Ahead by a Century

The Tragically Hip:  Ahead by a Century

Quiz by Sharon Michiko Yoneda

"We climb a tree and then we'll talk."

"And listen to our thoughts.  With illusions of some day.  Cast in a golden light."

"And that's when the hornet stung me, and I had a feverish dream."

"With revenge and doubt. Tonight we smoke them [the hornets] out."

artists:  The Tragically Hip

songwriters:  The Tragically Hip

date released:  2017

artists:  The Tragically Hip

songwriters:  The Tragically Hip

date released:  2017

At its most basic level, “Ahead by a Century” is a song with a broad sweep, as it weaves together past, present and future. It is about time, memory, loss, disappointment and desire. But it is also about Canada’s identity and the politics of hope. It is a song in which the Hip asks us to shed what holds us back, and to imagine a future that sets us free.

The opening verse recalls childhood. It begins with the words “First thing,” which immediately captures the excitement children feel when they recount their day. The singer and his friend have played together many times: “First thing we’d climb a tree / And maybe then we’d talk / Or sit silently / And listen to our thoughts.”

Among other things, the two discuss what they will do when they get older, or what they think their future will be like. They have “illusions of someday” that as children cast “a golden light.” But as the rest of the song reveals, their ideas of the future are “illusions.” It will not be as they planned or hoped. Having been back to childhood, and then forward to “someday,” the verse closes with the present and an insistence on living as fully and genuinely as possible: “No dress rehearsal / This is our life.”

In the bridge, the “illusions” of childhood are inevitably and almost accidentally punctured. The voice of the child is again captured when he explains — perhaps to a parent — “that’s where the hornet stung me.” This unexpected and unpleasant experience marks the end of childhood’s “golden light,” and brings on the “feverish dream” of adulthood, where we are all addled by emotions such as “revenge and doubt.”

The final line of the bridge — like the final line of the verse — returns us to the present: “Tonight we smoke them (the hornets) out.”   The hornets (them) also refers to “revenge and doubt.” The singer plans to use smoke to drive the hornets from their nest, in the same way that he hopes to drive revenge and doubt from himself, in an attempt to return to an earlier time when he lived free of these emotions.

Political agitators were ahead by a century.

The chorus is six words – “You are ahead by a century” – repeated three times. The singer is addressing his partner, who is perhaps the same person he climbed trees with as a child. Yet the two are now far apart. He is thinking of the past and struggling in the present. She is living 100 years into the future. She has broken free of at least some of what thwarts and binds us 

She is already thinking and behaving in ways that will eventually gain broad political and cultural acceptance, but that are currently deemed unacceptable.

For example, in Britain in the 1810s, tens of thousands of women and men gathered in open-air protests to demand the right to vote, but it was 1918 before there was universal male suffrage and 1928 before there was universal female suffrage. Those early 19th century demonstrators were ahead by a century (and more). They recognized a blatant social injustice and started campaigning against it, but it took one hundred years for the rest of society to catch up.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. — another Nobel Laureate — spoke powerfully of his “dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Since then, 53 years have passed, and we are nowhere near living up to these words, as the recent bigotry in Charlottesville, Va., makes shatteringly clear. Will we live up to them by 2064, or will we discover — sadly and shamefully — that King was ahead by much more than a century?


After the death of Gord Downie on October 17, 2017, leader of the Hip, the BBC wrote a very powerful tribute on The Tragically Hip and the Canadian music industry in general.  Food for thought for Canadians.


When Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tearful tribute to The Tragically Hip frontman, Gord Downie, after his death from brain cancer, he led a nation in mourning for a unique band of home-grown heroes, writes Jordan Michael Smith.

Few rock bands are publicly mourned by the premier and other high-level politicians, comedians and actors, alongside the country's most prominent musicians.

But the Hip, as they are known, are not ordinary musicians to Canadians. Rather, more than any other artist, they have reflected the sense of what it's like to love and live in a beautiful, overlooked country.

To understand why the Hip resonates, it's essential to understand Canada's place in the world. From Confederation in 1867 to the end of World War II in 1945, the country lived in the shadow of Great Britain.

After the United States became the dominant world power, Canada became dwarfed by America.

"Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant," Mr Trudeau's father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, told Americans in 1969. "No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." American power is overwhelming, and Canada struggles to maintain a distinct identity in the face of a colossus. No part of the world escapes American culture - its music, movies, television, and fashion is embraced by all parts of the globe.

Canada has fewer resources than most countries to preserve a separate national culture, being relatively young, small in population, and isolated geographically. Laws exist mandating that broadcasters feature Canadian-created content, but most culture consumed in Canada is American nonetheless. Even worse, many of the most talented and popular artists and intellectuals migrate to the US, unable to resist its mammoth market and influence.

Most of the Canadian-born entertainers and thinkers best-known to the world - from Justin Bieber to Ryan Reynolds to Frank Gehry - live in America.Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Celine Dion all moved south of the border - the Canadian border - to achieve fame. Even Alice Munro, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize for her short stories about small-town Ontario, attracted attention through the New Yorker magazine.

The Hip never penetrated American consciousness, conversely. Nine of their albums have reached number one on the music charts in Canada; they have never broken even the top 100 in the US.

They are even more obscure internationally. As a result, the band is like a secret handshake for Canadians, a way to establish an exclusive commonality among anyone between the ages of roughly 15 and 45. It helped that the Hip never seemed to care much about becoming worldwide superstars. They appeared once on Saturday Night Live - introduced by fellow Canadian Dan Ackroyd -and toured the US many times. But their base was always in Canada and they never left home for long periods of time. "[Interviewers] always ask us about our success or lack of success in the States, which I find absurd," Downie once complained. "While that is a story of the band, there are so many other stories."

What's more, the Hip mined and reflected Canadian mythology in their lyrics. Songs frequently have references to hockey, geography, history, and culture that are recognisable to Canadians but unknown to outsiders.

One of the band's best-known songs, Courage, is subtitled "For Hugh MacLennan", a mid-20th Century Canadian novelist.

Another, Bobcaygeon, name-checks Toronto and is named after a picturesque, tiny town in Ontario. Downie sings in one song of Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who named Canada. He even mentions the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in another tune.

The Hip treat their country the way Bob Dylan treats America: as a source of endless poetic fascination and mystery. And as with Bruce Springsteen, the band became a cherished national symbol, even if only to itself in this case.

Lyrics aside, however, the Hip are fully American-derived. That reality is telling - it is difficult for even nationalist artists to avoid US impact, an inescapable closeness that breeds resentment alongside affection. The Hip play rock n' roll, after all, an art form that originated not in Montreal and Vancouver but in Memphis and Chicago.

Their music is a combination of bar bands from the 1960s, stadium rock from the 1970s, and college rock of the 1980s. What's original came from Downie, who would interrupt his Canadiana-saturated lines with bizarre stories about whale tanks and double suicides. But originality is not the point. Cultural artefacts do not have to be artistically revolutionary to be meaningful. And there is no doubt about the Hip's meaning to millions of Canadians. In the cassette culture of the 1980s and 1990s, the group's shows were heavily bootlegged, with tapes of their concerts circulating among fans and records stores in the tradition of the Grateful Dead.

They have sold more albums in Canada than global powerhouses like U2, and retail chains used to open stories at midnight when Hip albums were released to offer fans instant access to the new music.

In 2013, Canada Post even released a stamp with a photo of the band.

Asked Downie in one song: "What's a windswept face, the elusive presence of the sun, to the hard Canadian?"

Canadians know the answer, even if nobody else does.