Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Song Talk #1: "The Far Saskatchewan"

Judging by concert requests and unsolicited comments, “The Far Saskatchewan” is by far my most popular song.  The seed of this song was planted when I heard the phrase “the far Saskatchewan” in a catchy tune that my late friend Joan MacIsaac used to perform, called “The Harvest Excursion”:

I’m going away on a harvest train to the far Saskatchewan...

That song, written by Joan’s great-great-grand-uncle, Dan Somers, sometime between 1910 and 1914, did not have much in common with the song I eventually wrote; it was about a Maritimer heading west to work on the harvest.  The phrase stuck in my mind, however, and got me thinking about the experiences of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in Saskatchewan. 

My Dad’s time in that great Prairie province was fleeting. He was born in the little town of Unity, SK a few years after World War I, but when Dad was three, his parents pulled up stakes and moved to what were then the backwoods of British Columbia.  (So far I haven’t written my British Columbia song!)  Still, I can say I come from Saskatchewan stock on both sides.

The images in “The Far Saskatchewan” really come from my mother’s side of the family.  It was her grandfather, my great-grandfather, who came from Sweden at the end of the 19th century to break the sod for a Saskatchewan homestead:

Great-grandfather came to a prairie land
And to the plough he set his hand
And carved out a home from the prairie sod
Within the sight of God 

His daughter, my grandmother, really did teach seven grades (simultaneously!) in a little one-room schoolhouse (probably like this), at the age of seventeen – barely older than the most senior of her students.  And yes,

She knew her mind, and paid her way.

With the solid support of her Ontario-born husband, who kept the general store, Grandma raised two children in the tiny town of Rush Lake, SK.  Though Rush Lake is still on the map, there doesn’t seem to be much left of it.  For me, though, it has always had a mythical quality because of her stories.  Grandma was a driving force in every organization that helped to keep culture and community alive in that town during the Great Depression, from the Catholic Women’s League to the Women’s Institute and the Little Theatre Society. I imagine my mother as a small girl, growing up a prairie town
where wheatfields ringed your world around

By and large, though, the future for the new generation was not in little towns like Rush Lake.  Mum and her brother went off to university in Saskatoon.  Eventually, like so many in her generation, she followed the job prospects out of the province, and built a new life in Ontario:

the voice of the times said you could not stay
and called you far away,
as it calls us all away

It seems that whenever I perform the song, I meet people who, like my Mum, moved away from the Prairies – some in her generation, many younger.  They don’t forget their roots, and it always moves me to hear that my song speaks to them.

and you'll understand why my thoughts still fly
where half the world is made of sky
and you'll understand why I dream upon
the far Saskatchewan.

The Far Saskatchewan, by Tom Lips - from the CD Made of Sky (Mylodon Music)   
(Harmony vocals by Terry Tufts and James Stephens; piano by Jack Hurd; fiddle by James Stephens)