Seven Canadian roots songs about the Canadian war experience
In honour of Remembrance Day tomorrow, we here at Roots Music Canada have compiled some of the best Canadian songs we know about Canada’s role in war – whether they be about the soldiers who fought, the conscientious objectors who took refuge here, or the citizens we turned into our prisoners.
Lest we forget.
James Keelaghan – “Fires of Calais” and “Kiri’s piano”
James Keelaghan went straight from pursuing a history degree to writing songs based on historical themes, and some of those songs have gone on to become classics. Little wonder then that we couldn’t choose just one Keelaghan song for this list. James has at least two that belong here, and arguably more. But let’s start with “Fires of Calais.” Although there were very few Canadians evacuated from Dunkirk during the operation now immortalized in the film of the same name, we were there, both among the evacuees and, in at least one case, the heroes.
“Kiri’s Piano” is an entirely different kind of war song written by James – a song about the people who were among Canada’s victims during the Second World War. Namely the Japanese, who were stripped of their homes and possessions and sent to internment camps. It’s one of the Keelaghan songs that many now consider classics, and for good reason.
Lizzy Hoyt – “Vimy Ridge”
Lizzy wrote this in 2005 after a “life changing” – her words – visit to the Vimy memorial. It’s written from the perspective of a woman who loses her lover in the battle imaging what he must have thought and felt. The song was a finalist in both the John Lennon Songwriting Contest (2010) and the USA Songwriting Competition (2011), and this lovely video was produced by Lizzy’s sister, Sarah.
Jon Brooks – “War Resister”
Jon Brooks recorded an entire album about the Canadian war experience called Ours and the Shepherd’s, so we could easily post a dozen or so of his songs on this page. But this one isn’t from that album; it’s from its follow up, Moth nor Rust. And, as the opening line makes clear, it’s about Jeremy Hinzman, the first American Iraq war resister to seek asylum in Canada.
Tony Quarrington – For King and Country
Tony’s new album and show, launched in May, is an entire opus about Canadians during the First World War – the “war to end all wars,” they said. Rather than posting one song, here is the promo video for the May album launch, which will give you a taste of several.
Mike Plume – “On Remembrance Day”
Mike was inspired to write this song by his great uncle, Harold Joyce, who was killed during the Battle of Arras at the age of 21. That was 100 years ago this year. His grandmother had written a book about the Joyce family, but Mike told Jim Barber he struggled to write a song that was focused on his great uncle alone.
“I decided that instead of making it a song about one soldier in particular, I tried to make it about every soldier in general,” he said. “I tried to leave it open. I wanted it to ring true to our soldiers today as well.”
The Trews – “Highway of Heroes”
Speaking of soldiers today, the Trews have practically become heroes in their own right in some military circles for writing this ode to service-members lost in Afghanistan – and to the hundreds of people who line the overpasses on the stretch of highway between Trenton and Toronto waving Canadian flags as their bodies are carried from CFB Trenton to the coroner’s office in Toronto. The song was inspired by the 2006 death of Capt. Nichola Goddard, the first Canadian female soldier killed in Afghanistan and a former student of the MacDonald brothers’ mother. No list of Remembrance Day songs is complete without this one.