The Great Canadian Songbook

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ August 30th, 2011. Filed under: Pop Music Studies.

Students in my class, Introduction to Popular Music, are required to be able to recognize 50 iconic Canadian pop songs for two listening exams — 25 songs per exam. This assignment may seem to be a no-brainer to many, given the enormous popularity of almost all the songs, but not surprisingly, there are many Millennials (aka Y-Generation) and new Canadians who are new to the repertoire.

So which songs qualify for iconic status? And why did I choose the number “50” (given the popularity of terms like the Top 100, and This Week’s Top Ten)?

In 2005, CBC radio ran a show called 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version, where panels of Canadian industry insiders, successful recording artists and the faithful listening public, all led by Jian Ghomeshi systematically chose 50 titles. The episodes were organized according to decade, with a new panel for each time frame. The complete list was then arranged according to popularity, with Ian and Sylvia’s Four Strong Winds topping the chart.

After the list was finalized and published, it was raked over the coals by angry or crushed fans of various artists and songs that were missing from the list. Glaring omissions, such as Celine Dion and Shania Twain, point to the bias of the panelists that excluded Middle-of-the-Road, Soft Rock, and New Country. Still, as far as lists go, it is remarkably complete.

Since the publication of 50 Canadian Tracks in 2005, other lists have emerged. I am thinking especially of Bob Merseau’s wonderful compilations, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010), also ranked according to popularity. In his Top 100 Singles, Four Strong Winds falls to ninth place, replaced by Guess Who’s American Woman (number 5 in the 50 Tracks).  The quirkiest list to appear in the last few years was another CBC project. To commemorate the election of Obama and his inaugural visit to Canada, CBC decided to give him an iPod consisting of top hits chosen entirely by the listening public. The final list of 49 songs (commemorating the 49th parallel) are not ranked in popularity, only listed alphabetically. Finally, a remarkable, on-going list I least  expected is coming out of the post office. They have issued 3 sets of four stamps, each featuring top-ranking Canadian rock and pop musicians.

At one point this summer, a very perceptive student spotted an error in my CBC Top Fifty list. I had Fly At Night by Chilliwack at number 48, but they had looked at the list in Wikipedia and saw a different title occupying number 48 – Fly By Night by Rush.

I re-examined my downloaded hard copy of the same Wikipedia article and confirmed that number 48 was the Chilliwack title, but the current online list does indeed have the Rush song. Trolling through the Net confirmed that the Rush entry was the correct one. It was championed by Emm Gryner. Evidently the entry in 2007 was a mistake, corrected by an anonymous editor. Yet more evidence of Colbert’s “truthiness” in Wikipedia entries, I suppose, although it’s encouraging to see that the mistake was corrected, as predicted by advocates of 21st century social media.  I was sorry to see Chilliwack, one of BC’s great bands, disappear from the roster, even though their hits such as My Girl even came to the attention of Rolling Stone magazine.

There is still a cloud of mystery surrounding number 48, now understood to be Rush’s song Fly By Night (which is also the name of the CD where the song is found). It is not one of Rush’s iconic hits. It barely gets a mention in Chris McDonald’s great book, Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown (Indiana UP, 2009) and it does not even rate a place in Mereseau’s books or Obama’s Playlist. Nevertheless, the album highlights the first of many brilliant performances (and lyrics) of their new drummer, Neil Peart, and it continues to have an important place in the rotation of rock music stations.

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