Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Winnipeg”

Exiled to the CFL

exley

Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes (1968)

This “fictional memoir” (which presumably means much the same thing as “semi-autobiographical novel”) gives an account of Exley’s drinking, time in mental institutions and ardent New York Giants fandom, among other things. It ends (SPOILER ALERT!) with Exley sitting down and writing a semi-autobiographical novel, making the book a sort of record of its own creation. Along the way, there are a few references to Canada.

Football on the Glacier

One of the key elements of the book is Exley’s obsession with (or, to put it in contemporary terms, “man-crush on”) Frank Gifford. They were at USC at the same time (though they never knew each other), and Exley follows Gifford’s career as a pro, becoming a fan of the New York Giants and going to watch them play at the Polo Grounds. Exley also develops a fascination with Steve Owen, who coaches the Giants during the early part of Gifford’s time there, but is fired a couple of years before the team wins a championship. When Exley hears about Owen’s death, he decides to go to his funeral, and reflects on Owen’s post-Giants career:

It was Owen who over the years kept bringing me back to life’s hard fact of famelessness. It was for this reason, as much as any other, that I had wanted to make the trip to Oneida to make my remembrances. After the day at the Polo Grounds I heard of Owen from time to time, that he was a line coach for one NFL team or another, that he was coaching somewhere in Canada — perhaps at Winnipeg or Saskatchewan. Wherever, it must have seemed to him the sunless, glacial side of the moon.  (70-71)

The path of Owens’ career after he leaves the Giants is clearly one of decline. To be a line coach in the NFL, after having been a head coach, is a significant step down, and to end up coaching in the CFL marks an even greater fall, to the sort of job no one would take unless they had no better options. The very vagueness of the reference — “Winnipeg or Saskatchewan or somewhere” — reinforces this, suggesting the narrator isn’t sure where Owen went but the specific place doesn’t really matter, all that matters is that it’s in Canada, and nothing in Canada matters.

The comparison of Canada to the “sunless, glacial side of the moon” further emphasizes the magnitude of Owen’s decline — he’s been utterly cast out of society into a harsh, depopulated wasteland — and brings in by implication the common idea that Canada is cold. Our country is portrayed as a place of exile from a better and more civilized world for a football coach just as surely as it is for an academic in a David Lodge novel.

And how marvellous is that phrase, “life’s hard fact of famelessness”? This idea — Exley’s desire to achieve fame, and at the same time his self-loathing rage at his inability to do so — is central to the novel, and makes Owen into a kind of avatar of the author’s self-image. And so, in a way, Canada becomes the gloomy resting place of those afflicted by famelessness, the most shameful of all American diseases.

The Upstate New York Connection

We have noted before the tendency of writers from, or writing about, upstate New York (including Lorrie Moore, Chris Kraus and James Salter) to show a greater — and perhaps more accurate? — awareness of Canada than American writers generally, no doubt as a result of our geographical proximity. Much of A Fan’s Notes also takes place in upstate New York, and this scene, from a series of reminiscences about Exley’s father, emphasizes that closeness:

In 1938, the day before President Roosevelt snipped the ceremonial ribbon opening the International Bridge spanning the Thousand Islands and uniting the U.S. with Canada, it is told, apocryphally or otherwise, that my father beat that exemplary poseur to the punch, with wire cutters severed the cable which had been strung across the bridge’s entrance to bar hoi polloi, climbed into the back seat of a convertible roadster, and had himself driven over the arcing, sky-rising span, while in imitation of F.D.R. he sat magnificently in the back seat, his jaw thrust grandly out, and, hand aflutter, bestowed his benedictions on the lovely and (one somehow imagines) startled islands.  (30-31)

By “International Bridge,” Exley must mean the “Thousand Islands Bridge,” which opened in 1938, when Roosevelt was president, and the fact that a bridge is all it takes to “unite” our two countries emphasizes our proximity. Exley’s father’s ability to drive across the bridge so easily before it has opened could be read as a reference to our “undefended border” with the U.S., which is a theme that has come up several times before. And we have already noted President Roosevelt’s connection to Canada (he owned a cottage on Campobello Island), which is probably not being alluded to here but is still interesting given his opening of the bridge.

But beyond the obvious fact that Canada is directly north of the U.S., there’s really nothing being said about our country; it’s as if we exist only by virtue of our geographic relationship with the U.S. The bridge to Canada is a staging-ground for one of Exley’s father’s legendary adventures, but there is no suggestion that he would use it to actually travel to Canada.

Fishing in Canada (Again)

Canada is mentioned in relation to one of Exley’s girlfriends:

She was spending a lot of time with her sister because her sister’s husband, Ronald, had just died of a heart attack. Her sister had found him on the davenport. There had been a smile on Ronald’s face. He was probably dreaming of fishing in Canada because he went there every year, the two of them went together. “Ronald loved to fish,” she said dolefully. “Oh,” I said.  (148)

The connection between fishing and Canada, in the context of salmon, was the subject of one of our earliest posts, and appeared more recently in our post on the stories of John Cheever. I’m not sure there’s anything new here; the portrayal of Canada as a place Americans go on fishing vacations is in line with the idea of Canada as a less developed, more “wilderness” nation than the U.S. where Americans can go to escape their everyday lives (see also the Canadian cottage).

The Fraudulent Surgeons of Montreal

And then there is also this, in relation to a train journey:

I found myself drinking beer and eating ham sandwiches in one of these booths with a Marine sergeant returning from Korea, a vernal-cheeked coed with large breasts, coming from some cow-sounding college in Pennsylvania where, she had loftily announced, she was studying veterinary medicine, and a goateed and fraudulent-looking surgeon travelling to Montreal.  (176)

It’s hard to draw too much from that; the association of the “fraudulent-looking” surgeon with Montreal may suggest that Canada is a bit of a backwater when compared to the U.S., the sort of place where fraudulent medical practitioners can take advantage of the ignorant populace — but it’s hard to say.

In Conclusion (Almost)

I suppose it’s a testament to how much ground we’ve already covered in the last three-plus years here at Wow — Canada! that while there are a number of references to Canada in A Fan’s Notes, there’s not much new. We get the idea that Canada is cold, that the CFL is an inferior league to the NFL, and that Canada is easy to get into (undefended border) but somehow a less advanced or developed nation than the U.S., which makes it a great place to go fishing (wilderness) but not to go for a medical procedure (fraudulent surgeons). But these are all familiar ideas about our country, and it is beginning to feel as if there are a limited number of ways of portraying Canada that recur throughout the works of different authors.

And Finally…

This isn’t a direct reference to Canada, but it seemed worth at least a brief mention. Much of the novel takes place in bars (no surprise there, I suppose, given that it’s about a failing writer); this is from a description of one of them:

Invariably from some nook in the room a life-sized, cardboard, and Technicolored waitress named Mabel winked forever lasciviously and invited one to shout, “Hey, Mabel,” and demand a bottle of Black Label.  (265)

This refers to Carling Black Label, an “iconic Canadian brand” (as they say in the “ad biz”) that became popular outside Canada (which is the standard Canadian way of measuring success), in both the U.S. and the UK. Exley is describing one element of the “Hey Mabel — Black Label” ad campaign that ran in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s, and the way he describes the cardboard waitress as “invariably” part of the bar’s milieu indicates how established the Carling brand was as an element of American popular culture (you can read this brief history of Black Label if you’re curious). Here’s a sample of the TV ads that helped make Black Label so successful in the U.S.:

Animated version:

Later on, this series of ads was successful in the UK:

Sadly, due to my age, I don’t recall any of these classic ads from when they originally aired; what I remember is the early 90s Black Label campaign, when Black Label became a popular brand with the hip downtown crowd. The ads were a riff on the 60s originals in the way so much 90s “culture” was a “meta” reference to something that had come before:

I guess it seemed cool at the time.

Advertisements

The Sexy Side of … Ottawa?

NashCover

Graham Nash, Wild Tales (2013)

This book is not so much an autobiography or memoir as a series of anecdotes strung together, and how much you enjoy it (or don’t) may depend on how much of an admirer of Graham Nash you are. Graham Nash is certainly an admirer of Graham Nash: he never misses an opportunity to tell you how great one of his songs is, or how well he performed at a particular show or studio session.

The focus of the book is really on the music he made and the musicians he worked with; there are tangential references to sex and drugs, but if you’re looking for a lurid portrayal of the debauched rock star lifestyle (and why not?), look elsewhere, because you won’t find it here.

You will, however, find a lot of references to Canada. I suppose that’s not surprising, given that Nash had a lengthy (by his standards) affair with Joni Mitchell and was in (and out of) a band with Neil Young for decades. I’m not going to catalogue every single one, since they aren’t all particularly interesting; instead, I’ll pick out a few of the more characteristic ones.

Joni’s Enchanted Castle

This passage describes how Nash met Joni Mitchell for the first time, while he was on tour with the Hollies in Ottawa, of all places:

Eventually, she invited me back to the place where she was staying, the Chateau Laurier, a beautiful old French Gothic hotel in the heart of town. Her room on the seventh floor was out of this world, literally: It had a beautiful steepled ceiling, walls made of stone with gargoyles hunched just outside the windows. Flames licked at logs in the fireplace, incense burned in ashtrays, candles were lit strategically, and beautiful scarves had been draped over the lamps. It was a seduction scene extraordinaire.  (116)

Joni then seals the deal by … grabbing a guitar and playing some songs. Nash is suitably impressed:

I never knew anyone could write like that. There was pure genius sitting right in front of me, no doubt about it. I was awestruck, not only as a man but as a musician. I thought I knew what songwriting was all about, but after listening to Joni’s masterpieces, one after the next, I realized how little I knew. She was twenty-four years old. My heart opened up and I fell deeply in love with this woman on the spot.

We spent the night together. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. It was magical on so many different levels. The next day we woke up at two in the afternoon and I realized I was in hot water. I’d put in a wake-up call with the hotel’s front desk, but somehow misplaced putting the receiver back in the cradle. The Hollies had already checked out of their hotel without leaving details about our itinerary. I only knew they’d be somewhere in Winnipeg. I had no idea where they were staying or playing or how to get there. Our gig was only a few hours off. Somehow, I got the details and found a flight to Winnipeg. Traumatic, but worth every minute of it.  (116-17)

Wow! Who knew that two musical icons of the 60s first met and fell in love in Ottawa?

And Ottawa, contrary to its usual reputation as monotonously grey and cold, provides a wonderful atmosphere for romance – the “French Gothic” hotel with gargoyles perched outside the window, the fireplace, the steepled ceiling – the Chateau Laurier sounds like the enchanted castle in a fairy tale, where the lovely princess leads her bold knight. Perhaps Ottawa is just different enough from other places Nash had been to lend his night with Joni a magical quality – or maybe it was all Joni.

And then, alas, the quotidian reality of Winnipeg calls, and the idyll comes to an end. Mitchell and Nash would eventually end up living together for several years in California.

Square, Straight Canadians

Later, there is a description of Joni Mitchell’s parents that gives us, perhaps, a sense of the typical Canadian upbringing of the time:

I’d met her [Mitchell’s] parents, Bill and Myrtle Anderson, a few months before this. Joan and I had gone to visit them in her hometown, Saskatoon – a nice suburban house, not posh but very clean, stark white walls. I can’t describe what Joan’s room looked like because I wasn’t allowed within twenty feet of it. Bill and Myrtle were a very straight, religious couple, and they weren’t about to let a long-haired hippie sleep with their daughter under their roof, that was for sure. It surprised the hell out of me. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, not even close. But just to make sure, they put me in a downstairs bedroom, separating us by a floor, and made it clear I’d need an army behind me if I tried to sneak up there.  (140)

“Not even close” – ouch! We almost pity these poor, prudish Canadian parents, valiantly trying to protect the sanctuary of their daughter’s honour, not realizing it’s been conquered and sacked countless times before. They’re just so out of touch with the realities of life in the major U.S. centres – an ignorance perfectly summed up in the single word, “straight,” which seems to capture so much of what Nash sees in Canada, and Canadians, at this time.

Genius Joni

There’s also this description of the crowd backstage after Mitchell’s first solo show at Carnegie Hall:

There was a great backstage scene after the show. Crosby was there, and David Blue, and Joni’s Canadian friend Leonard Cohen….  (141)

I find that description of Leonard Cohen endlessly amusing – “Joni’s Canadian friend”.

It does, however, raise a couple of points of interest: first, that in a music scene that was based largely in California and New York, an Englishman like Nash, at least, was aware of who the Canadians were, and used their nationality to mark them off and associate them with one another.

But even beyond that, Cohen is not given an identity of his own: he’s not the poet Leonard Cohen, or the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, or even the Canadian poet or the Canadian singer/songwriter: he’s just a Canadian who is friends with Joni Mitchell.

This might partly be due to the fact that Nash knows Mitchell, and so he sees other people in relation to her. But the way he portrays Cohen as just a sidelight to Mitchell is also part of a larger, recurring element in the book, which is Nash’s admirable respect for what he repeatedly calls Mitchell’s “genius”. To Nash, Joni isn’t just a woman he had an affair with: she is a truly great artist in her own right and someone who, through her talent, demonstrated to him how much farther he could go in songwriting, and who serves as an example and inspiration to him throughout his career (though he very modestly (and correctly, from what I’ve heard) says he never wrote anything as great as her best songs). Like Dave Van Ronk, Nash regards Mitchell as one of the leading songwriters of her time, and demonstrates how much of an influence this Canadian woman had on the development of the singer/songwriter tradition.

It’s interesting to hear Nash describe the influence Mitchell had on him as a writer when we consider, for example, Lorrie Moore’s portrayal of the music of Joni Mitchell versus that of CSNY in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? In that book, CSNY, an all-male group, are connected (through their song “Ohio”) with the public world of war, politics, and the general social ferment of the times, whereas the music of Mitchell, a woman, is connected much more with the personal sphere and with the concerns of women – one might almost say it provides the soundtrack for types of experience that are shared and understood exclusively by women. Nash, however, makes no such distinction: he never suggests that Mitchell’s music is somehow feminine or “for women,” only that he admired her brilliance and did all he could to learn from it.

Bad Joni

But the course of true love never runs smooth, as someone or other once remarked, and it’s not all roses for Nash and Mitchell. Here’s a scene of an argument they had:

“You keep slagging America after it gave you all this opportunity,” she said. “Why are you biting the hand that feeds you?”
Like us, Joni was opposed to Nixon and the war, but she didn’t think it was fair to throw hand grenades from the side of the stage. We argued, and she ended up pouring a bowl of cornflakes and milk over my head. I was stunned – to say nothing of being pissed.
There was a maid in the room. I turned to her and said, “Would you kindly leave?” Then I put Joni over my knee and I spanked her.
Needless to say, it was one of the more interesting moments in our relationship.  (180)

Mitchell here seems to be showing some North American solidarity, as a Canadian defending the U.S. against the attacks of an Englishman. Does this indicate some subliminal Canadian desire to free ourselves from our subservient relationship to the UK (the past) and form closer ties with the U.S. (the sexy, exciting future)? If we wanted to stretch a point, we might see Nash’s violent response as expressing the attitude of the colonial overlord determined to assert its continued dominance over its overseas possession by chastising it for daring to offer an opinion contrary to what the colonial overlord expects….

But no, we won’t.

The Mysterious Mr. Young

In addition to Joni Mitchell, there is (unsurprisingly) a lot about another Canadian: Neil Young, who, over the years, has temporarily turned CSN into CSNY, though never stuck around for too long. The following passage describes a party where David Crosby took Nash to meet Stephen Stills, though it ends up being more about Young:

I knew all about Stephen Stills. I was totally into Buffalo Springfield. Allan Clarke had given me their album, which I’d carried throughout our [i.e. the Hollies’] tour of Canada. I practically played the grooves off that record. The word on the grapevine was the group was about to break up. The problem, apparently, was with their lead guitar player, Neil Young. He often turned up late for gigs, or not at all. He didn’t show at Monterey Pop, flat-out refused to play an important showcase on The Tonight Show, all of which frustrated the hell out of Stephen. He’d had enough of Neil’s shit. Besides, Stills was a guitar virtuoso in his own right and wanted the lead guitar position of the Springfield for himself. Looking back, it’s doubtful Neil ever wanted to be part of a band. Here’s an illustration that’ll put it in perspective: David and Stephen saw A Hard Day’s Night and knew exactly what they wanted to do. Neil didn’t give a shit about A Hard Day’s Night. He saw Don’t Look Back (twice) and took that as his role model. Neil always wanted to do what Dylan did: be an individual, a great songwriter, an interpreter of his own music. You couldn’t do that in a group, a lesson I’d learn about Neil much later in the game.  (113)

Notice the skilled use of foreshadowing at the end of that paragraph.

There’s a lot of information and opinion there, obviously, but what’s interesting from our perspective is the portrayal of Neil Young as an individual who can’t or won’t be part of a group: in Nash’s view, he seems very much the opposite of what one expects of a Canadian, given that our country is supposed to be more cooperative (socialist?) than the U.S. Here Young appears as the classic American loner, despite the fact that he’s actually Canadian.

The book also contains a little history lesson on how CSN became CSNY: apparently, Ahmet Ertegun suggested adding Neil Young to the CSN lineup to bring more “heat” to their live performances. Crosby agreed; Stills, despite bad memories of Buffalo Springfield, came around, but Nash was unconvinced, and so he insisted on meeting Young, one-on-one, for breakfast:

Turns out Neil Young was a funny motherfucker. I knew he had this dark, looming presence, a scowl and a loner tendency. But Neil was funny. Now, maybe he understood that I was the group’s lone holdout where he was concerned and he was on his best behaviour, but at the end of breakfast I would have nominated him to be the prime minister of Canada.  (161)

Breakfast? Really? This is what world-class rockers do: they meet for breakfast, like high school girls scarfing down pancakes while rehashing the details of last night’s drunken party?

At least Nash shows some familiarity with Canadian politics: he knows we have a Prime Minister (being British helps there, I suppose). No doubt he knows prime ministers are actually elected, and that Canada doesn’t seek nominations for the office from rock stars.

Back to Joni

Later on, Nash and Crosby are trying to pull together songs for an album:

And there was always something to write about Joni. When we were still a couple, I’d spent some time with her in British Columbia, where she had a little stone house on a beach. It was a place where she was indeed bouncing off boulders and running on the rocks, so I wrote “Mama Lion” to capture that snapshot.  (224)

So Mitchell not only inspired Nash to develop his own songwriting skills, but she also continued to provide material for him to write about long after their relationship ended. The stone beach house carries a suggestion of idyllic solitude that is not surprising to find associated with Canada.

The Absent Goldfish

We get another glimpse of Canadian narrow-mindedness in the description of Nash’s tour in support of his 1980 solo album, Earth & Sky:

Despite all of that, I had to get it up to promote the album. There was a two-month tour, mostly small theatres, just a trio, nice and laid-back to complement the songs. Leah Kunkel, Cass’s sister, opened for me. The only other participant was Joey the Goldfish, who swam in his bowl onstage throughout all forty-eight shows except the show in Canada, where thanks to immigration I replaced the real fish with a slice of carrot.  (273)

What? I really can’t figure that out, but apparently Canadian immigration officials refused to let a goldfish cross the border. Here we are portrayed as almost hysterically focused on protecting our homeland from the dangerous influence of marauding foreign rock stars (and their pets) – though I suppose, given the RCMP’s experience with Keith Richards, we aren’t totally to blame. The only notable result of this championing of security was that the Canadian audience (note it sounds like there was only one show in Canada – is that an insult or a mercy?) was forced to stare at a lump of carrot floating in a bowl of water, rather than a goldfish, which no doubt drastically reduced the entertainment quotient of the concert.

The Music

On to the good stuff. This is Joni Mitchell singing “Willy,” a song she wrote about Nash (“Willy,” apparently, was his nickname):

Here is “Our House,” which is Nash’s song about living with Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon:

And here is a conversation with Nash (via the Library of Congress) that covers some of the same material as the book:

So if you don’t want to take the time to read it, that at least gives you a taste.

Back In Those Old Folky Days

vanronkcover

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:

 

Escape Into Hopelessness

bunting

Basil Bunting, Complete Poems (2000)

I don’t know how well it comes across at the size above, but that cover photo must be one of the all-time greats in the annals of collected poetry volumes: Bunting casually reclining in a wicker chair against a Mediterranean background (the back cover tells us he’s in Rapallo, Italy – how Poundian!), his (carefully coiffed?) facial hair simply glorious in its effrontery.

Of course Bunting, so proud of being a Northerner (as opposed to what he calls a “Southron”), couldn’t resist mentioning our Northern land:

The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer

On the up-platform at Morpeth Station
in the market-day throng
I overheard a Morpethshire farmer
muttering this song:

Must ye bide, my good stone house,
to keep a townsman dry?
To hear the flurry of the grouse
but not the lowing of the kye?

To see the bracken choke the clod
the coulter will na turn?
The bit level neebody
will drain soak up the burn?

Where are ye, my seven score sheep?
Feeding on other braes!
My brand has faded from your fleece,
another has its place.

The fold beneath the rowan
where ye were dipt before,
its cowpit walls are overgrown,
ye would na heed them more.

And thou! Thou’s idled all the spring,
I doubt thou’s spoiled, my Meg!
But a sheepdog’s faith is aye something.
We’ll hire together in Winnipeg.

Canada’s a cold land.
Thou and I must share
a straw bed and a hind’s wages
and the bitter air.

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food,
grouse is sport for the rich;
heather grows where the sweet grass might grow
for the cost of cleaning the ditch.

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.     (1930; pp. 112-13)

In the main, the poem is the moving lament of a farmer for the home and land he is leaving, which he sees falling into disrepair and uselessness without his care. Canada appears as the country he’s leaving for, where he will seek a new life.

We encountered a similar view of Canada in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, where our country represents a new opportunity for Amy’s brother Tip. Whether it’s the 70 years that have elapsed between the two works, or some other reason, Bunting’s poem seems to take a much more bitter view of Canada; it’s quite clear that the farmer doesn’t want to go – presumably only the utter desperation of his present situation is driving him to it – and furthermore, doesn’t believe things will be any better when he arrives. (Tip, admittedly, doesn’t want to go to Canada either, but Amy seems to believe that our country represents a genuine hope if he would only seize it.)

Not this Morpethshire farmer – his heart is with the farm he must leave, not the country he is going to, and the first half of the poem is filled with images of its decay. Only in the second half does he get to Canada – introduced by the mention of Winnipeg, no less.

Now, I must admit, I’m always a little suspicious when a poet uses a proper name as a rhyme word, and I grow even more so when, as here, two proper names are rhymed with each other. It just seems to have a slight whiff of desperation about it, and one feels that words are being chosen to provide rhymes rather than because they are the right words. (No doubt poets often choose words to provide rhymes, but the reader shouldn’t feel it. The most perfect rhyme words are the ones that seem inevitable; you can’t imagine any other word in that place, and the rhyme appears almost coincidental.) But which came first: is the sheepdog conveniently named “Meg” in order to allow Bunting to bring in Winnipeg, or, having decided, for reasons we may never know, that the dog simply had to be named Meg, did Bunting pull down his atlas and scan the page showing Canada in search of a name to suit his rhyme scheme? (If so, he got pretty lucky.)

Canada appears more naturally in the following two stanzas, although the ideas associated with it are hardly surprising; it’s “a cold land,” apparently – Bunting never visited Toronto in August – and also “a bare land.” In fact, the cluster of words associated with Canada in those two stanzas could almost stand as a summary of the image our nation has in the minds of others: “cold,” “bitter air,” “bare,” “north wind,” “snow.” These aren’t earth-shaking revelations, but it’s noteworthy to see such a complete image of Canada captured in such a compressed form.

The poem does, however, raise the intriguing question of why Canada is a bare land, in a stanza we’ll quote once more:

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Interesting, no? Canada is a bare land, but no reason is offered as to why it is bare. Northumberland, which the farmer must leave, is also a bare land, but here the reason is clearly stated: “men have made it so.” So Northumberland wasn’t always bare; it was fruitful once, but was spoiled by men. The bareness of Northumberland is portrayed as the result of negative human action, while Canada was never anything other than bare and never will be; bareness is an aspect of its eternal and unchanging essence.

In the final stanza, Bunting introduces another part of Canada, and again, conveniently, it provides him with another rhyme (who knew Canadian place-names were so rich in poetic possibility?):

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.

That’s a great conclusion, but it does make the reader – or the Canadian reader, at least – wonder a bit about Bunting’s grasp of geography. I suppose the idea is that the ship will take him as far as Quebec (City? or just some part of the province?), and from there he’ll journey by some other means to Winnipeg, where he will start his new life.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that some of Bunting’s references to Canada grow out of the need for rhymes rather than from a desire to discuss our country.

Bunting’s own explanatory notes are included in the Complete Poems, and from them you can learn interesting words, like Southron, as well as the proper pronunciation of the word “scone”: it rhymes with “on,” not with “own”. (My mother always pronounced it Bunting’s way. At the end of Macbeth, however, it seems like it ought to rhyme with “one” – but the pronunciation of Shakespearean English is a snakepit best left undisturbed.) He also has the following note on this poem:

The war and the Forestry Commission have outdated this complaint. Cowpit means overturned.

The second bit of that note, at least, is helpful. As for the first part, presumably World War II (and the Forestry Commission as well?) have created work in England for men like the complaining farmer of the poem, making emigration to Canada unnecessary.

Something about the end of this poem always reminds me of the famous (is it famous? maybe not) painting by Ford Madox Brown called “The Last of England”.

brown_last_of_england

The barren land behind, the barren land ahead, and the barren ship’s deck in between.

The dominant mood of Bunting’s poem is bitterness, and the bitterness of failure in England colours the prospect of Canada as well, making it appear an inhospitable place that no one would journey to except in cases of utter desperation. Not exactly one to quote in the travel brochures.

Post Navigation