Tragically Hip story resonates in U.K. too

Solihull, England — I’ve been back in the United Kingdom for almost a week and dreaded jet lag still lingers with me unlike after most of my past overseas trips. I want to sleep during the day and yet at night I am wide awake, staring at the ceiling waiting for British dawn to break. At best, my sleep is thin and my temperament is getting even thinner. That’s because I stayed in Canada for almost three weeks and got used to the east coast four-hour time difference. And then this weekend, I inadvertently slumbered pretty much all Saturday morning until 11 a.m. This little mistake has really messed up my internal clock and I haven’t taken much stock in what’s going on in the world – even the Olympics, although they don’t much interest me anyway.

All the talk here in England is of course about the U.K.’s 67-medal success in the Rio Olympic Games. Great Britain actually won more medals than in London in 2012. Lord knows they need some winning news – and it is great to see at least what I call “bread and circus” smiles on the faces of many Brits in these times of unfolding Brexit uncertainty. In Canada, there was certainly interest in the world’s biggest and costliest adult playtime where Team Canada won a total of 22 medals but I couldn’t help but notice the Canadian buzz was more music-related – on a scale not witnessed in the past. As one U.S. writer asked about this event: What band could bring your country to a standstill?”

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The writer is, of course, referring to Canada’s The Tragically Hip.

The music-rich U.K. is the home to countless music legends such as the Beatles, David Bowie, Elton John, James Blunt, Cold Play – and, more recently, Adele. I wondered, though, if a story about a Canadian group like The Tragically Hip would even rate a few lines in the British media. It is a big deal for Canada, but perhaps not so in faraway England. I applaud, however, the media coverage here of this Canadian music event that has caused such a stir back home. A BBC report acknowledged that “Hip Night” in Canada was indeed the only “one show” in the nation that evening – and concurred that it lived up to its billing as a national celebration. It all reinforces that The Tragically Hip has left its mark well beyond Canadian borders. Other British media outlets including the Manchester Guardian reported on “The Most Canadian Band in the World.”

I am part of an aging generation that warms up more to the music of the 1950s and ‘60s. I certainly don’t dislike today’s music; rather I have an emotional attachment to the musical genre of a more distant past. I think that’s true with many in the baby boomer generation. One of my fondest musical memories is driving across the moonlit Canadian Prairies on family skiing vacations in the early 1990s rocking and bopping to tunes of the ‘60s. I also have fond memories of sitting around our living room with friends drinking wine and embarrassing ourselves by all too loudly singing along with Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs to the 1965 tune “Woolly Bully.” My stodgy old ears, though, began to pick up on more contemporary sounds unlike anything from the past. I just liked what I heard and had to admit no generation can claim to have produced the best of music. I developed a particular liking for Dire Straits, The Electric Light Orchestra and performers such as Bryan Adams and Sarah McLachlan.

The Tragically Hip, though, would seem to have left an indelible impression on Canadians. As most know from the media coverage back home, they just completed an emotional farewell gig brought about by the group’s lead singer Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. The group’s final concert was held in Kingston, Ontario where the Hip began its musical journey in 1984. Countless more fans gathered to watch the concert on television screens across Canada, in their homes, in parks and halls. The CBC estimates 11.7 million people tuned into the concert – not bad for a country of a little under 36 million. In Kingston, even our youthful denim-clad Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who started following the Hip as a teenager was there to pay homage to this iconic group.

I never really thought much about The Tragically Hip, other than that their songs aired on the radio stayed with me. I also was fascinated with their unique name. And lead singer Gord Downie’s voice is so powerful evoking feelings of angst and yet controlled dark emotion. When he sings about New Orleans sinking, it’s time to seek higher ground. The Hip in its Canadian-ness” has pretty much chronicled the life and times of Canada.  Some say its leader singer Downie is the poet laurate of our country. The group even crafted a song referencing Thompson, the Northern Manitoba mining community where we lived for almost three decades – a tune called “Thompson Girl.”

While out for breakfast at a pub in Solihull, I asked two young men behind the bar if they had ever heard of The Tragically Hip. Without a beat, one said, “Sorry, mate, can’t say I ever have.” The other shook his head with a no. I don’t fault them; the Tragically Hip is essentially a Canadian phenomenon, although the group has toured the world including such places as London, Glasgow, Manchester and Dublin. It is perhaps though as quintessentially Canadian as the Snowbirds and RCMP Musical Ride. It stands up though with the best of musical offerings anywhere – an achievement Canadians have honoured as they bid farewell to Gord Downie. And if those two Brits at the pub ever listen to The Tragically Hip, I bet they would join the group’s legion of Canadian fans who have bid such an emotional farewell to Downie across Canada.


Dan McSweeney, a Halifax native, first worked as a reporter at the old Halifax Herald, then got a taste of public relations work at Canadian National Railway in Moncton, before coming to Thompson in 1980 to work for Inco. He retired back home to Bridgewater on Nova Scotia’s south shore in June 2007 after 27½ years with Inco here. He blogs at

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