“No dress rehearsal, this is our life.” It’s one thing to think of that line, from the 1996 Tragically Hip single “Ahead by a Century,” being sung by Gord Downie this summer, when he’s embarking on his final tour after a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. It’s another to hear a peer like Hayden deliver a sombre version as a tribute. And it’s a whole other experience to hear a gymnasium full of elementary school students sing the coming-of-age song in tribute to an elder.
Ian Jack is a teacher and choir director at Newcastle Public School in Newcastle, Ont., a small town between Oshawa and Port Hope. In the past 15 years, he’s led his choirs in songs by R.E.M., Joni Mitchell, Sloan, Pharrell Williams and Janelle Monae. When he heard the news about Downie in late May, he rallied the school to learn and perform “Ahead by a Century” before classes let out a month later. The performance was recorded on June 20, “the hottest day of the school year,” says Jack. “One would think for a tribute the kids were sombre for other reasons, but they were just very, very hot.”
Downie’s diagnosis hit Jack hard. In recent years he’s lost a parent and other family members to cancer. He is a fan of Downie’s music. But in 2001, Jack co-wrote a book—with Jason Schneider and, full disclosure, myself—about Canadian music called Have Not Been the Same, for which Downie agreed to write a foreword, in the form of a poem. For a historical project undertaken by three underdogs with no real national prominence, “having his support was truly massive. Unlike my co-authors, I never had the pleasure of meeting him or chatting with him, but that was a big coup. I don’t live in the writing world or the music world anymore. My world is with elementary school kids, and I do a lot of stuff trying to bridge the two.”
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Q: Why did you choose to ask the students to sing “Ahead by a Century”?
Jack: As much as there are other Hip songs I like even more, this is the sweetest one.
It’s their most far-reaching song. It’s a song I’ve used with my Grade 5 and 6 kids for years, because it has a real story you can relate to. It’s ambiguous enough: some people interpret it as young love, some people see it as innocent friendship, looking at one’s life in the future. When I pick a song for kids to sing, obviously, it has to have some kind of relation to their lives. Lyrically and melodically, it just works. I did move the starting chord to F from D, just to match their voices. The JKs and many of the primaries were learning the song phonetically. Even though the words are on a screen, a lot of them learned the song just through memory.
Q: Do kids even know who the Tragically Hip are?
Jack: The Hip is not a band that truly registers with the majority of the kids, but many kids, when surveyed, have heard the song through their parents. Kids will get whether something is a good song or not. We explained that the idea of doing this is to send someone goodwill.
Q: Is it weird to hear kids singing, en masse, the line: “Disappointing you is getting me down”?
Jack: It’s a little heavy, sure. [Note: the children of the Newcastle choir have also performed the most depressing song in the history of music, a.k.a. Tears For Fears’ “Mad World.”]
Q: I read it as an adult playing with their child, pondering that child’s innocence, wanting to avenge them from the hornets of the world, and thinking about the century they’ll be living through. I know Downie wrote it around the time he had his first child.
Jack: Huh, kind of like [Robert Munsch’s] I Love You Forever in song? I hadn’t thought of that. I honestly thought of it as two kids coming of age, about when they started to understand life a bit, and then looking back as an adult.
Q: Had you heard the version by Toronto’s Choir! Choir! Choir! that was posted shortly after Downie’s diagnosis announcement?
Jack: I was really moved by their version of “Space Oddity,” which was worth all the praise it got from around the world. When we did that song earlier this year, I stole a lot of the ascending ooohs and ahhs from them. Choir! Choir! Choir! does amazing stuff. I saw them give a talk at the OMEA [Ontario Music Educators Association] conference. With “Ahead by a Century,” we tried to keep it to the melody. The only thing we really wanted to showcase was Gord Sinclair’s backing vocal. It’s a characteristic of the Hip that brings some colour to their music. It’s a pretty line, especially when you sing it an octave higher.
Q: This video will obviously resonate with adults, but what do the kids get out of it?
Jack: We want our school singing a lot, which doesn’t necessarily happen at other schools. Kids can do it, adults do it, and it’s really a unifying experience. I personally love seeing the school come together. And I love it when choirs from eight different schools come together and sing something they’ve never heard before. It’s a really magical thing, and we need a lot of those magical things, especially right now. We’re in an age when most of the time we want to focus on horrible news. Everybody needs some hope, and singing brings people together.