Book Review: Whispering Pines by Jason Schneider
I’m enough of a parochial nerd to believe that there’s nothing the world needs less than another semi-baked history of Canadian music, and few things I’d value more than an imaginative, well-wrought history of same.
So I’m very happy to report that in Whispering Pines (ECW Press), writer Jason Schneider has come up with one of the best surveys of the generation of singers, songwriters, musicians and the constellation of associated characters which emerged in the early part of the 20th century and blossomed in the 1970s. And I should add, you don’t need to be a parochial nerd to appreciate it, just someone who cares about some of the greats of modern music, period.
Plenty of the names and lives lavished with attention within Schneider’s 350-some pages will be familiar: Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Others may be known for their music, but their stories are best known within Canada and deserve a wider celebration: Bonnie Dobson, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia and their Great Speckled Bird, Murray McLauchlan, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, David Wiffen, Buffy Ste. Marie.
In Whispering Pines, Schneider works like a tapestry artist in reverse: he pulls out key threads from the Canadian songwriting mythology and weaves something new – an indelibly-rendered, compelling new narrative about Canada’s most important artistic tradition. The lives of the famous, accomplished, obscure and notorious are drawn back together here and Schneider’s achievement is to find a through story that follows a very logical, natural-seeming arch. He’s also a clear thinker and an effective writer.
In discussing Lightfoot’s appeal to Canadians in the 60s, he writes of the audience’s “desire to vicariously experience the place his songs embodied. It was a place they knew had existed all along, but could not locate within their increasingly urbanized lives.” When I read that line, I realized it could also describe many whose musical sensibilities found a home within the alt-country scene and a voice within the pages of No Depression. Which may go some way to articulate the affinity between the pantheon of artists Schneider celebrates and the current generation of songwriters who, in search of inspiration, continue to cock an ear to the north and listen to those whispering pines.