№ 3

Cana­dian Drift­wood:
We’ve Been Everywhere

—the globe and mail, july 4, 2009

Whis­per­ing Pines
The North­ern Roots of Amer­i­can Music from Hank Snow to The Band

By Jason Schnei­der
ECW, 347 pages, $28.95

Billed as the “first com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of Canada’s immense song­writ­ing legacy,” Whis­per­ing Pines has all the trap­pings of a true maple-leaf hymn. Water­loo, Ont.-based writer Jason Schnei­der isn’t duck­ing the depths of his ambi­tion here; he’s set­ting the bar extremely high. Indeed, Whis­per­ing Pines is a busy, striv­ing sur­vey, a lat­tice­work of cul­tural his­tory, micro­bi­og­ra­phy and music jour­nal­ism — an attempt to trace noth­ing less than “the north­ern roots of Amer­i­can music.”

Of course, the story of Cana­dian music’s great migra­tion deserves some­thing this vast. It’s a sweep­ing tale, that south­ern jour­ney, which first took Wilf Carter and Hank Snow to the United States in the 1930s and ’40s and then, later, waves of six­ties– and seventies-era musi­cians, from Ian and Sylvia to Gor­don Light­foot, from Bon­nie Dob­son to Neil Young.

So does Whis­per­ing Pines pull it off? Not quite. But if you set aside Schneider’s larger scheme, this often scat­ter­shot his­tory becomes a smart, absorb­ing read. These are great sto­ries, many of which you’re happy to hear again — Neil Young pulling into Los Ange­les in a hearse, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen’s early romance, Ron­nie Hawkins’s late-fifties Ontario exploits — even if the book’s over­ar­ch­ing design ends up as a mirage.

At the heart of Schneider’s story is the Band. He has taken his title from one of the group’s early mas­ter­pieces. And he begins and ends with The Last Waltz, the Band’s fabled final con­cert in Novem­ber, 1976. In between, Schnei­der devotes more than two-thirds of the book’s 300 pages to song­writ­ers borne by the popular-music rev­o­lu­tions of the six­ties. Five of the nine chap­ters are set aside for that period’s undis­puted giants (Light­foot, Cohen, Mitchell, Young and the Band). Some might call it a baby-boomer’s vision, which is entirely rea­son­able, although the book’s basic strat­egy is always a bit fuzzy.

Schneider’s deliv­ery is that kind of chatty, ener­getic rock jour­nal­ism of the old-time vari­ety. Chap­ters feel like stand-alone fea­tures; every­thing piv­ots on record­ings and tours. While Whis­per­ing Pines can have a rushed scrap­book qual­ity (Cohen’s 2005 bank­ruptcy and the 2008 resur­gence of “Hal­lelu­jah” are tacked onto the end of his chap­ter), you can also get swept up in events (Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s self-titled debut).

Schnei­der assim­i­lates many of the best sources — Nicholas Jennings’s Before the Gold Rush: Flash­backs to the Dawn of the Cana­dian Sound, for one, or Bar­ney Hoskyns’s Across the Great Divide: The Band and Amer­ica — though he sets out to assem­ble his own inter­views too. With­out foot­notes, how­ever, it’s prac­ti­cally full-time work fig­ur­ing out which inter­views are his and which aren’t.

Still, larger ques­tions loom. Just read the book’s front flap. What is the dis­tinct Cana­dian musi­cal sen­si­bil­ity? Why did this aes­thetic seep so eas­ily into the United States? What, specif­i­cally, did these Cana­dian artists bring to Amer­i­can music?

Schnei­der looks to Rob­bie Robert­son in his intro­duc­tion. Why is Canada a great breed­ing ground for artists? “The ques­tion ran­kles end­lessly, spawn­ing reams of com­men­tary, espe­cially north of the bor­der,” Schnei­der writes. “One sus­pects Robert­son has been asked this same thing too many times, but his answer makes as much sense as any that have been arrived at so far.”

Robertson’s reply? “Must be some­thing in the water.”

To Schnei­der, this is defin­i­tive. But is this all we get? He cites leg­endary music writer Greil Mar­cus — on the Band, but also on Neil Young (“he seems as much of a Cal­i­forn­ian as I am”) — and pro­ducer Brian Ahern (“Canada was gain­ing its auton­omy, and there seemed to be a hunger for things Cana­dian”). Schnei­der him­self gives us hints (“the ‘Cal­i­for­nia Sound,’ as it came to be known, was char­ac­ter­ized by intro­spec­tive singer-songwriters in the Mitchell/Young mode”), but he doesn’t tell us pre­cisely why our music trav­elled so well — and what it ulti­mately reveals about the Cana­dian identity.

Schnei­der is cer­tainly equipped to pro­vide some con­clu­sions. He’s a roots-music edi­tor (Exclaim) and a nov­el­ist (3,000 Miles), but he’s also the co-author of Have Not Been the Same: The Can­Rock Renais­sance, a his­tory of Cana­dian music from 1985 to 1995. To really nail down these obser­va­tions, maybe music jour­nal­ism needs some­one closer to a sage than a critic — some­one with, say, Morde­cai Richler’s eye or Peter Gzowski’s patience.

Read­ing Whis­per­ing Pines, I real­ized that there might only be one per­son ide­ally suited to write this his­tory: Bob Dylan. Zero in on the Min­nesotan and you see shad­ows of the Great White North every­where; he’s a cen­tral fig­ure in Schneider’s book. There’s 16-year-old Bobby Zim­mer­man crib­bing Hank Snow’s lyrics dur­ing the sum­mer of ’57, at Camp Herzl in Web­ster, Wis. There’s Base­ment Tapes–era Dylan with the Band in Wood­stock, N.Y. There’s his appear­ance at the 1986 Juno Awards, induct­ing Gor­don Light­foot into the Cana­dian Music Hall of Fame. Or per­haps the odd­est bit of Cana­di­ana: Dylan’s unan­nounced visit last autumn to Neil Young’s child­hood home in Winnipeg.

Dylan might have agreed with Schneider’s choices; he prob­a­bly wouldn’t have found any real space for the Guess Who or Bachman-Turner Over­drive either.

But what is it that Dylan saw in these Cana­dian artists? That answer would be enor­mously reveal­ing. But with­out that kind of insight, we’re left with Schneider’s excel­lent sto­ries, and his choices, which remain Whis­per­ing Pines’ most telling argu­ment. In the end, he never actu­ally tells us how this place shaped our musi­cal iden­tity — apart from, say, “some­thing in the water.”