Gord Downie's muse: 4 topics that influenced his songs

Gord Downie is known primarily as a chronicler of Canada, but his lyrics also dealt with bigger ideas, writes John Mazerolle.

Tragically Hip frontman wrote extensively about environment, Indigenous issues

Always an entertaining performer, Gord Downie was also a deeply philosophical songwriter. (Donald Weber/Getty Images)

It's all there in the lyrics.

In interviews, Gord Downie was sometimes halting and introspective, always trying to find the right words. He could be maddeningly vague when asked directly about his artistic intent, but listeners could find most of what they needed to know in the album sleeves of the Tragically Hip's 13 full albums and Downie's four side projects.

Downie, who died Tuesday at age 53, was seemingly incapable of writing a cliché. His lyrics avoided pop-rock boilerplate and had themes and motifs, not to mention heart and insight.

While he's known for being a chronicler of Canadian stories, his lyrics also dealt with bigger ideas that he returned to again and again: thoughts on how to write, how to interact with nature and ultimately how to live.

Here's a look at four themes in Downie's lyrics that illuminate the way he saw the world and the legacy he leaves the country — with some suggested listening.

'Sing for the whole sea': The water

Canadian locales aren't mentioned as often in Hip songs as Downie's most common motif, water. He once wrote about singing "for the whole sea," and indeed he did.

Literally dozens of his songs mention water at least in passing, sometimes with a nod to how fragile Canada's waterways are — "made to take it and take and take and take," as he sings on 2005's Yer Not the Ocean.

"There's no such thing as a working river!" Downie yelled at a show last decade as he pushed concertgoers to support the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a charity working to protect the Great Lakes, of which he was a board member.

Downie believed it was vital to protect water, but songs such as Nautical Disaster and New Orleans Is Sinking and lyrics like "Bigger boats been done by less water/And better boats been done by this water" show that he believed that while people may mistreat the sea, eventually, the water always wins.

Deep cuts: The Drowning MachineThe Dire WolfOcean Next

'The struggle has a name': Indigenous issues

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, right, holds an emotional Downie as he is given an Aboriginal name during a ceremony honouring Downie at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., in December 2016. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Many of the 11.7 million people who tuned in to the Hip's final concert in August 2016 might have been surprised to hear Downie speak out about Indigenous issues. In the new documentary Long Time Running, Downie says his plea that night to remember the plight of First Nations was a spontaneous decision. But his passion wasn't.

A trip north in 2012 led to the wry song Goodnight Attawapiskat, about the troubled northern Ontario reserve. Prime minister Stephen Harper's 2008 apology to First Nations led to 2009's Now the Struggle Has a Name. But you can go back to Looking for a Place to Happen, from the 1992 album Fully Completely, for a much earlier glimpse of the Indigenous sympathies in the Hip's music. It was indicative of the Hip's everything-to-everyone appeal that this song about colonialism became a sort of bro anthem among high school students in the early '90s.

In the year prior to his death, Downie released a solo album called Secret Path, about 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died fleeing a residential school in 1966. On the issue of the treatment of Indigenous people, Downie recently said, "We are not the country we think we are."

Deep cuts: All of Secret Path, especially The StrangerI Will Not Be Struck and The Only Place to Be

'Don't save a thing': The creative process

"I write about words," Downie belts in his lowest register on the 2016 Hip track Machine. "I find treasure or worse."

A songwriter who frequently wrote songs about writing songs, especially as his career progressed, Downie's creative philosophy as expressed in his lyrics was simple: Live in the moment.

Always moving forward was most important to him and the Hip, who insisted that any looks back — such as their Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction or the documentary film Bobcaygeon — focus more on the fans than on the band. Even the tracks on their greatest hits album were chosen by fans.

But when it came to ideas, Downie also refused to look to the future. "Use it up," he wrote in in a 2002 song of the same name. "Use it all up. Don't save a thing for later."

Deep cuts: Machine, The Dance and Its Disappearance, The Never-Ending Present 

'We'll go, too': Facing death, embracing life

Downie salutes fans during an NBA game earlier this year. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)
Downie wasn't a morbid songsmith, but he did write a surprising amount about death ("What can you do?/They've all gone/We'll go too"). 

Sometimes he faced it with a humourous bent — a song about his embarrassing terror of freak turbulence, a line about how sharks tend to prefer Australians to the Irish. Downie said he wrote the track Inevitability of Death because he thought it'd be funny to hear a radio deejay say it out loud.

Other times Downie went for a fierce humanity: a song to soothe a dying grandmother, a tribute to a fallen hockey player, a poem for a relative taken too soon. Even a song about soldiers dying at sea suddenly shifts ("anyway, Susan") to two people trying to make an emotional connection.

Recorded before Downie's cancer diagnosis, the Hip's most recent album, Man Machine Poem, has a rare spiritual side to the lyrics, with references to the Bible ("I'm a man/I do what I hate and don't understand") and a quote from Pope Francis ("But if God walks with persons/Does he run, run, run, run, run?").

Downie's humanist take on the prospect of death is captured in the band's 2002 song A Beautiful Thing, where a phone call surprises the narrator in the dead of night:

"You'd better be dying" — and you were
So we talked about things and where they went
Big remarkable events
And how each day's a new day
And they get spent
How you'd continue, artfully, like the breeze
Trying to do one true beautiful thing

Deep cuts: Heaven Is a Better Place Today, Great Soul, A Beautiful Thing


John Mazerolle is a producer with CBC News.