Here’s a little bit of music trivia. Did you know that the Tragically Hip referenced an infamous riot involving the Jewish community in a song?
More on that later.
The iconic Canadian rock band, founded in 1984 in Kingston, Ont., had a long and successful career. They released 14 studio albums and two live albums. They won numerous accolades, including 14 Juno Awards, a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame (2002), membership in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2005) and the National Arts Centre Award (2008).
Alas, things came to a sudden halt in the most unexpected way.
Last May, the Hip announced that lead singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. A farewell summer tour was immediately scheduled, which carried them through cities in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.
The band played its final concert in Kingston, Ont., on Aug. 20. It was broadcast live by the CBC as a unique cross-platform special. According to the public broadcaster, an estimated 11.7 million people around the world tuned in.
For nearly three hours, the Hip performed with the powerful, raw energy that has defined the band’s 32-year musical career. They launched into many well-known songs, including Fifty Mission Cap, At The Hundredth Meridian and Twist My Arm, and they saved popular tracks such as Grace Too, New Orleans Is Sinking and Locked In The Trunk Of A Car for three lengthy encore performances.
In many ways, it was the perfect send-off to Canada’s quintessential band.
The Hip ate, slept, drank and bled the red maple leaf. It was a long-term love affair that prevented them from attaining real international success. Then again, as comedian Rick Mercer pointed out on CBC Radio. Aug. 5, “they’re our band and they were famous here, and that’s where they want to be famous.”
It’s a fair point. The band’s discography was sprinkled with many tales of Canadian lore. This includes the tragic story of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko (Fifty Mission Cap), painter Tom Thomson (Three Pistol) and explorer Jacques Cartier (Looking for a Place to Happen). There were also songs about Canadian towns, cities and communities, from Saskatoon, Sask., (Wheat Kings) to the dual reference to Mistaken Point, Nfld., and Moonbeam, Ont. (Fly).
Which brings me to Bobcaygeon.
This song appears on the Hip’s sixth album, Phantom Power (1999). It’s named after a town in the Kawartha Lakes region with a population of slightly more than 3,500. Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Allan Stanley passed away in Bobcaygeon in 2013, and legendary Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Johnny Bower reportedly spent time here.
Yet, there’s a much deeper meaning to Bobcaygeon.
Some of the lyrics referenced the 1933 Christie Pits riot in Toronto. The appearance of a large swastika during a baseball game between the primarily Jewish (and slightly Italian) Harbord Playground team and the St. Peter’s squad set off the largest display of violence the city has ever seen. More than 10,000 people – including two of my late great-uncles, and possibly my late grandfather – battled for six hours with everything from their fists to baseball bats. No one was killed, but the stench of anti-Semitism and xenophobia from this terrible incident remained for years.
Here’s how the Hip described the riot: “That night in Toronto/ With its checkerboard floors/ Riding on horseback/ And keeping order restored/ Till the men they couldn’t hang/ Stepped to the mic and sang/ And their voices rang/ With that Aryan twang.”
Downie once said, “I haven’t written too many political lyrics.” While his left-wing views were on full display in Kingston with his never-ending praise of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I would agree with this statement.
Yet, isn’t it intriguing that one of the few times that Downie did get political involved an incident that Toronto’s Jewish community is all too familiar with?
Strange, but true.