Taking back the country – with song

Bill Henderson plays on…

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Photo by May Henderson.
Photo by May Henderson.

• Bill Henderson has placed his fingers on Canada’s pulse, felt the heartbeat and found its voice. With his song, Take Back This Land, which he co-wrote with his wife May, he has struck a deep, but somewhat dormant, nerve and a chord that runs coast to coast.

As we ramp up to one of the longest, costliest, most complicated and significant elections in our country’s history, the song has gone viral. It is also being cited as the “2015 election anthem,” “earworm” and “rallying cry to vote.” Listen at https://youtu.be/S5sgOWXsiLU

Speaking with Common Ground about the song’s inspiration and evolution, he explained, “I feel like Canada wrote it and it belongs to the country… I kept hearing people say, ‘We’ve got to take back this country.’ It’s in the air, everywhere. Canadians want their democracy back, freedom of speech, learning to work together, our positive role in the world – the heart and soul of this country that’s been dismantled in a decade of radical conservatism.

“The melody began to emerge and fall into place over a few months. May also understood what the song was trying to be and kept it from becoming too aggressive. I didn’t want to write yet another angry song and point fingers, but instead wanted to wake people up, to remember what this country was and can be again, something to sing with pride, be comfortable with, no matter who they may be voting for. And that’s the key message: vote! It’s our opportunity to ‘take back this county’ We can do it.”

He also shared with Common Ground some thoughts expressed by a couple of well-known fellow Salt Spring Island residents. Veteran singer-songwriter Valdy said, “Bad governments are elected by people who don’t vote.” And his MP, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, noted, “Democracy is too important to be left to the politicians.”

Henderson is front-man and principal songwriter for the band Chilliwack, who were according to Rolling Stone, “at their best, the finest Canadian rock band…” The group created some of the most enduring songs of the 70s and early 80s and released 11 albums – four went platinum – and 19 Canadian singles. See www.gonegonegone.com He has also earned music awards, too numerous to list here.

“Over the years I’ve learned how to find and write hooks and a catchy hit song and I wanted to use my chops to help further a worthwhile cause, raising awareness that we have to re-learn how to work together, especially in the House of Commons,” Henderson notes.

The day after Stephen Harper dropped the election writ, Henderson responded by “leaking” a live, acoustic version of the song on YouTube. “I hope it goes far and wide and buskers and rock stars play the song and toddlers and grandparents sing it and dance it,” he wrote, encouraging everyone to “Sing it out!!!”

He then got Chilliwack together with legendary producer Bob Rock in Bryan Adam’s studio and enlisted his daughters and granddaughter – Saffron, Camille and Ruby – to sing backup, producing the version viewed by thousands. The band performed it live for 100,000+ fired-up people at a Vancouver Fireworks show and now includes it in tours across the country. “I don’t say much to introduce it and then watch as the audience looks around reluctantly before deciding the song is something they can really get into and get behind, before joining in. It’s working.”

When he was appointed as Member of the Order of Canada – our highest civilian honour – earlier this year, Henderson said it was “overwhelming.” And the response from people who helped him earn the prestigious award made him “laugh and cry.” It also made him pause and reflect on our country’s long-standing, but endangered, values and what it really means to be Canadian. The O.C. was awarded, not only for his outstanding musical achievement, but also for his dedication to community and service to the nation, recognition of his contribution to songwriting as well as his work advocating copyright. Henderson has served as president of the Songwriters Association of Canada (SOCAN) and director of the Canadian Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS).

“I’ve spent many hours travelling back and forth to Ottawa, meeting with cabinet ministers, MPs and civil servants and representatives of the music industry. I came to the conclusion that authorship – like so many other things – is a human right,” Henderson says.

By definition, Take Back This Land is grassroots, being broadcast by social media. Henderson has also produced a fully mastered audio version available for streaming and download at www.chilliwack.bandcamp.com He is teaching the song to the likes of the Raging Grannies and buskers and working with a dance/synth/hip-hop producer on a remix and a country artist on yet another version. Musicians from across Canada are recording their versions of the song to share, to be edited into a cross-country compilation.

All in all, Take Back This Land and myriad other songs in many music genres are providing healthy colour and creativity to the election. Complete lyrics and chords are posted at www.commonground.ca


Harper faces the music

Steven Harper has been very good to Canadian music and songwriting. It wasn’t deliberate although the PM is well aware and uses the power of music to manipulate very effectively. During the culture war he sparked during the 2008 election, he rationalized the $45-million in funding cuts to the arts by saying, “Ordinary people don’t care about funding the arts.” He is wrong and the proof is in the pudding; an inestimable number of citizens are currently sharing a whole lot of homemade, anti-Harper compositions on social media. And they keep pouring in.

One song that has made a big splash in corporate media, with waves that continue to ripple across Canada, is Harperman, written by Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner, who is also a well-known Ottawa folksinger. A public servant for 19 years, Turner was placed on leave – 30 days away from retirement – pending an ethics investigation for the song. As a result, Harperman trended on Twitter and is attracting tens of thousands of plays on YouTube, with more versions being posted and a sing-along planned for a massive anti-Harper rally on Parliament Hill on September 17. The chorus ends with “Harperman, it’s time for you to go.” See http://harperman.ca

The Winnipeg chapter of the Council of Canadians listed the top five anti-Harper compositions, stating, “Famous for butchering Beatles tunes and destroying Canada, Stephen Harper has also inspired many others to make music. From prorogations to omnibus bills, this Prime Minister’s list of wrongdoings has been a vast pit of inspiration for creative Canadians. As Harper’s popularity drops, his critics are ramping up the revolt leading to the next federal election.” And that’s just the tip of one rare iceberg that’s growing as fast as most are melting. (See canadianswinnipeg.org Click on Blog and type in Stephen Harper Protest Songs in the search bar.)

On the B-side is the PM’s own music complete with video. (Go to www.aux.tv Click on the search icon on the top right. Type in Rock Covers Stephen Harper Has Ruined.)

The PM garnered significant positive coverage by covering With a Little Help From My Friends alongside famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and serenading his caucus and corporate media reporters, including his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. Carleton University lecturer John Higney explored our PM’s use of music in his paper, Mixing Pop and Politics: Stephen Harper’s Musical Amateurism as Personal Branding. Central to the appeal is what Higney calls a “feigned amateurism,” obscuring the years of practice and patience for a public performance. “What you want to do is show you can demonstrate your knowledge – but don’t overdo it. It speaks to the idea of humility.” Higney explains how Harper short-circuits cynicism with emotion; there’s nothing like a well-timed sing-along to manipulate voters when their guards are down. “There’s something spectacular about it because politicians are often seen as somewhat stolid,” Higney adds. “Music is a powerful emotional shorthand that gives him [Harper] the opportunity to present a kind of interior life, something of a spectacle, like a cat standing on its hind legs.”

That aptly describes the ever-controlling Harper. Everything is strategy. But unwittingly, like Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Jones” or John Lennon’s “Nowhere Man,” Steve doesn’t really get it while ‘ordinary people’ delight in the inspired, healthy, anti-Harper musical legacy.


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