The Top 100 Canadian Singles: Leonard Cohen, Steppenwolf, And “American Woman”
Coffee tables invite conversation. So does music. No wonder music is a fine subject for a book that finds a permanent home on your living room table. Veteran Canadian journalist and deejay Bob Mersereau recently published a book that he hopes will spark these conversations – dialogue that specifically looks at songs written by musicians from above the 49th parallel. With vintage photographs, the book explores the stories behind the songs and the wealth of talent of those wielding the pens in the land of the true north strong and free. The Top 100 Canadian Singles is a follow up to Mersereau’s 2007 book The Top 100 Canadian Albums. I chatted with the musicphile recently at the King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto during his book tour. Here are some snippets of our coffee table conversation.
Is it a little ironic that the No. 1 Canadian single in the book (“American Woman”) by The Guess Who has the word American in its title?
No. The song is about Canada. It was Burton [Cummings] lyric about touring in the United States as a Canadian at a very contentious time in the U.S. when everything was going on with Vietnam, race riots, and all the other political protests in the late 1960s; it was crazy when you crossed that border. This is Burton Cummings going, ‘man I don’t like this stuff; I think we are doing it better in Canada.’ That said, that song rocks. There is a reason Lenny Kravitz had a hit with it 30 years later. It has a riff and it has staying power. It is the representative song of what is perhaps the quintessential Canadian band who were a regional success and the first real Canadian superstars. Everyone else to that point – from Paul Anka to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – had to cross the border to get to that level. For The Guess Who to remain based in Canada for all of that and keep their Canadian identity and viewpoint was amazing. They were the biggest selling band in the world in 1970.
Do you think there is a Canadian theme/identity running through the songs?
It’s a risky game to try to attribute a national style. We can say Canadians write about things like nature more, but everyone writes about nature. We can say we write about snow, but not every Canadian band writes about snow. I’ll be the first to say I’ve fallen into that trap, but I do believe by and large Canadians are excellent at the craft of songwriting with a folk tradition. We have a folk tradition that has existed since immigration to the New World. It was nurtured in the logging camps of Upper and Lower Canada and the woods of Quebec … these people had nothing else to do but entertain each other with their simple hand-built instruments. Look at this list and you’ll see people who know how to craft songs.
A lot of Americans probably equate Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” to a homage to hitting the road on your motorbike, but it’s actually another Canadian classic right?
Yes, the song is at No. 6 and it was written by songwriter Mars Bonfire from Ontario. He wrote that song about finally buying his first car, which was a Ford Falcon. To think that image of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on motorcycles in Easy Rider was inspired by a Ford Falcon in small town Ontario.
Were you surprised Leonard Cohen’s epic “Hallelujah” just cracked the Top Five?
It was a big surprise, but it really only became a single in the last couple of years due to downloads. It’s become an anthem. It’s a song that was discovered first by musicians. That Cohen album did nothing … it wasn’t even released in the U.S. because CBS wouldn’t release it. They famously told Leonard, we know you are great, but are you any good? This was the worst point of Cohen’s career for marketability. It was slowly discovered by other artists over years — most notably Jeff Buckley and more recently K.D. Lang, who performed it at the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
What is the point of books of lists like this?
The point is to promote that there are 100 great songs … it’s more about that than what is specifically on the list. I could have written a book that was just as interesting on the songs from 101 to 200. Look at the names in this book—they are people who either do high-quality folk material such as The Band who invented the genre we now call Americana. Then, think of the singer-songwriter era and the whole California scene with Jackson Browne, Carole King, etc. Who are the best? Joni [Mitchell] and Neil [Young]. And, where did they come from? The Prairies. Joni Mitchell writing about escape with the line: “I wish I had a river to skate away on.” No one in Los Angeles would write a line like that. Or Ian and Sylvia with “Four Strong Winds” – a song about going out to Alberta and the migrant workers, that is similar to the Woody Guthrie tradition.
What was your No. 1 Canadian single?
I have my own compiled list of songs from 1 to probably 1,700. I won’t reveal what is No. 101, but my No. 1 is Ron Sexsmith’s song “Secret Heart” that is No. 98 in the book. I can’t recall the rest of my Top 5.
To see the list and weigh in on the debate, see: