It’s January and the depths of winter most places in the country. I was thinking about winter songs. I was going to mention a few contenders but then I figured I’d cut to the chase as they say. My hands down favourite winter song is a kind of extended groaner of a joke by one of Canada’s iconic poets, Robert W. Service.
“Auld Lang Syne” has aptly been described as the song that nobody knows, although it is universally the song the English-speaking world uses to bid farewell to the old year and to hail the new.
The song nicely combines a note of conviviality with a poignant sense of loss, just the right mood for New Year’s Eve, when our minds hover between regret and anticipation.
The song we sing now is a version of an ancient song reworked by the 18th century Scottish bard Robbie Burns, a song he said “of olden times” which he took down from an old man’s singing and then improved with the words we (try to) sing today.
Canada’s national anthem was first heard one fine June evening in 1880, on the campus of Laval University in Quebec City. Joseph Keaney Foran and some fellow law students were relaxing in one of the buildings when they heard a commotion at the front door. They saw Father Pierre Rouselle, the university secretary, and three other men enter the building and head straight for the piano. In the lead was a small man with a halo of black hair around his balding dome. “He was very excited,” Foran later wrote of the little man, “and kept tapping his hands and saying ‘I’ve got it! I’ve finally found it; I’ve succeeded; come, listen.” He arranged himself at the piano and the others perched on a nearby dais. “Throwing back his head he played for us, for the first time, the masterpiece of his genius – it was Calixa Lavallée; he played O Canada.”
Every Christmas I seethe as a litany of bad music washes over me. Some is saccharine sweet romantic twaddle. More is offensive to my religiously atheistic and culturally Jewish sensibility. The odd song is just about bearable. The Huron Carol, however, has earned a special place in my loathing. Perhaps it is the constant revelations about the heinous crimes committed in the residential schools run by the descendents of the Catholic priest who wrote, and whose collaborators disseminated, the song. Perhaps it is the news about lack of water, schools and just about everything else on the reservations. The long and the short of it is that I hate the song and everything it stands for. I hate it all the more because it has taken in some pretty good folks- Tom Jackson and Bruce Cockburn, among others. They should know better and that just makes me madder.