Twenty years ago, a landmark album in Canadian music was released.
Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July, a masterpiece which has provided a soundtrack to life in Canada, especially Ontario, hit shelves at record stores on October 26th 1993. Recorded at Greg Keelor’s Northumberland Hills farm, what started out as a summer party and jam session, morphed into 11 tracks that went on to become one of Canada’s greatest albums.
The album’s popularity continues to endure, having gone six times platinum since its release. Over the past few years, writers, music critics and culture commentators have revisited Five Days, each heaping praise and helping elevate its status to iconic.
In 2011, National Post reporter writer Sarah Boesveld, went so far as to take a roadtrip that retraced Jim Cuddy’s roots in Prince Edward County and then visited Keelor at his farmhouse. She also touched on the album’s significance in her life:
That Blue Rodeo record is a mainstay on our stereos each and every summer, taking my parents, my sisters and me back to the early 1990s when we would pop it into the car tape deck for a trip to the lake or to my grandparents’ farm. The lyrics transported us to the middle of Lake Ontario, to Pyramid Lake and English Bay € cool Canadian places to dream about in the summer heat. Now in our 20s and moved away from our parents’ house in rural Eastern Ontario, its roots-rock reminds us of the country. It reminds us of home.
A blog post by Gillian Turnbull from 2011 also talks about how the album touches Canadian listeners across different generations:
Five Days is a lovely set of songs that, 18 years after its emergence, still appeals to a national audience that is increasingly divided in its musical taste… ‚ Perhaps it is the casual but meaningful reference to Canadian places: Lake Ontario in “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet, Pyramid Lake in “Cynthia, English Bay in (obviously) “English Bay.
Maybe the songs call to mind the sadly short Canadian summer, with light mandolin figures evoking sun-dappled trees, cool night breezes, and sitting in front of the campfire with a guitar (or, running freaked out into the house from the mad mosquitoes of the prairies).
This past week, here in Ottawa at Writers Festival, CBC Radio Host Alan Neal curated a retrospective discussion with Cuddy and Keelor, revisiting the album twenty years later and taking us through the meanings and genesis of each song, track by track. The event was sold out. I was only able to score tickets because I won a writing contest CBC held in the run-up to the event.
Below is a partial track listing, with some of the more interesting stories that stuck with me from the discussion.
Hasn’t Hit Me Yet
“Hey hey I guess it hasn’t hit me yet, I fell through this crack, And I kinda lost my head. I stand transfixed, Before this street light, Watching the snow fall, On this cold December night “
The song’s lyrics talk about being transfixed by a streetlight and make reference to Lake Ontario. Keelor talked about how that song came to him while he was walking along the streets of Port Hope, Ontario and how he was reading James Joyce at the time and wanted to reproduce what he was reading in his songs.
“Cynthia Won’t you take me to Pyramid Lake with you, We could watch the spaceships, Maybe they’d take us on a trip. Into that never ending sky Into that wide and endless night.
Keelor revealed that Cynthia was a woman they met at a club in Minnesota. Pyramid Lake isn’t actually in Canada, but in Nevada, which is where Cynthia came from. By the sounds of it, she was a bit of a character, telling Keelor about how at Pyramid Lake they would lie down and watch the spaceships fly overhead.
“She was in a doorway. And I was walking nowhere down The Main.
Young guys from Ontario taking a trip to Montreal for a weekend of mischief is a staple of life in this part of the country. Photograph came into existence as Jim Cuddy wandered off into a seedy part of Montreal where he ended up being propositioned by a woman. He wrote the song imagining what would happen if he were to accept.
“And I wonder if you think of me. As I dream of you. Do you hear the song that I sing in this hotel room
Most likely my favourite song on the album, Keelor revealed that this song was about a woman who he been seeing who still had a boyfriend. The boyfriend was a photographer who happened to have an exhibit while Keelor was in Vancouver. When Keelor went to checked out the exhibit, he found that all of the photos featured the woman they were both seeing, fully naked. Feeling very depressed, he retreated to his hotel room on English Bay and penned this song.
Timeless Canadian Experiences
This album just feels so Canadian, probably the secret to its longevity. From the acoustic, handmade sounds of the songs, to the locations mentioned in the songs, there’s something most people in this country can connect to.
Escaping the city and savouring the fleeting summer at the cottage or country farm is a Canadian tradition. This album was built on that. You can hear a dog barking and a screen door clanging on a couple of the tracks.
Many of us have made the trip to Montreal and wandered a bit too far off onto the side streets into some seedy parts of town.
And maybe we haven’t all been to Port Hope (although I have), but a large number of us have at least seen and felt the cold of ‚ the shores of Lake Ontario in winter, whether it’s at Kingston, in the Quinte Region, down to Toronto or ‚ the horseshoe to Niagara Falls.
I’ve always valued this album and listen to it regularly. Revisiting it in the run-up to the 20th anniversary discussion at Writers Fest, I’ve listened to it in detail, appreciating more than ever.
For a limited time, the band has posted the album in its entirety on SoundCloud.
Give it a listen. If you’re Canadian, you might connect with in in your own way. If you’re from somewhere else, I can’t think of a better musical introduction to Canada than Five Days in July.