir and not be too far off; it also seems to purport to be an “exposé” of the dark side of the classical music scene, though it really isn’t, or not to any great extent. There’s very little in the way of a narrative thread running through the book: much of it concerns Tindall’s own life, of course, but she often drops her story for long disquisitions on the history of classical music in the U.S., the lives of particular performers, and so on. As a result, the book ends up being a heterogeneous mix of personal anecdotes, social history, and op-ed type passages on “the state of classical music.” If I had to sum it up in a word, I would call it “lumpy”.

When I got to the end of the book and found out that Tindall had become a journalist, the book’s form – or maybe I should say, its lack of consistent form – made a little more sense to me: it’s more like a lot of articles on various topics related to classical music strung together without much of an organizing principle. And when I looked up a few of her articles online, there were definite parallels with the book, suggesting that perhaps some repurposing had gone on. That said, a lot of the personal anecdotes are interesting or amusing enough to be worth reading, and the portrait of the life of freelance classical musicians in New York, which hovers somewhere between subsistence and poverty, is sharply drawn and affecting.

And, of course, there are a few references to Canada to make it all worthwhile. The first comes in a description of one of Tindall’s fellow students at the North Carolina School of the Arts:

Next door to me was Kristin. She’d brought her French horn from a Montana town of 250, where, at best, girls returned home to a husband and farm after attending a local college. One snowy night, pianist Lili Kraus had played eighty miles away in Great Falls, the only big town between Billings and Calgary.   (22)

The passage on a general level speaks to the cultural desolation that exists outside major cities. Interestingly, however, Canada is not mentioned as an example of some kind of wasteland, as often happens with American authors; rather, Calgary represents one outpost of civlization at the far end of the musical desert in which Tindall’s roommate has grown up. I think we can take that as a compliment.

The next reference to Canada is simply a brief mention in a performance itinerary about Tindall’s friend (and sometime lover), the pianist Sam Sanders:

By April, Sam hit the road with Itzhak, traveling to Dallas, Quebec and across the Midwest.  (182)

There’s an interesting pattern of decreasing specificity there: Dallas is a city, Quebec a province, and the Midwest a region that encompasses several states. Ordinarily it’s Canada that is treated in the vaguest way in lists like this and U.S. locations that are named more specifically, but here the one Canadian location actually occupies the middle position, and it is “the Midwest” that is treated like a vast expanse of nothingness.

So that’s a nice step up for us. Of course it would be Quebec that the famous Itzhak Perlman includes on his tour.

And finally, there is this, which was definitely the most interesting Canadian reference in the book:

Schlepping back from a gig in Jersey, I held my instruments tightly while passing through Port Authority. The bus station had long been known as a magnet for crime. However, today it felt safe, even bucolic, as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray,” a term coined by Northwestern University professor Robert Gjerdingen. The technique was first used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. The trend spread as Pavarotti cleared out Denver parking lots, Chopin thwarted Toronto thugs, and an endless loop of Mozart blared across a Florida slum….
I thought about the message of the Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime.  (205)

Tindall doesn’t seem to think the trend towards using classical music to chase away loiterers is anything to be proud of, but at least in this somewhat questionable area, Canada can claim to be a leader. This passage also reflects an idea of Canadian cities that runs counter to their usual image of being much “safer” than American cities: even Toronto, it turns out, has thugs.

Personal Reminiscences

In an example of what Northrop Frye might have called the “pre-critical response,” I have to confess a particular fondness for that paragraph because I experienced what it describes first-hand. In the mid-90s, when I used to travel to the wilds of Scarborough to work, I had to take a bus from Kennedy station (apologies for the Toronto references for those who have no idea what I’m talking about), and during that time the TTC, in response to a couple of stabbings, instituted exactly the program Tindall is describing at Kennedy: in an attempt to make the station feel inhospitable to the sort of people who stab other people, they started piping in classical music (I think it was mostly Beethoven) all day. And so every morning, while I waited for my bus, I was treated to some music.

(Of course in the age of the iPod/iPhone, when anyone who wishes can walk around permanently cocooned in whatever music they choose, this “musical bug spray” idea would never work. But those were different times.)

What were the results? I don’t personally recall feeling any “safer” in the station, but then I was only waiting around there in the mornings, and the stabbings likely occurred at night. I don’t think anyone else got stabbed while the classical music was being played, so I suppose it “worked,” in some sense. The program didn’t last very long though – I think after a month or two at most the station was silent again. No doubt non-stop Beethoven was driving the TTC employees crazy and they complained about a “poisoned work environment” or something like that.

The Music

Since the book is about music, it seems a shame not to include a little. Here is Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, just to give a sense of what Tindall’s instrument (did I mention she’s an oboist?) sounds like:

“An ill wind that no one blows good,” as a repeated joke in the book has it.

One of Tindall’s boyfriends has a particular fondness for Mahler’s Fifth; here’s a version conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who also features in the book:

Though I find this version by von Karajan more compelling, particularly the first movement:

Bonus Pop-Culture Tie-In

Mozart in the Jungle has recently been used as the basis for a TV series by Amazon. I haven’t watched it, but here’s the trailer:

My impression, based on that, is that the show bears little relation to the actual content of the book, but really just uses the subtitle as the jumping-off point for a largely fictionalized narrative. Still, it might be fun.

Back In Those Old Folky Days


Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005)

Although it was published quite recently, Dave Van Ronk’s memoir deals mainly with the subject matter you want it to deal with: his time on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s. The book is the basis for the recent Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, though having read the book, I have to say they started with pretty good source material and made a sorry hash of it. (If you’ve seen the film, you may be forgiven for wondering how much of the narrative came straight from the cover photo, with the cat nervously poking its head out of the doorway behind Van Ronk. The same image appears on the Inside Dave Van Ronk album cover.)

Based on the book, and also his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I suppose you would call Van Ronk a “raconteur.” Given that the book is written “with” Elijah Wald, it’s hard to know how much of the shaping of the anecdotes – and the book is really just a string of anecdotes – has been done by Van Ronk himself and how much by his amanuensis, though in the Afterword Wald makes it sound as though he essentially wrote the book in Van Ronk’s “voice”. Whatever the details behind its creation, it makes amusing reading, rolling along from one story to the next with a pleasant rhythm.

There are numerous references to Canada, and to famous Canadians like Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen, some of which are just passing mentions that don’t reveal too much. I’m going to try to pick out a few that I think illustrate some larger idea about our country, or that are just interesting for one reason or another. This one is part of a series of stories about Van Ronk’s friendship with Reverend Gary Davis:

Like most geniuses, Gary had his eccentricities, and one that sometimes drove me crazy was that he had his own sense of pitch. We were playing once at a concert in Canada, and he did his whole first set with the low E string about a quarter tone flat. It was driving me crazy, because every time he hit that note it was booming off-key, so on the break I borrowed his guitar on some excuse and surreptitiously tuned that string. He came back for the second set, started into a song, and just stopped dead, looked a little perplexed, and tuned that string right back down to where it had been.  (137)

I don’t know that we can conclude a whole lot about Canada from this, but it’s an entertaining story, and a decent example of the sort of thing you’ll encounter if you decide to read the book. Van Ronk makes no mention of whether the Canadian audience was as bothered by this out-of-tune string as he was; perhaps it was some sort of joke Davis liked to play on the philistines north of the border? But, at least in Van Ronk’s telling, it sounds habitual.

Those Competitive Canadians

This next passage is about a sort of “changing of the guard” on the Village folk scene as it became more popular:

…musicians began streaming in from all points of the compass: [Tom] Paxton from Oklahoma, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs from Ohio … Ian and Sylvia from Canada, Dylan from Minnesota … but with very few exceptions, my old friends who had been huffing and puffing all of those years to become professionals were nowhere to be seen. Basically, what I think happened was that the New York singers simply were not as competitive as the newcomers. You do not stick it out in this line of work unless you are fiercely driven, and most of the New Yorkers, while they might have had the talent, did not have that competitive drive.  (150)

Well, that’s a first: I don’t think I’ve ever come across a reference to Canadians being more competitive and driven than New Yorkers, but there it is – Ian and Sylvia, those fiercely competitive Canadians, driving the meek New Yorkers out of the Gaslight and taking their jobs (and dreams of folky stardom) away. This is certainly an unusual view of Canadians, contrasting with our more customary polite, almost meek image.

Of course, the Canadians are lumped in with singers from several locations in the U.S., as well, so they are only a part of a wave that washed the New Yorkers away – but still. And that’s another thing….

Canada – Just Another Place in the U.S.

It’s also noteworthy that in that list, Canada is mentioned alongside Oklahoma, Minnesota and Ohio, as if it were just another American state, rather than a separate country. The same thing occurs a bit later:

I was hosting the Tuesday night hoots at the Gaslight, as well as sometimes doing a week as a headliner there or at Folk City, and for variety I was making occasional forays into the hinterlands. I got to Tulsa and Oklahoma City for a couple of weeks, and I was going to the West Coast, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Canada.  (171)

There it is again, Canada lumped in with a list of U.S. place names as if we were just another American location – and the equal of a mere city this time, not even a state, as we were in the earlier list. (We saw something similar, incidentally, in Ted Hughes’ description of his camping trip with Sylvia Plath.) And Canada comes last in the list, as if to suggest that we are the most obscure of the “hinterlands” Van Ronk visited.

I really do think Americans sometimes forget we’re a whole separate country: we’re so close, and so similar, that they just lump us in as the “fifty-first state,” so to speak.

The Joni Mitchell Saga (In Three Parts)

Joni Mitchell is a significant presence in the book, and overall Van Ronk is very complimentary about her – there’s even a photo of him with his arm around her(!), so apparently they were friends. I’m not going to quote every drop of her name, but I will pick out three references that seem to illuminate something larger about Canada.

1. Typical Insecure Canadian

The major references to Mitchell kick off with this fascinating portrait of Canadian insecurity and our tendency to evaluate ourselves based on the opinions others have of us:

My favourite Patrick Sky story happened right around the time he recorded that album [A Harvest of Gentle Clang]. It was 1965, and we had been invited to appear on a Canadian television show called Let’s Sing Out, which was their version of Hootenanny. They were filming at a college in Winnipeg, and Patrick and I happened to be on the same plane out of Buffalo…. All the tech people were running around, setting up lights and patting us down with powder puffs and that sort of thing, and over in a corner, sitting by herself on a folding chair, was this lovely blonde lady. She was playing a guitar and singing to herself, just warming up, and I don’t know how it happened, but after a few minutes everything was completely quiet and everybody had just formed a semicircle around her. It was Joni Mitchell, and she was singing “Urge for Going,” and that was the first time I ever heard it or her. It was simply magical, and by the middle of the second verse, you could hear a pin drop. She finished, and there was just this silence, utter silence.
Then Patrick turns to me, and loudly says, “That sucks!”
As it happened, that was the highest compliment Patrick was capable of bestowing, but of course Joni had no way of knowing that. She later told me that she went back to Detroit in tears and told Chuck, her partner and husband, that the great folksingers from New York didn’t like her music, and she briefly considered quitting the business.  (174-75)

First, notice how the Canadian TV show is described as “their version of” an American TV show. This is a very common way of thinking about us among our neighbours to the south: they don’t consider us distinct, but rather as a slightly altered version of themselves, so anything Canadian is described as being “the Canadian version of” something American.

But more important, obviously, is the effect the opinions of these two New Yorkers had on Joni Mitchell. This is an absolutely classic expression of Canadian insecurity: it makes no difference how famous you are or how much success you have in Canada, you don’t mean anything until you succeed in the U.S. And this isn’t just an opinion held by Americans (though no doubt they would feel that way too, if they ever gave a thought to Canadians who weren’t famous in America); what is so telling about this passage is how completely Mitchell has internalized the idea that it’s the opinions of Americans that matter. She is there, after all, to appear on a Canadian television show – a show that these Americans have taken the trouble to fly north to appear on, so it clearly isn’t nothing, and the fact that she’s appearing alongside them suggests that she is more or less their equal.  But the high opinion of the people who run Let’s Sing Out means nothing when put up against criticism from those two giants of the New York folk scene, Patrick Sky and Dave Van Ronk.

And yet, show of hands: Who’s heard of Patrick Sky? Who’s heard one of his songs? And what about Joni Mitchell – who’s heard of her or heard one of her songs? I can’t see your hands out there, but I think I can guess the results of that little survey. So even a very talented Canadian who went on to incredible popular and commercial success could be led to question her own value by two Americans who (not to be rude) didn’t ultimately add up to that much on the music scene.

Just to give you a sense of what they were laughing at, here’s a remarkable version of “Urge for Going” recorded for a Let’s Sing Out program in Sudbury (not Winnipeg) – it even features the “Let’s Sing Out” theme song before Mitchell’s performance, which reminds us that “there’s room for all in the hootenanny hall” – a typically inclusive Canadian sentiment:

2. The Three Titans of Folk

Joni Mitchell’s name crops up again in a discussion of how musicians learn their craft:

There are some very good young musicians on the folk scene [today], but they will get to be fifty years old without having as much stage experience as I had by the time I was twenty-five. As a result, they will naturally mature much more slowly than the Dylans and Joni Mitchells and I did.  (121)

I just love the way he casually lumps himself in with Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as though when people talk about the folk music boom of the 60s, the first three names on their lips are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and … Dave Van Ronk. Somehow, I just don’t think Van Ronk has quite that level of popular recognition. On the other hand, it is a great compliment to Canada to see Mitchell mentioned alongside Dylan.

3. Hinterland Songstress

Later on, Van Ronk mentions Joni Mitchell in reference to the fact that, unlike Mitchell and Dylan and so many others, he rarely wrote or sang his own songs:

There were unknown songwriters like Joni Mitchell out in the hinterlands, and there was a grapevine that reached all around the country, so as far as new songs went, I was surrounded by an embarrassment de richesse.  (207)

Now, to be fair, there are probably parts of New York City that Van Ronk would consider “hinterlands,” but still, there’s that word again: Joni Mitchell, a Canadian, is off in the hinterlands. I think it’s just coincidence that Van Ronk’s idiosyncratic French (he was quite the autodidact, apparently) comes up in the same sentence as a reference to Canada, though perhaps there’s something going on subconsciously.

And Now, Some Music

Having talked so much about music, we might as well wrap up with some actual music: “Hesitation Blues,” which is one of Dave Van Ronk’s better-known (maybe?) songs. To start us off, here is Jelly Roll Morton’s version; I think at the beginning you can hear him say that he didn’t write the song:

Next, here is Reverend Gary Davis’ version – it’s fascinating to hear how he works the audience:

Here is Van Ronk doing his version:

And finally, if you’ve hesitated here this long, you might as well check out this relatively recent Jorma Kaukonen/Hot Tuna version, just to see that the tradition goes on:


Stompin’ Tom Connors: 1936-2013

We pause in our relentless quest for references to Canada by non-Canadians to honour a Canadian who put Canada right there in his songs: Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Thanks to Dave Sylvestre for the song recommendation.

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