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Joined by the Hip: How Gord Downie and his band define Canadian music, culture

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/5/2016 (640 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TORONTO - The Tragically Hip have a home in the hearts of many Canadians.

As word spread of lead singer Gord Downie's incurable brain cancer on Tuesday, it quickly became clear how widespread the band's influence has been in shaping the country's popular culture.

Canadians turned to social media to express their shock and send well wishes to Downie, who has promised to keep performing in the wake of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for his terminal cancer.

Fans paid tribute to Downie by quoting his lyrics that celebrate small-town Canada, its hockey heroes and other figures in the country's history.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/5/2016 (640 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

FILE--Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip performs as one of the opning acts to the Rolling Stones concert in Moncton, N.B. on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005. Downie, the revered lead singer and primary songwriter of iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

FILE--Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip performs as one of the opning acts to the Rolling Stones concert in Moncton, N.B. on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005. Downie, the revered lead singer and primary songwriter of iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

TORONTO - The Tragically Hip have a home in the hearts of many Canadians.

As word spread of lead singer Gord Downie's incurable brain cancer on Tuesday, it quickly became clear how widespread the band's influence has been in shaping the country's popular culture.

Canadians turned to social media to express their shock and send well wishes to Downie, who has promised to keep performing in the wake of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for his terminal cancer.

Fans paid tribute to Downie by quoting his lyrics that celebrate small-town Canada, its hockey heroes and other figures in the country's history.

Over the past 30-plus years, the Tragically Hip have injected local culture and pride into many of their songs, like "The Darkest One," in which Downie sings about an escape to warmth from the "thin and wicked Prairie winds." "Goodnight Attawapiskat" is an angsty tribute to the troubled First Nation community, and then there's "Bobcaygeon," a town north of Peterborough, Ont., that has become almost intrinsically linked with the band.

"They always forced me, and I think they forced a lot of fans, to really look at the country they're part of, and make the country better," says Joshua Kloke, who wrote "Escape is at Hand: Tales of a Boy and a Band," a book which pays tribute to the cultural impact of the Hip.

"I don't think they set out to be Canada's band.... They share a very sincere love for their country. I don't think it has to be an overtly patriotic thing."

Andy Keen, director of the 2012 documentary "Bobcaygeon," which outlines the lead up to the band's first show in the town, says Downie spends a lot of time reflecting on Canada.

"The stories he tells in his music pretty much define that guy," he says.

"I think Gord is a true artist, and it's for those reasons he's making things that people want to look at and people want to listen to and people want to try to figure out."

Keen says he bumped into Downie coincidentally last week in Toronto.

"He was sporting a beautiful NHL playoff beard," he says, pointing to the singer's long-held adoration for hockey.

"I think he was just out for a nice walk. It was a beautiful day."

When not on stage, Downie has mostly avoided the spotlight, reserving most interviews and public appearances to support causes close to his heart.

He backed Neil Young's anti-oilsands campaign and spoke out against a proposal to increase the capacity of two pipelines running from Ontario to Quebec three years ago.

"Social causes are quite obvious," Downie said in a 2014 interview with The Canadian Press.

"Music brings people together. So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in."

Legendary live performances helped shape the Hip's reputation and made them one of the most popular touring acts in the country.

Tim Baker, frontman for the St. John's, N.L., indie rockers Hey Rosetta!, says he watched Downie with admiration when his band opened for the Hip several years ago.

He is "bringing together poetry, art and some strange ideas and experiences, along with that sort of undeniable energy," Baker says.

"I don't think you'll talk to anyone who respects him as much. (Downie is) hugely influential."

The Hip plan to unveil details for a summer tour on Wednesday. In the meantime, social media has become the community for many fans to express their sadness over Downie's diagnosis.

"Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada's soundtrack for more than 30 years," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted with the hashtag #courage.

Indie rock band Stars called Downie the "poet laureate of the Canadian soul."

And actor Jonathan Torrens wrote: "No band in our history has embraced/defined #Canadianity more than The Hip. Gutted by this news. Gord IS Canada."

Fans of the Tragically Hip are being invited to sign a book of well wishes at the city hall in Kingston, Ont., the city where the band formed in the 1980s, starting on Wednesday.

— With files from Victoria Ahearn

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