Four Strong Canadian Winds

©1987 Marie-Lynn Hammond

When I was growing up I knew I was Canadian, but I had only a vague sense of what that meant. I had a much better sense of what it meant to be American, and I’m sure, back in the fifties, I wasn’t alone in that. For one thing, most of the television shows we watched were American. So were my comics and story books. And since this was pre-Raffi days, the records I had were American too. I knew all about Paul Revere and George Washington, but nothing about Riel or Sir John A. I knew “Yankee Doodle” by heart, but not “Un canadien errant.” And when I listened to Pete Seeger singing “I got a mule and her name is Sal / fifteen miles on the Erie Canal” – well, I was sure the Erie Canal was the most magical and exotic place ever. Already by the age of eight I desperately wanted to be a Yank.

We got out from under America’s shadow when my family moved to England, though in many ways we traded that shadow for another. Because the Brits also thought they had the greatest country in the world and to them, Canadians were nothing but colonials. But eight-year-olds are pretty adaptable, so for three years I sang British folksongs and danced Maypole dances and happily allowed the sceptered isle to supplant the U.S. in my affections.

But once we got home, there it was again. The first song I heard on Canadian radio was Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans. I was torn: after all, it pitted the Americans against the Brits. And so it went – all the songs and singers I listened to were American. The Beach Boys sang about California. Brian Hyland sang about the Civil War. Elvis sang about Hawaii. Until the British invasion – and suddenly it was Ferry Cross the Mersey and the Liverpudlian accents of the Fab Four. Where was Canada in all this? Nowhere. So what did that make me as a Canadian? Well, nothing. At least that’s what it felt like.

Until one night, when I was fifteen. We were living in yet another nondescript town; I was watching TV, waiting for Bonanza to come on. (And not because I knew Lorne Greene was a Canadian. I didn’t know that, and if someone had told me, I wouldn’t have believed them.) Anyway, there on the screen was this good-looking couple – he was in a pickup truck and looked like a cowboy; she stood by a corral fence and looked like a cowgirl. They began to sing a bittersweet ballad about parting, sort of acting out the lyrics as they did so. Then the guy sang this line: “Guess I’ll go out to Alberta, weather’s good there in the fall.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was Ian Tyson of course, with Sylvia, and the song was “Four Strong Winds.” I was riveted. He was singing about Alberta, a place I’d actually lived! All of a sudden Alberta took on a kind of mystique, and for maybe the first time in my life Canada came into emotional existence for me. After all, there was someone singing about us, so we had to be real.

The next day I went out and bought the single of “Four Strong Winds.” I sang it over and over again, learning Sylvia’s harmony by heart. I loved music and had already started making songs up, though I was too shy to sing them to anyone but myself. I’d never dreamed of a professional music career: as an adolescent Canadian female, I had three strikes against me in the confidence department. But there was Sylvia Tyson, and she was doing it! So with “Four Strong Winds,” not only were the seeds of my Canadian identity sown, but I also found the first role model I could really relate to. Not that I ever expected to achieve Sylvia’s stature, but even a modest musical career now seemed a real possibility.

From then on I kept my ears open for other Canadian songs. For a while there wasn’t much besides Ian and Sylvia – but gradually it changed. Then I found myself in a band with a fellow who believed in writing about what you know. So we sang about Vancouver, and Saskatchewan, and the Toronto Islands. About Diefenbaker, and prairie farm wives, and B.C. bush pilots. And wherever we played, people came up and said: you don’t know how special it is to hear songs about our own geography, and our own lives.

But of course we know, which is why we write those songs. And I believe that music, with its ability to go straight to the emotional heart of us, can actually conjure things into being. Through the enchantment of melody and rhyme, it makes the ordinary seem special and tells us, that yes, we do exist. We create songs, and at the same time we are creating ourselves.

A postscript to this story: I met Sylvia Tyson for the first time in 1973 when we were put in a workshop together at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It was my first big festival and I couldn’t believe I was actually sharing a stage with her. I don’t know if I had the courage then to tell her how important she’d been to me, but I think I’ve told her since. As for Ian, well, even now, after all these years, I still get a thrill when I hear him sing that line about Alberta.