When Alana was putting together the mix CD, I suggested ‘Fiddler’s Green’, partly because I thought it would fit the sound at which she seemed to be aiming, and partly because I always think of that song for any kind of slow, thoughtful mix. ‘Fiddler’s Green’ has obsessed me off and on ever since I first heard it sometime in 1991. Several of my friends were huge fans of The Tragically Hip–the kind who went to concert after concert–but it took me a while to warm to the band (possibly because my brother discovered them first, and because they seemed to have a harder edge than most of what I was listening to at the time). But their second full-length album, Road Apples, demonstrated to me that I had ignored the band’s musicality, especially when ‘Fiddler’s Green’ came up. First, there was the sparse sound, the counting in of the guitar, the raw vocals, the encapsulated feeling of melancholy road trips home when everyone is tired and the sky is grey. Then there were the enigmatic lyrics, pointing to the tragic death of a child, ‘as Falstaff sings a sorrowful refrain/ for a boy in Fiddler’s Green’. I spent hours pondering the words and possible literary references. Whatever the reason, the song remains one of the few from that era of my life which I can still sing word for word, should you be desperate enough to ask me.
Here is a live performance of the song:
(Interestingly, it has been claimed that the song is so personal to lead singer Gord Downie that it has never been performed live. When that claim was made in 2004, it was probably true; the band’s official web site has archived the concert dates when songs were performed, and the oldest it lists for ‘Fiddler’s Green’ is in 2006.)
The Hip have been a quintessentially Canadian band for more than two decades now. While they remain popular in Canada among legions of concert-goers, they have never made a huge impact outside of the country. Very little seems to stop them from making very specific Canadian references, though, to such things as hockey and the wrongful murder conviction of David Milgaard. A long time after ‘Fiddler’s Green’ began to haunt me, I started to realise just how much I was grateful in those days for music that connected with my own cultural history. Even if Gord Downie’s lyrics became increasingly enigmatic (inscrutable if you want to be mean).
Protesting an embarrassing moment in the history of Sault Ste. Marie, when the city council passed a resolution to conduct its business in English only as part of the nastiness surrounding English-French relations during the political discussions around the controversial Meech Lake Accord (voted down in a national referendum); the resolution in the Soo thereby disregarded both a sizeable francophone population and its own French name.
And lastly (you can find plenty more if you want) the song about the exoneration of Milgaard.