Canada’s small towns have produced some of the world’s most talented musicians, so it’s only fitting that rural roots have been the inspiration for a host of hit songs. Here are 10 classic Canadian tunes that pay tribute to small-town Canadian life, from starry nights in cottage country and sleepy prairie towns, to waltzing log drivers and homesick rodeo riders.
1. “Bobcaygeon” – The Tragically Hip
This cottage anthem will make you long for summer days on the dock, whether you’ve been to this beautiful region of Ontario or not. The hit tune from 1998 evokes memories of quiet summer nights at the cottage spent drinking wine, listening to Willie Nelson, and staring up at the stars. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic when it comes on the radio and you hear the line, “It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.”
2. “Sudbury Saturday Night” – Stompin’ Tom Connors
The late Stompin’ Tom is one of Canada’s most legendary storytellers and he dedicated his life to criss-crossing the country, penning songs about small-town Canadian life. In his most famous (and one of Canada’s most classic) tunes, he sings of a rowdy weekend night in the nickel-mining town of Sudbury, Ontario, launching with “the girls are out to bingo and the boys are getting stinko and we’ll think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night.”
3. “The Log Driver’s Waltz” – Kate and Anna McGarrigle
This classic Canadian folk song was written by Wade Hemsworth, but the most memorable version was sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle. It was the soundtrack for a much-loved National Film Board animated short that played between TV shows in the 1980s (released as part of the Canada Vignette series) and had Canadian kids everywhere wanting to dance on logs down a raging river. The song is about love, lumber, and the life of a Canadian log driver as “he goes birling down a-down the white water.” You can’t get much more Canadian than this.
4. “Helpless” – Neil Young
This legendary song starts with the unforgettable intro, “There is a town in North Ontario,” and since Neil Young is one of Canada’s favourite and most successful musical exports, you can’t help but feel a little pang in your heart when he mentions his small town Canadian roots. While Young has claimed he’s talking about a few small towns, the main one he’s referring to is Omemee, Ontario, northwest of Peterborough. It was his hometown as a child and is now home to the Youngtown Rock and Roll Museum.
5. “Prairie Town” – Randy Bachman and Neil Young
The Guess Who’s Randy Bachman sings about life growing up on the prairies, from “learning to drive in the snow” to trying to make it in the Winnipeg music scene because “there was not much to do so you start a band.” The song was performed with the help of two Canadian musical treasures: Neil Young and the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins.
6. “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” – The Guess Who
In this classic rock tune, The Guess Who introduces Saskatoon as “a small town where nothing much ever happens.” The band was actually from Manitoba so there might be a little rivalry going on there but, nonetheless, the song gives shout outs to some familiar prairie names, including Moose Jaw, Red Deer, and Medicine Hat.
7. “Mattawa” – Blue Rodeo
If you’ve ever made the long trek across Ontario with the seemingly endless stretches of trees, you’ll appreciate this Blue Rodeo song. The Toronto band has done more than a few of these drives, touring most of the country’s small towns many times over. One of their recent songs was named after Mattawa, a northeastern Ontario town in the Ottawa valley. It describes a gruelling journey down an Ontario highway, where they “can’t see this winter road through the fog and snow” but will “greet the dawn in Mattawa.”
8.“This Land is Your Land” – The Travellers
While the Canadian version is a campfire classic here, the original Woody Guthrie song is all about America. But in the 1950s Canadian folk group The Travellers rewrote the song with a Canadian twist. It’s been a hit since and is still sung at camps and cottages around the country. The patriotic tune takes you from coast to coast, moving “from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, from the Arctic Circle to the Great Lake waters.” You know the next line.
9. “Fogarty’s Cove” – Stan Rogers
Stan Rogers was born in Woodburn, Ontario, but in his short life (he died in an airplane fire at the age of 33) he became a renowned Canadian Maritimes folk singer. His Celtic-style songs were actually inspired by small town life from across Canada, from farming towns to east coast fishing villages. In “Fogarty’s Cove,” one of Rogers’ most popular tunes, he sings of the life of a fisherman in the tiny town and the woman who waits for him while he’s away at sea, saying, “She will walk the sandy shore so plain, watch the combers roll in, ’til I come to Wild Rose Chance again, down in Fogarty’s Cove.”
10. “Hurtin’ Albertan” – Corb Lund
Corb Lund’s love letter to his home province tells of a long drive back through small towns on his way from riding the rodeo, toting “trophy buckles and whisky bottles and a worn out saddle horn.” He describes the passing rural western landscape around him, from the Saskatchewan prairies to the windy B.C. mountains but claims “The roads get better every time I cross that Saskatchewan line—I tip my hat and it’s good to be back across the Medicine Line.”