published Friday, May 25th, 2012

Phillips: Music is just as important as barbecue on Monday

In honor of Memorial Day weekend, I'd like to spend a little bit of time talking about Canada.

Let me explain.

First of all, it's not so much Canada that will serve as an entry point into this week's discussion as it is "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," a song about Canadian history written by Gordon Lightfoot, a Canadian.

While many will mistake Monday as an excuse to loll about quaffing beers and eating barbecue, Memorial Day should ultimately be about remembering our history. If you can say nothing else about Lightfoot -- you can, of course, say volumes -- it is that he has a keen ability to immortalize the past.

While his best-known historical song was "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" about the Great Lakes marine tragedy, it was "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" that captured my attention several years ago.

I found it completely captivating and listened, ad nauseum, to the sprawling 7-minute song recounting the epic task of constructing Canada's transcontinental railroad.

Why, you ask?

Well, I'm not Canadian, and except for the months I spent living in Europe in college, I've hardly ever ridden a train.

Perhaps it's because I once had a white polar bear stuffed animal I inexplicably named Saskatchewan, but I'm fairly certain I was drawn in by how Lightfoot combined two of my favorites things: folk music and history.

As time goes on, I've realized that the two are natural bedfellows. A great, catchy song can, in the process of entertaining us, remind us about the past and even caution us not to repeat it.

To paraphrase Spanish novelist George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it." This, of course, is why protest music exists. After all, a good song is awfully hard to forget.

As a matter of fact, Santayana died in 1952, but he likely would have nodded sagely at The Who's 1971 cautionary anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again."

The protest music of yesteryear may no longer seem relevant, but if we follow Santayana's (and Pete Townshend's) line of thinking, we would do well to remember why songs like The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," Peter Gabriel's "Biko" or Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" were written to begin with.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we absolutely should take a moment between hot dogs to pay due respect to those soldiers who gave their lives in the defense of democracy. Once the festivities recommence, however, I would recommend turning up the volume on songs by artists who fought, in their own way, for freedom and democracy.

• • •

If like me, you're a fan of history and music, be sure to check out this week's Nightfall headliner, Elliott Brood, in Miller Plaza tonight at 8. Like Lightfoot, the Canadian band uses history to frame many of its songs. It must be something in the snow up there.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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