#899: Courage by The Tragically Hip
In the early 1980’s bass player Gord Sinclair and guitar player Rob Baker were students at Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute in Kingston, Ontario. They had performed at the collegiate’s Variety Show in a band they called The Rodents. In 1984 Baker and Sinclair were in their early twenties. The Tragically Hip formed in 1984 in Kingston, Ontario when the duo added drummer Johnny Fay and lead singer Gordon Downie. Their name came from a skit in the movie Elephant Parts, directed by former Monkee’s guitarist Michael Nesmith. The Tragically Hip added Paul Langois, a guitar player, to their line-up in 1986. When they performed at the Horeshoe Tavern in Toronto in the mid-80’s, they were sign to a recording contract with MCA after the company president, Bruce Dickinson, saw the band at the tavern. A self-titled EP (Extended Play) was released in 1987 with a couple of singles that got some airplay. The group was launched.
In 1989 the band released their first studio album, Up To Here. The Tragically Hip proceeded to release five singles from the album: “Blow at High Dough”, “New Orleans Is Sinking”, “Boots Or Hearts”, “38 Years Old” and “Trickle Down.” The first four of these singles received respectable airplay across Canada. “New Orleans Is Sinking,” a fictional tale, got some airplay on mainstream rock stations in the USA. Of the songs off their first studio album, “Boots Or Hearts” charted the best here in Vancouver.
In 1991 the band released Road Apples which featured the hit singles “Little Bones,” “Twist My Arm” and “Three Pistols”. They released four more studio albums during the 1990’s. One of these, Fully Completely, featured six single releases. “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” was the third release from the album.
Hugh MacLennan was a Canadian author. He was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in 1907. He was a professor who taught the Classics. He won five Governor General’s Awards, beginning in 1941 with Barometer Rising, a novel about life overlapping the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917. He won another Governor General’s Award after his novel, Two Solitudes, was published in 1945. The novel was a literary allegory concerning the tensions between English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians. He won several more Governor General’s Awards, concluding with his publication in 1957 of The Watch That Ends The Night. It was MacLennan’s final award winning novel that earned his place in the song title “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)”. The song included lines from The Watch That Ends The Night, where MacLennan states “There is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.” The Tragically Hip stated MacLennan’s thought this way: “There’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do. And, yeah, the human tragedy consists in the necessity of living with the consequences under pressure.”
Hugh MacLennan’s take on the important things any of us do, is that they are born of “compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.” These important things we do include courageous acts. On the face of it, there could be a case to be made that when we act with courage, and are often recognized as a hero for our bravery, it seems we had “the right stuff.” But, MacLennan doubts we can really understand why a given person does the important things they do. It would appear that there are lots of potential obstacles that could get in the way of our ever manifesting the important deeds we do. If MacLennan is correct about the irony of being human, the surprise is that we ever rise to the occasion to do the important things we do. The muck of living gets in our way, stacking the odds against courageous acts and important contributions. In the 1939 film, The Wizard Of Oz, the Wizard commands Dorothy and her friends to bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. At the gates of the witches’ castle, the Cowardly Lion tells the Scarecrow and the Tin Man he’ll go into the castle for Dorothy. There’s only one thing he wants the Scarecrow and Tin Man to promise they’ll do, “talk me out of it.” Despite his cowardice, the Cowardly Lion does summon enough bravery to rescue Dorothy and return her to the Wizard Of Oz with the witches broomstick.
“Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” was nominated as Single of the Year at the 1994 Juno Awards. It lost to “Fare Thee Well, Love” by The Rankin Family. The song peaked at #10 on the Canadian RPM singles chart and #9 in Vancouver on CKLG.
The Tragically Hip charted 16 songs into the Canadian RPM Top 30, including seven Top Ten hits with “Ahead By A Century” being their first #1 hit in Canada in 1996. They repeated their feat of getting a chart topping single in Canada with “In View” in 2006. Between 1990 and 2017, The Tragically Hip have received sixteen Juno Awards in Canada for a range of honors including Best Single, Best Rock Album and Group of the Year. The songs “Gift Shop” and “Poets” climbed to #4 on the Canadian RPM singles charts in 1996 and 1998. In 1999, the band had a #3 hit across Canada with “Bobcaygeon”. “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” was the first of fifteen singles to crack the RPM Top Ten on either the Pop chart or the Canadian Alternative/Rock chart. The final song to crack the Top Ten nationally was in 2016 with “In A World Possessed By The Human Mind”.
In 2016 Gordon Downie was diagnosed with cancer and the Tragically Hip did what the media billed as a farewell tour. On October 13, 2016, Downie and his brother Mike, along with the Wenjack family, announced the founding of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The fund is a part of Downie’s legacy and commitment to Canada’s First Peoples. Chanie Wenjack was a young aboriginal boy who died trying to escape a residential school, who became the centre of Downie’s Secret Path project. The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund is a registered charity.
At a gathering of the Assembly of First Nations on December 6, 2016, National Chief Perry Bellegarde honoured Downie with an eagle feather, a symbol of the creator above, for his support of the indigenous peoples of Canada. Bellegarde also bestowed on Downie an honorary aboriginal name, Wicapi Omani, which is Lakota for “man who walks among the stars.” Downie spoke before the House of Commons on July 2, 2017, to speak in solidarity with Canada’s young indigenous people. Downie died in October 2017.
April 27, 2019
Michael Barclay, Remembering the Life and Legacy of Gordon Downie (1964-2017), MacLeans.ca, October 18, 2017.
Tragically Hip bio, Canadian Bands.com.
Elspeth Cameron, Hugh MacLennan bio, The Canadian Encyclopedia.com, March 4, 2015.
Victor Flemming – director, The Wizard Of Oz, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.
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