Musings on Contemporary Waffle
“Wheat kings and pretty things
Wait and see what tomorrow brings”
My dear M.,
You might be fatigued by the megabytes of music from Tiny in your inbox over the last few months.
“Wheat Kings”, The Tragically Hip
I now send this out because it occurred to me that there is something quintessentially Canadian about this song underneath it’s more obvious guise as being about David Milgaard.
Most Canadian popular music is generic (globalized?) in its depiction of place and time. One would need to listen to other musical genres to grasp a semblance of the multiplicity of immigrant storylines that have combined to make Canada.
Many of those genres depict only localized cultures that would possibly astound a European who imagines us all as having descended from lumberjacks and pasty-skinned “Anglo-Saxons”, living on the Prairies; but within which the true Canadian panorama still remains remarkably almost invisible.
Celtic-influenced Canadian folk music does as little to represent what Canada is today culturally as do the soundtracks of all of those home-burned DVDs of Bollywood movies available at a thousand “Asian” corner stores across this great land.
I can think only of the masterly “Canadian Railroad Trilogy“, by that other Gordon (Lightfoot), that equals Gord Downie’s “Wheat Kings” for evoking a place that might be called a Canadian Nation; as opposed to an anonymous, unmentioned place where a thousand cultures co-exist almost anonymously.
If we convince ourselves that we are someone called a Canadian, then “Wheat Kings” defines us along its alluded history of over 20 long years of incarceration of an innocent man. Given that many of us came to Canada to escape a wrong inflicted upon us, this is an apt, if rather daring try at evoking Canadian nationalism. (So un-Canadian to associate with other “Canadians”, after all; but so truly who we are.)
The tragedy came from a free man’s impulse to act freely in a free country but in the wrong place at the wrong time, ironically. His guilt — and, later, his innocence — became solely a matter of someone’s opinion. A dime a dozen, opinions.
The right opinion came only well after Mr. Milgaard’s walls became, “… [L]ined all yellow, grey, and sinister / Hung with pictures of our parents’ Prime Ministers.” Has there ever been a more understated lyric suggesting such injustice? (Though let it be said that elsewhere — south of the border, say, where innocents have fared much worse than David had — it is a banal injustice in comparison).
More than anything, the song is about that certain Canadian innocence we believe about ourselves, one that doesn’t seem to occur in other places. Other countries have personas of goodness — Scandinavian ones, for instance. But not of innocence. Only the filmmaker Atom Egoyan has succeeded in depicting the fearful fallacy of this aspect of the Canadian identity so precisely.
If anyone would have something to say about what is innocence and what is not, it would be also David Milgaard, as we are reminded, sorrowfully, in this beautiful song.