It’s been some time since I patrolled the jaundice-coloured halls of my high school. Those were awkward days.
Acne, Bunsen burner fiascos and infamous air band “talent shows” were iffy memories for me. With all due respect to Mr. Baxter and any other teacher of Saltfleet High School in Stoney Creek, Ontario, I think Gord Downie is (and was) a far better educator.
As the lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip, Downie has been writing the band’s lyrics since the late 1980’s. If you look back at the 200+ songs (and poems) attributed to him, a trend begins to slyly appear.
Downie just might be Canada’s best high school teacher. And I mean ever.
What subjects you ask? Geography, History and English.
Geography Teacher Downie
The obviousness of being an excellent geography teacher is by virtue of the scores of cities Downie inserts into the lyrics. Close to forty times in fact.
There are the unmissable and known ones—Toronto, New York, Vancouver and Chicago—but it’s those obscure towns and hamlets he mentions that force you to Google Maps. If you’re old, like me, heaven forbid you may use an actual atlas.
Regardless, this is where the teaching begins.
Gambier Islands, Mistaken Point, Moonbeam, Chagrin Falls, Isle aux Morts, Golden, Thompson and Cape Spear are not well-known places. You could pass through them in a car (or canoe in some cases) and never know you had set foot in its city limits. But for me, when they surfaced in a Tragically Hip song, it would send me running for a map. I just had to know where Gord was taking me. No high school teacher ever did that for me.
The best known geography lesson is arguably Bobcaygeon, “where I saw the constellations, one star at a time,” as Downie once wrote. It’s a tune that came from a 1998 Hip album that sent the small hamlet of 3,500 inhabitants of this quaint, cottage country Ontario town into a geographic song lottery frenzy. There’s even a wonderful documentary by Andy Keen called—you guessed it—Bobcaygeon.
The most touching geography lesson is potentially a history lesson as well. We should just call Downie a social studies teacher and give him free coffee in the staff room for the rest of his teaching career. Goodnight Attawapiskat—a song that introduces a First Nation town in northern Canada that has endured devastating social and economic hardship—is an ode to both the map and one’s heart. Indeed, no one wants to sing a song that they don’t love, as the tune suggests.
History Teacher Downie
Given Downie recently received an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University, we can now refer to him as Dr. Downie. It’s appropriate for high school teachers, like our man Downie, who also write songs laced with historical twists and implants that have you searching Wikipedia (or real books) until you have finally solved (albeit exhausted) the reference he has slotted into a chorus or verse.
Daredevils plunging over Niagara Falls? Check. Painter Tom Thomson and his bride Winnie Trainor in Algonquin Park? You bet. Europeans, like Jacques Cartier, ruthlessly taking over the lands of First Nation people? It happened. What about 19th century cholera outbreaks across the Great Lakes? A feverish story. Artist Bill Reid and his Spirit of Haida Gwaii sculpture? But of course. John Cage? Downie’s history lessons are in fact laden with Cage references, and influences.
Professor Downie has always used his lyrics to imaginatively teach various components of Canada’s and indeed the world’s history. The problem? You often need Alan Turing-like cryptology skills to unearth many of the hidden historical gems. But when you do, it’s better than whatever you were taught in grade 12 history class. (With apologies to Mr. Hay, my actual history teacher.)
English Teacher Downie
But where I think Downie has excelled the most over his writing career is as a high school teacher of English.
Sure there are the poems. There are the mellifluous sonnets. Downie even cleverly utilized a poem by Wallace Stevens titled, Sea Surface Full of Clouds as the entire basis for the structure of the song, Dire Wolf.
But that’s not why he’s my favorite English teacher. Downie has found a way to weave words into the lyrics that should have Oxford bestowing him an honorary degree, too. I don’t know of another rock band lyricist who can so effortlessly insert underused and unappreciated words into songs while simultaneously sending thousands of fans in search of a dictionary. Here is a small sample of words found in Tragically Hip songs:
These are not everyday words, per se, yet Downie forces you to learn English while enjoying a tune at the same time.
In short, one must refrain from perfunctorily reading Downie’s lyrics otherwise you will miss the chance to potentially sound grandiloquent or magniloquent. (See what I did there?)
I know. Gord Downie is not a high school teacher. But imagine if he was.
Picture him at the front of the class, reciting Shakespeare, or pantomiming European explorers paddling down a river, or inserting new words into a lecture.
That’s the kind of high school teacher I’d be into. That’s the kind of poet I will (eventually) miss.
Post Script. If you’re interested, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation created an incredibly interactive site that maps many Canadian cities and villages referenced by Downie.
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