Sunday, February 7, 2010

Understatement: Jason Schneider's Whispering Pines

The Band

“There is no music that you can say, ‘Oh, that’s Canadian – know what I mean? It’s North American music – different countries, but you hear the exact same music, from blues to cowboy. So rather than talking about Calgary or Montreal, we talked about places that we played in."
– Robbie Robertson quoted in Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music.
It’s been commonly held for years that Canadian musical performers only achieve their due recognition when they go south of the border. While that remains something of a simplification, there are still many examples to choose from – Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, just to name a few. Fortunately, in his recent book Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music…From Hank Snow to The Band (ECW Press, 2009), author Jason Schneider develops a more substantial rendering of this phenomenon. By examining the Canadian songwriting tradition as a national narrative, he’s able to illustrate how our musical artists subtly permeate the American experience rather than seek out our neighbour’s validation. In a series of essays that chart the careers of Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Ian & Sylvia and Leonard Cohen, Schneider (Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance) draws a delicate map of our cultural influence in popular music. He doesn’t so much examine how our identity as Canadians is felt in American music, but rather how American popular music has been enriched by our Canadian sensibilities.

Whispering Pines takes its name from the gorgeous Richard Manuel song on The Band’s second album, but it’s also an apt metaphor for how Canadian culture is often understated in its meaning. Where Americans, over time, developed a frontier mentality that brought forth both its riches and its arrogance, Canadians became humbled by the harsh landscape – we endure it and we also envelop ourselves in it. Schneider picks up on our need to explore (rather than conquer) with illustrations that include Hank Snow’s greatest song, “I’m Movin’ On,” Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds,” Neil Young’s “Helpless,” Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger’s Song” and Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going.” He ties the emotional reach of those songs to the mythic American folk and country traditions. All through the book, Schneider tells tales where American artists (like Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins) become reoccurring figures who help Canadian performers seek homes abroad.

Schneider unfortunately doesn’t fully illuminate the meanings he finds in the songs of these Canadian artists. But he does have a storyteller’s gift of spinning fascinating yarns so that we can glean the deeper significance of their work for ourselves. Whispering Pines opens with The Band’s last concert (in their original line-up) in 1976, and then uncovers how the stage that evening was filled with Americans and Canadians who had all drunk from the deep well of North American roots music. He closes the book by contemplating their final failing as a group in creating a community out of their art. While this particular framing of Whispering Pines is ambitious, I wish Schneider had done more to create meaning out of The Band’s career (especially since their story runs like a leit motif throughout Whispering Pines). But as a study of the elusive nature of Canadian music, Schneider’s book is an invaluable study. It may not go far enough, yet in its own suggestive way, Whispering Pines reveals just how prominent our best artists and their music have become despite the way they operate in the shadows.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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