“O Canada” versus B.J. Snowden’s “In Canada”

1 Jul

Long before the most beguiling song on the internet was ripped off by South Park it had begun to creep in as Canada’s unofficial national anthem. WARNING: what you hear below can never be unheard.

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When musicologists talk about B.J. Snowden they like to discuss the crowd she’ll draw for shows in New York. Are her fans sincere or do they just show up to gawk? Her devotees range from Jello Biafra to Fred Schneider to WFMU’s Irwin Chusid, who highlights Snowden in his outsider music anthologies—a kind of backhanded celebration of artists with “more sincerity than bona fide talent.”

Outsider music is music performed either by social outsiders, who have no or few associates in the mainstream music business, or by musicians who choose to live and work in seclusion, often due to compromising behavioral or psychological conditions. Outsider musicians are often termed ‘bad’ or ‘inept’ by listeners who judge them by the standards of mainstream popular music. Yet despite dodgy rhythms and a lack of conventional tunefulness, these often self-taught artists radiate an abundance of earnestness and passion.

The best place to see Bertha Jean Snowden, of course, is in Canada. Preferably, as I did one warm June night, at a hot dog place that puts out peanut butter and Cap’ N Crunch as condiments. On such a night, Snowden will sing short, catchy, discordant songs about Saskatchewan. About Prince Edward Island. About  New Brunswick and Newfoundland. Each more exuberant than the next. If you’ve ever lost sleep over the country’s petty regional rivalries, Snowden’s Casio keyboard produces the sort of eerie panacea that rouses a room of Western Canadians to belt out “Onatario” in praise, rather than bitterness.

But these provincial songs are just a warm up.

Classifying Snowden’s oeuvre is a task, as it’s neither pop, folk, jazz nor anything else in particular, just straight-up, from-the-heart tunecraft. Snowden’s lyrics are likewise plainspoken as she ponders love, family, her teaching life, America—and Canada! She sure loves Canada.

Snowden studied music at Berklee and lives now just outside Boston, where she teaches. Her great grandparents are from Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Canada is in her DNA. It’s both visceral and impossibly fantastic. And replicable like a virus. When you listen to her most iconic song “In Canada” it’s hard not to believe the hook wasn’t flat out ripped off by South Park‘s creators.

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Snowden has a penchant for corny jokes and crowd interaction. The night at the hot dog shop, she told one about Stevie Wonder and a Ford Focus. “That’s racist!” a white 20-something in a black hoodie heckled.

Racist? How’s that racist?”

There was a long pause. “It’s racist!” he yelled back.

She took both hands off the keyboard, held them at her waste in contemplation, then shouted: “You’re a jive turkey!” There was something almost holy to be a Canadian jive turkeyed by B.J. Snowden. Like being “no souped” by the soup Nazi in New York.

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“In Canada, folks treat you like a queen
In Canada, they never will be mean
In Canada, they treat you like a king
You’ll feel welcome. It makes you want to SINNNNNNNGGGGG!”

The morning after her show, I found myself in the back of a Toyota Prius bound for Banff, which is the crown jewel of the type of mounty-and-maple-syrup Canadiana that Snowden’s lyrics praise. Snowden was in the front of the Prius. “Oh my God,” she’d whisper, as the car inched further into the Rockies. Water trickled down the face of a jagged cliff. “Oh my GOD.”

She wanted to eat buffalo, and so we went to a café called Bison. Pitchers of Sangria were on special. But she insisted on ordering Caesers—the Canadian equivalent of a Bloody Mary. There was elk, caribou, moose, and other Rocky Mountain game on the lunch menu, but buffalo was only available for dinner. I felt as if I had been pulled into one of her songs.

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As Canada looks beyond its Timbit jingoism and contemplates a sesquicentennial, maybe it’s time to consider a new kind of anthemCalixa Lavallée’s “O Canada” is a fine and gentle song. It’s not a song you’d ever go hoarse trying to belt out at a packed hockey arena, though.* It doesn’t stick with you like the Star Spangled Banner or the Internationale—nor even the Maple Leaf Forever. It’s not haunting. It doesn’t get inside you. It could be a song about any country. William Shatner’s takedown of the anthem is almost too easy:

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Snowden, on the other hand, parses the entirety of this country and its consequent ethos in three perfect lines:

The rivers do flow from side to side

In Saskatchewan

It’s Canada!

There is meaning to “outsider” music that insiders can’t always grasp.

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*Two notable exceptions:

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