Courage, cottagers: a farewell to Gord Downie

Gord Downie Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock. Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip performing in Ottawa in September 2009.

Like 36 million other Canadians, we woke up today to the sad news of Gord Downie’s untimely death from Glioblastoma. We wanted to revisit a piece written from the heart by our magazine’s editor, Michelle Kelly.

This editor’s note was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

No matter where you spent your summer in Canada, it would have been hard to avoid the Tragically Hip. As the band made its way across the country, performing a series of sold-out shows on its farewell tour, tributes to the group and its lead singer, Gord Downie, were all over the media. Canadians were rapturous in their praise of the Hip, sharing what the band meant to them and to the story of our country. 

It struck me how often these tributes included a mention of the cottage. For many of us, the music calls for a lake view to accompany it; the two icons—the Hip and the cottage—are linked in our national psyche. As Nova Scotian musician Joel Plaskett recently put it in an interview with Maclean’s magazine, “When I think of people in Ontario having a good time in the summer by a lake, I think of the Tragically Hip.”

And how could you not? Although it may not have been Gord’s intention to make the cottage the focus or the muse of his music, it’s easy to make that case. Hip songs unpack the cottage experience, holding up sounds and sights one by one, as in “Lake Fever”: Want to be your wheezing screen door/Want to be your stars of Algonquin/Want to be your roaring floorboard/Want to break the hearts of everyone. Their lyrics mention places such as Moonbeam, Ont., or Lac Memphremagog, Que. There’s that magical line, from perhaps their most famous song: It was in Bobcaygeon/I saw the constellations/reveal themselves/one star at a time. Sometimes in the dead of winter when it feels like the summer will never come again, I’ve found myself replaying the beginning of “Wheat Kings,” just to hear that echoing loon call. 

Okay, so I’m a bit of a cottage nerd. But I’m nowhere near the only one. Last August, my Facebook feed featured several photos of cottagers I know setting up screens outside to watch the Hip’s final show together with the lake as the backdrop. They crossed their fingers and hoped for good Wi-Fi, of course, all while knowing that they didn’t really need it—everyone knew the words, knew the stories that Gord was telling. Because they were our stories, of our place.

As a Canadian, I think of Gord as a poet. As a cottager, I think of him as our poet. His songs are the soundtrack to my cottage summers, sung around so many campfires, heard while lounging on so many docks—remembered while pining for the last season at the lake. 

Michelle

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