Songs from Small-Town Canada: Ontario
Updated: Feb 2, 2020
An escape to the cottage, a paddle down a quiet river, dirty hands in a farm field and a hard day's work in a factory- all of these are part of the rural Ontario experience. While it's easy to see how Canada's music industry is based in the big cities, it's the hidden towns and quiet escapes that have provided inspiration for artists for years. The songs that follow on this list were inspired by the small towns (or in some cases- villages) of rural Ontario.
Artist: Stompin' Tom Connors
The Town: Tillsonburg
Well! There's no better place to start than at home. Stompin' Tom is known for putting loads of places across the country on the map and that includes my hometown of Tillsonburg. Known as the epicentre of the tobacco belt, STC wrote about toiling away in the fields- learning how to prime, makin' the kill and sleeping on the bunkhouse floor. While there is a myth that Tom actually wrote the song about neighbouring Delhi but couldn't fit the town name in, that's an unconfirmed tidbit I'll choose to ignore. Using both humour, true tobacco jargon and a bit of grit, Tillsonburg is a must-hear small town Ontario song.
Artist: The Tragically Hip
The Town: Bobcaygeon
Bobcaygeon is a quiet town of just over 3000 people nestled in the Kawarthas along the Trent-Severen Waterway. While Gord Downie has said that he chose the town for rhyming purposes, he was also quoted to say it could be any small town. The song tells the story of a cop living in Toronto who escapes to Bobcaygeon to be with somebody he loves. The song itself is rife with Canadian references including the checkerboard floors of the famous Horseshoe Tavern.
This song also alludes to political turmoil between fascitsts and anti-fascitsts (perhaps but not clearly referencing riots that had broken out in Toronto historically), making reference to British band The Men They Couldn't Hang and a large riot breaking out that the Toronto cop had to then break up. At the end of the video, you'll notice Baker's guitar reads "This machine kills fascists."
Note: Much of the myths and facts about the song came from here: http://www.hipmuseum.com/bobc.html
Artist: Ron Sexsmith
The Town: West Gwillimbury
Ron Sexsmith's West Gwilliumbury depicts the suburb of the GTA as the song's narrator strolls through the neighbourhood on a windy day. Sexsmith's ability to describe the every day things in extraordinary ways shows no greater than on this track filled with lyrics depicting places that could describe any number of areas in Ontario:
"All the grass grew up to my eyelids there The clouds all bathed in blue amazing I tripped on over the thorns and stared At cows of distant farms a-grazing Them cows were out there milking it for free"
The Backus Mill Artist: The Schotts The Town: Port Rowan
Darin Schott has an incredibly accomplished career as a musician on the Canadian and American scene- travelling with the Good Brothers in his early years but also opening for the likes of Johnny Cash and Neil Young. More recently Darin is on tour with the incredibly talented Claire Lynch. Accompanied by his extraordinary wife Allison Schott on vocals and guitar, this song tells the story of an attack on Backus Mill- today a conservation area and historic site in the Port Rowan area. The song name drops a number of spots in Norfolk County including Ryersee, Port Dover and Turkey Point.
Artist: Neil Young
The Town: Omemee (among other small towns)
"There is a town in North Ontario Dream comfort memory to spare And in my mind I still need a place to go All my changes were there"
In his song Helpless, Neil Young describes the town of Omemee among other small towns. In a 1995 interview from Mojo with authour Nick Kent, Neil was quoted as saying of the song:
"Well, it's not literally a specific town so much as a feeling. Actually, it's a couple of towns. Omemee, Ontario, is one of them. It's where I first went to school and spent my 'formative' years.'"
Spending much of his childhood there, it's no secret that Young was impacted by the town and vice versa. Once home of the Youngtown Museum, Young returned to Omemee just last year to play a concert in Coronation Hall to a very, very small audience.
All Our Emergencies Artist: Allison Brown The Town: Windsor
Ok, Windsor, Ontario is definitely a city but it's often forgotten when thinking of the country's powerhouses. Its mettelsome spirit and cross-border ties with Detroit make it a unique city full of industry, triumph and sorrow- a city the working class can relate to. In Allison Brown's All Our Emergencies, she pays homage and tells the story of Windsor's now demolished Grace Hospital where she was born. Contrasting lightheartedness and darkness with references to the devil, it's a Canadian roots song that shouldn't be missed.
Artist: Blue Rodeo
The Town: Mattawa
Let's face it- Canada has some pretty infamous highways. From the insanely busy 401 stretches to the quiet ones with hours of farm fields and small towns, everyone has a connection to one or several. Mattawa is about driving one such stretch of highway in Northeastern Ontario all the way to Mattawa, a small town in the Ottawa Valley and arriving at dawn (Cottage Life).
Seventeen Artist: Hey Rosetta!
Town: Several all the way along the Trans-Canada Highway from Ottawa up to Manitoba
According to CBC Music, Seventeen describes the stretch of Highway Seventeen from Ottawa through Northern Ontario all the way up to Manitoba in comparison to the bumps in the road between childhood and adulthood. It's the ultimate example of Canadians using mother nature and endless highways as their metaphor for life.
Algonquin Artist: The Real Shade
While the song Algonquin was written about a park, it captures the feeling of leaving the city for quieter places. According to lead singer and lyricist Jane Gowan, "Algonquin is about the need to escape to the country; to the park and the green. That park made a huge impression on me when I first moved here, and of course the fact that Tom Thomson lived and died there adds a certain fable-like quality to the place. " On the way up to the park, Gowan would always stop in Huntsville for breakfast at The Huntsville Family Restaurant and take in a slower pace of life before heading into relative seclusion in the park.
An American Draft Dodger in Thunder Bay
Artist: Sam Roberts Band
The lyrics in this song tell the story of an American draft dodger during the Vietnam War. Not wanting to fight for moral reasons, he crosses the border late at night and planted his roots along Canada's frigid shield in Thunderbay.
"He's on his way to Thunder Bay Crossed the border late at night And it was high stakes until he saw the Great Lakes And he felt the cold wind bite
Going where I can't be found And I won't be coming 'round No, I'm an American on the Canadian Shield And I'm putting down roots in your frozen fields It gets cold but you feel so good to be a stranger in a town and you're understood"
What do you think? Did I miss any small-town Ontario songs? Let me know!
Check out the playlist below (please note The Backus Mill is not available on Spotify).