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Old 07-05-2009, 07:53 AM   #1
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Default Whispering Pines-book on Canadian Music


From Saturday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Saturday, Jul. 04, 2009 04:11AM EDT


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

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."

Greg Buium is a widely published music writer and a frequent contributor to CBC Arts Online.
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Old 07-05-2009, 09:08 AM   #2
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Default Re: Whispering Pines-book on Canadian Music

Sounds like a great read.
goin to a Gord concert!
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Old 09-14-2012, 12:21 PM   #3
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Default Re: Whispering Pines-book on Canadian Music

Stumbled on an excerpt:
"I'll see you all next Saturday..."
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