cationThis Land is My Land: An Analysis of How Songwriter’s and Musician’s are Affected by Location
This land is your land, this land is my land
To the New York Island
From the Redwood forest
To the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
Although the above lines, from Woody Guthrie’s geographical classic This Land is Your Land, are deep-rooted in American Soil they still work as an excellent indicator of how a songwriter’s location can reflect the ideas and meaning behind the work that they produce. In Guthrie’s case, life revolved around extensive travels throughout North America and therefore the images he conjures up represent a vast cross-section of geographical landmarks and natural representatives from several locales. His was the life of the traveler, never knowing one home for very long, and therefore it is quite obvious as to why his songwriting reflected that very lifestyle.
Contrasting this, it can also be said that a finer understanding of a specific area can be achieved through a songwriter’s ability to concentrate on a single area and allow it to inspire all that they write about. Whether the influence on the songwriter is a positive or a negative one there is still something to be said for the Canadian songwriter and his ability to convey a very strong sense of place in his/her songs. Whether it is the people of a particular city, an area’s surrounding natural landmarks, or the main source of industry for a specific location, it can be said that Canadian songwriters are truly able to bring forth the true character behind their respective areas.
For example, Neil Young
It is very simple to listen to music without ever allowing yourself to actually hear what it is you’re listening to, and based on this it can easily be understood as to why very few people ever realize exactly how large an impact a songwriter’s surrounding’s can have on their songwriting and the tone of their music. A prime example of this for Canada would be Bryan Adams. Early in his career Adams wrote songs that seemed to convey a true sense of nostalgia for, or inspiration from, the area from where he came- Vancouver, British Columbia. In his 1985 hit, The Summer of ’69, Adams seems to be looking back fondly on his youth. The song truly has an air of yearning to it and the tone of the song, though fast-paced, is still a pleasant one that seems more based on fond recollection than regret.
When I look back now
The summer seemed to last forever.
And if I had a choice
I’d just want to be there.
Those were the best days of my life.
This is a perfect example of what Adams’ songwriting was like before he became a star outside of Canada and achieved massive success in the United States. However, what he may have gained monetarily he lost in his sense of place. Now Bryan Adams, though still a Canadian, lives in Los Angeles and has homes all around the world. It has been several years since he lived in his native Canada and it shows in his songwriting. Whereas his songs used to inspire images and evoke memories, they are now reduced to empty hits that have no sense of location whatsoever. He may write one hit song after another but he has lost something in his ability to relate to his home, mainly because he is essentially without one. This can be seen clearly in Adams’ 1997 hit song The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me (Is You):
The only thing I want.
The only thing I need.
The only thing I choose.
Yeah the only thing that looks good on me
Adams’ songwriting since his move from Canada in the late eighties has continued to become more and more laden with boring sexual innuendo and trite ramblings about his own overblown ego. Whereas he used to be a Canadian songwriter, he has, over the last eight to ten years become merely a songwriter from Canada. He has truly lost his sense of place and it shows.
Over the course of this essay several Canadian bands will be used to prove just how much of an impact their location has had on their music’s lyrical content and tone, in addition to their individual sounds. To make it as simple as possible to understand the differences in sound, one band from each of three Canadian locations has been chosen for analysis. Each location, no matter how near or how far their proximity from the others, is vastly different in many ways. From Canada’s east coast, Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea have been chosen; from the west coast, British Columbia’s She Stole My Beer; and from our own province of Ontario, Toronto’s Rush will be used. Each of these band’s, through their music, work as perfect examples of how severe an impression geographic location can have on both lyrical content and sound.
When discussing or pandering the characteristics of a city like Toronto, one is consistently pelted with images that reflect a fast-paced, hectic, heavily populated, industry-laden, concrete jungle. And therefore it is not with any great surprise that a band like Rush, formed in Toronto in the early 1970’s, would make music and write lyrics reflecting that very lifestyle. Throughout their long-standing career Rush has been known to produce music of an aggressive nature. Heavy drums, driving and wailing guitars and pounding bass lines have become known as standard fare from Toronto’s most well known trio. The sound of Rush’s music lives and breathes as a reflection of their surroundings while growing up and living in Canada’s largest and most heavily populated city. Like the city itself, their music is also cluttered with a sound that can, at times, become almost overwhelming to the listener. Although the band consists of only three members they are somehow able to produce a sound that carries the intensity of a much larger group. Within their hard-hitting style you can almost hear the sounds of the city humming in the background. And if you listened carefully you would think that you could hear the harsh clangs, shouts and clatter of Toronto deep in the background of their music. But with a band like Rush, the effects of being from a large city run much deeper than just the music. Rush’s lyricist, Neil Peart, born and raised in Toronto, is possibly the best example of just how much of an impact geographic location can have on what kind of lyrics a band or songwriter can produce.
Toronto, with a population of almost three million people, has become known, like most major cities, a being a place that lacks personability. By this it is meant that a large city does not, and can not, enjoy the same friendliness that may be the status quo in a smaller city. With a large city a serious emphasis is put on the individual rather than the group and therefore a lot of these cities force their residents into anonymity, oftentimes living as autonomous members of a massive society without enjoying the human contact that is necessary to live a healthy life. It is this very fact that is most often present in Rush’s lyrics as Neil Peart has somehow found the ability to bring the feel of the anonymous big city lifestyle to the page.
Living in a fisheye lens,
Caught in the camera eye.
I have no heart to lie
I can’t pretend a stranger
Is a long-awaited friend.
Here the listener is presented with images of how limiting the city is. Although it may be large in size it does not allow for the individual to free themselves from the shackles of an anonymous lifestyle. Although the narrator of the song feels that he is constantly being watched, constantly living within the camera eye and among others, he still feels sorrow knowing that he is surrounded by nothing but strangers whom he can never believe to be long-awaited friends.
From this small section of the song we are also given a fairly decent account of the industrialization/technology that takes hold of the larger city, thereby forcing its residents to move with it and progress as it progresses; or be left behind. The song continues:
He’s not concerned with yesterday
He knows constant change is here today
He’s a new world man.
In addition to songwriter Neil Peart’s ideas of anonymity within the big city he also makes an effort to define the type of person who might make of the population of the city. For a city such as Toronto, Peart seems to feel that the population must be mainly built of people who are able to accept the progress of technology willingly. He believes that it is these advancements that allow for such a progress, any progress, to occur in the first place. He knows that within the large city constant change is looked upon favorably as it is the large city that keeps the country in the game on a universal level. Even though the large technology-based city might lose something as far as nature is concerned- replacing trees with buildings and lakes with parking lots- it still holds an extremely important position as far as progress is concerned. And although the people within that city may have to suffer from the strains of anonymity, they can still take at least some solace knowing that they are working for the progress of the country- even though such a lifestyle may, at times, be somewhat lonely and autonomous.
Cast in this unlikely role
Ill-equipped to act
With insufficient tact
One must put up barriers
To keep oneself intact.
Here the songwriter exhibits his understanding of the autonomous and individualistic lifestyle of the large city. He believes that you almost have to be alone to succeed or survive within that environment. Or, if not alone, you should at least protect yourself by putting up barriers to keep yourself together.
But even though Neil Peart understood the way one must be prepared to live in a major city, he was also fully aware of the effects such a life could have on the individual. He understands that no matter how accustomed you are to a certain lifestyle it can still have negative side effects this very lifestyle can have.
The office door closed early
The hidden bottle came out.
The salesman turned to close the blinds.
A little slow now, a little stout.
But he’s still heading down those tracks
Any day now for sure.
Another day as drab as today
Is more than a man can endure.
Within these lyrics, taken from Rush’s song Middletown Dreams, we are able to see the effects the large city can have on the population. We are given the image of a businessman who drinks at work and grows slow and stout because of his daily routine. He constantly plans to get out of town; but the reader or listener knows that he never will based on the conversational tone Peart uses when he says any day now for sure. It’s as if the character in the song is attempting to convince himself of something he knows will likely never happen. All in all life in the big city is portrayed as being one of great purpose and mission; but one with little enjoyment for the natural things in life- the simple things. On one level it is looked upon as a sad and lonely existence, but from an opposing angle it could be looked upon as the reason for our country’s ability to remain competitive in an overly aggressive world.
Contrasting the industry-based hustle and bustle of a city like Toronto we will now look to Canada’s East coast where the people seem to have embraced an opposing lifestyle. It seems that the further east one moves through Canada the more relaxed the lifestyle becomes. Gone are the landscapes cluttered with buildings; they have been replaced by landscapes littered only with trees, lakes and open sky. It is this major change in the scenery that seems to have had the most effective outcome on Canada’s East coat. This change of scenery not only effects the landscape of the area it has a direct impact on the music created in that area. Whereas Rush was discussed as being a band with all of the clang and clutter of a downtown Toronto street at five o’clock, Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea are able to convey the light-hearted, personal and friendly way of life enjoyed in the east. Though generally known as being one part of Canada’s hinterland and suffering province-wide problems with unemployment due to the declining fisheries industry, Newfoundland is somehow still able to produce music that attempts to see the silver lining around the cloud that sometimes seems to hang above the province.
Great Big Sea can be classified as a classical East coast band as they try and work the sound of their homeland into each and every song. Even though their songs are often fast-paced they are not a rock band- far from it, actually. Their sound is birthed from the very land that surrounds them, a land that seems to have little to do with modern technology. Therefore Great Big Sea are mainly an acoustic band; putting aside wailing guitars, heavy drums and synthesizers in favor of acoustic guitars, whistles, and traditional Celtic sounds. The lyrics to their songs also live and breath as a tribute to the area from where they came.
I’ve got a smile on my face
I’ve got four walls around me.
The sun in the sky
The water surrounds me.
I’ll win now but sometimes I’ll lose
I’ve been battered but I’ll never bruise.
It’s not so bad.
Taken from their song Ordinary Day, these lyrics summarize all that Great Big Sea, the province of Newfoundland and the East Coast represent. The sound of the song is as light-hearted and whimsical as the lyrics. This type of song not only reflects the type of band Great Big Sea is, it also works as an accurate reflection of the kind of people who live in this area. The type of attitude conveyed in the song matches the type of attitude you would have to have if you lived in Newfoundland where jobs were scarce. The narrator of the song is telling the listeners to be glad for what they have (four walls around them) and to enjoy the beauty of the natural surroundings (sun, sky and water). The narrator believes that without the ability to appreciate these things the people who live in that area would begin to feel those same four walls start to close in on them. It is for this reason that they have to hold their heads up and not let their situation effect the way the feel. The narrator is telling them that if they have faith in their natural surroundings they will eventually win what they have been deserved of for so long.
It’s a beautiful day
But there’s always some sorrow.
It’s a double-edged knife
But there’s always tomorrow.
It’s up to you now
If you sink or you swim.
Keep the faith
And your ship will come in.
Once again, as with Rush, Great Big Sea have acknowledged the duality of their location. The double-edged knife they refer to is a metaphor that could be utilized by almost any given sea in any given geographic location.
The last band that will be discussed with the confines of this short essay is Vancouver, British Columbia’s She Stole My Beer. However, whereas both Rush and Great Big Sea were analyzed for both their lyrical content and sound, it seems that bands from the West Coast of Canada are best analyzed based solely on sound. Many bands from the west tend to use their lyrics to look within themselves for some kind of answer to a higher question, ignoring what is the earmark of their location- nature. The West coast is very likely the most picturesque and scenic area in Canada, yet most bands from the area seem to set it aside in place of heavy contemplation and over-symbolic personal insight. However, what they lack in lyrical content they more than make up for in musicianship. Much like the atmosphere and attitude in the west, the music these bands make is almost always listenable and, for lack of a better term, friendly. Much like the people of the west, the music composed seems, whether acoustic or electric, to have an air of approachability to it. She Stole My Beer work as an excellent example of this as their music is able to hold onto a pleasant tone no matter what type of instruments they are playing. Like the area surrounding them they are able to be as loud as a rushing river or as hushed and relaxed as a mountain’s peak without ever making either of the two seem out of place or ineffective. Even though what they are singing about can oftentimes become confusing, the sound surrounding those lyrics is one born of the very area that they are from. Bands from the West coast of Canada are somehow able to convey more images and feelings with their music than they are with the words within it.
As can be noted from the information herein, each area discussed has its own unique and distinct purpose. Whether it be Rush’s intense confusing clang representing the industry/technology-laden area of Toronto and other large cities, Great Big Sea’s seemingly constant head-held-high homage to the East coast and it’s surrounding natural beauty, or She Stole My Beer’s easy-going musicianship reflecting the West coast,
it becomes obvious just how severe an impact a band or songwriter’s geographical location has on the work that they produce. And even though each band from these three areas assumedly has it’s own individual sound and style they are all drawn toward their personal surroundings in their own way, whether it be the people or the landscape, and allow it to seep through into the music they create.