John K. Samson and the intersection of sport, music and politics

By Matt Ventresca

And now for something completely different…

If we are to believe Roch Carrier’s assertion that “hockey is life in Canada” (and that’s a big if), then it only makes sense that we explore how the game materializes in art and culture. In my last post in this space (co-written with the illustrious Marty Clark), we discussed Goon (2012) and investigated how the film perpetuates hockey’s tried and true (i.e. tired) discourses of honour and retaliatory violence. But if you recall, one of things I actually liked about Goon was how the filmmakers sprinkled in a number of classic songs by legendary artists from the Canadian rock canon (from Rush to Sloan to Chilliwack). The ease with which these songs coalesced with the film’s narrative speaks to the longstanding relationship between hockey and Canadian music.

Popular music, like sport, is a way that we, as a nation, tell stories about ourselves. In the melodies, rhythms and lyrics of songs by Canadian artists, we expect to hear about experiences of Canadian life that are not much different from our own. Given the cultural prominence of Canada’s “national sport,” it is not surprising that hockey has been a fruitful source of inspiration for many Canadian musicians:  Stompin’ Tom Connors assured us that it was “the best game you can name” (“The Hockey Song”), while The Tragically Hip brought Bill Barilko’s story to a new generation (“50 Mission Cap”), and used the Summit Series and a goaltender’s solitude as metaphors for emotional anguish (“Fireworks” and “The Loneliest End of the Rink”). Nineties rockers The Pursuit of Happiness paid tribute to the Great One (“Gretzky Rocks!”) and the Rheostatics helped us reminisce about watching our favourite player on Hockey Night in Canada (“The Ballad of Wendel Clark, Pt. I and II”). From Jane Siberry and Kathleen Edwards to the Shuffle Demons and the aptly named Hanson Brothers, the list of Canadian artists with well-known “hockey songs” ends up being quite extensive; even yours truly has penned a couple hockey-themed songs in his day (none of which are [thankfully] on the internet).

One of the more recent songwriters to provide musical representations of “Canada’s game” is John K. Samson of Winnipeg folk-rockers, The Weakerthans. Samson’s declaration that “the Guess Who suck, the Jets were lousy anyway” from “One Great City!” has become some of the most widely cited lyrics in Canadian music. The Weakerthans’ last (and hopefully not final!) album featured “Elegy for Gump Worsley,” a poetic homage that followed the death of the Hall of Fame goaltender. Most recently, Samson’s solo record Provincial (2012) offers “;” the song’s bizarre title referring to its lyrical source: an online petition written by Samson advocating for the induction of former Philadelphia Flyers sniper Reggie Leach into the Hockey Hall of Fame. After the jump, I’ll explore some of the ways in which this song taps into the political potential of sport…but first, have a listen:

The song’s lyrics are taken verbatim from the petition’s copy and, despite their utilitarian origins, flow elegantly across the song’s melody. The words communicate a compelling version of Leach’s story and outline how his career held immense cultural significance for his hometown of Riverton, Manitoba. It is through this narrative that we begin to see the political implications of Samson’s song. While many “hockey songs” contribute to the myths that reinforce hockey’s privileged status in Canada, Samson’s project (the song and the petition itself) make us think beyond the stories that appear on Hockey Night in Canada and in the pages of The Hockey News.

To understand the political potential of “Petition” (as it is commonly called), however, we must consider the song in the context of Samson’s overall body of work. He effectively plays the role of cultural intermediary, drawing connections between walks of life that are so infrequently tied together: singing about a fictional dinner with philosopher Michel Foucault on one track (“Our Retired Explorer…”) and writing about a curling bonspiel the next (“Tournament of Hearts”). Lyrics based on supposedly “highbrow” pursuits like art, politics and academia are encased within catchy rock, folk and pop melodies that are far from the musical conventions of “high culture.” What’s more, Samson frequently draws inspiration from (mainly working class) characters and places that have fallen on hard times or have been left out of mainstream public discourse. Yet these are not Springsteen-esque tales of escape and perseverance that mythologize and reify the working class and paint romantic portraits of rust belt factories and refineries. Instead, Samson often gives us snapshots of working class life at its most mundane. He lets us peer into the mind of the bus driver who endlessly recites lists of famous names and places to help pass time along his route (“Civil Twilight”), offers hope that construction workers are treated well by their employers (“My Favourite Chords”) and mourns the North End of Winnipeg as it is quietly and unceremoniously demolished (“One Great City!).

The cover of Samson’s EP Provincial Road 222 also featuring “Petition”

His songs dealing with hockey invoke similar themes of the flawed and marginalized. Samson’s famous quip about the Jets is tied into a pronouncement about his love/hate relationship with Winnipeg and how he is watching his hometown be remade by greedy developers.  His ode to Gump Worsley does not portray him as a superhuman athlete who pushes the limits of the human body (and our imaginations); instead, we get an imperfect and damaged character (beer gut and all) who looks “more like our fathers” than a superhero. This is the same spirit that I believe drives Samson’s project around Reggie Leach. While Samson’s justification for the petition focuses on how Leach captivated fans and residents of his hometown, this is not only through on-ice performance, awards and statistics. We also hear about the “native kid” who could not afford his own skates, and was subject to harsh treatment from other “ethnic” boys who were understood as naturally and rightfully superior to First Nation communities.

Leach also confronted some unfortunate twists and turns that often get swept under the rug in chronicles of hockey greatness. His career was cut short as he struggled to negotiate the cultures of casual and excessive drinking that he encountered in his hometown and the NHL. As Samson states in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“I would argue that his career was cut short by an illness. He was struggling with addictions, and that’s a real illness. And I think some benefit should be given to that – and the way, after that, he became such a role model for his community and his people, I think is inspiring.”

In Samson’s comments we see the importance of recognizing how Leach’s story has social implications that stretch far beyond the game of hockey. “Petition” forces us to ask questions about how hockey myths are constructed and preserved. It makes us reconcile how identities intersect with our understandings of a player’s career and his (or her) accomplishments. It asks us to consider the barriers faced by First Nations people in excelling at their country’s “national game.” It compels us to rethink the cultural and moral values we use to decide who deserves status within the pantheon of hockey greats.

Does Reggie Leach “deserve” to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? I am not interested in quibbling over statistics here (although his numbers do stack up nicely to other players whose careers were shortened by injury or illness). For my purposes, what I think is of greater significance is to consider how music can help carve out a space to harness the political potential of sport. Sport’s discourses are most commonly employed in the interest of making money and are increasingly invoked to promote conservative social values or military conquests. Yet sport can also provide us with meaningful stories and ideas (both positive and negative) that can be a catalyst for promoting social justice. Songs such as “Petition” (or even the vitriolic offering “Dear Coaches Corner” from Samson’s former band, Propagandhi) exist outside the hyper-regulated and self-possessed sports media industrial complex and can allow for alternative discussions about sport to take place. Of course, the relationship between music and social change is a complex one; but the ability to facilitate new conversations beyond the tired clichés and moral panics that often characterize high profile sports offers a glimmer of hope. Samson does this by appealing to hockey’s pre-eminent historical authority, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and asking them to recognize the greater significance of Leach’s story. A sixty-one goal season, a Conn Smythe trophy, and a chance to shed light on a number of social issues within and outside sport? That’s something I can definitely sign on for.

Author’s Note: I am very much indebted to Brian Jansen’s presentation at last year’s Popular Culture Association of Canada conference for giving me a lens through which to think about John K. Samson’s writing. Hopefully one day you will Google yourself and find this well deserved shout out.


4 thoughts on “John K. Samson and the intersection of sport, music and politics

  1. Awesome post Matt! Without knowing much about it, I am very intrigued by the relationship between sport and art – and especially the potential you highlight for art to shed new light/perspectives on sport. Very cool stuff you are exploring here.

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