- During this long COVID stretch writers Ron Verzuh and Diane Beckett have been listening for familiar songs with both landing on music by Leonard Cohen. Recent Churchill, Manitoba transplant Beckett also highlights one of the town’s local favourites.
Stay tuned and enjoy,
10 January 2021
I was thinking of three songs that have been with me this year more than others. Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows, Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind, and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. It seems to me that all three tunes share a sense of uncertainty and lament that speaks to our times.
About Ron: Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker living in the United States. ronverzuh.ca
Because of COVID, I seem to be drawn to familiar music, mostly Leonard Cohen’s classics including Hallelujah, Anthem and Dance Me to the End of Love, mostly from his Live in London videos. The live concert aspect is comforting in these times of social isolation.
I have also been listening to the music from my new home of Churchill, Manitoba.
The annual music festival, which is usually held during the winter festival celebrations in March, was cancelled due to COVID and held outdoors in the summer, during a brief lull in the pandemic.
The festival traded March temperatures, which average from a high of – 14 C to a low of – 24 C, for COVID precautions of masks, sanitizer and outside social distancing as well as Polar Bear guards with bear bangers, flares and rubber bullets.
A short aside about why we needed Polar Bear guards. They are important for our safety and the bears’ safety because they are the world’s largest terrestrial predator and we Churchillians are living in their territory. The bears are 1.3 metres at the shoulder, 2 to 3 metres long, weigh 350 to 555 kilograms and can run 40 kilometres an hour.
Bears are especially dangerous in the summer and fall as they are waiting for Hudson’s Bay to freeze so they can go out on the ice and begin to hunt their only food source – seals. At this time, they are hungry and grumpy, so there is a Polar Bear jail that can hold up to 30 problem polar bears in separate cells until they can be released on the ice after freeze-up.
Back to the festival. I loved that the festival hosted all local musicians, both children and adults. All the musicians were incredible right down to the 11-year-old who had a professional stage presence and voice.
Roy Mexted, a local musician and the festival organizer mentors some of the younger musicians. He is known for his incredible love of Churchill and his generosity to the community. He has just released a CD of new music. Like all who live here, he is a proud Churchillian and the songs reflect that. He sings about the Polar Bears, Northern Lights and Belugas as well as local luminaries, locales and history.
Churchill is the Polar Bear Capital of the World and international tourists flock here every fall to see them. In the summer people paddle board and kayak with about 4,000 belugas. In the winter, this town is the best place in the world to view the Northern Lights. Birders flock here every spring and summer for the migratory birds. Some of the birds fly to Antarctica and back each and every year.
Roy’s songs reflect this amazing place, especially the evocative Smiling Like a Sundog, that expresses his joy of living his life in Churchill. I think it helps to know that Roy is a transplant from Australia and that a sun dog is a beautiful patch of light near the sun caused by the refraction of sunlight by ice crystals in the atmosphere. Sun dogs are most conspicuous when the sun is near the horizon and thus are very common here.
The Bear and the Harmonica is a sweet song that reflects the atmosphere of Churchill and has the warmth of someone reading a children’s book out loud. The other songs may be better appreciated by us locals. When the Train Comes Back is about the 18-month gap when train travel was cut because of washed out track. There is no road to Churchill, so it was a difficult time. Goodbye Gypsy’s is about a favourite eatery that burnt down. There are four restaurants in Churchill and only one is open year round. The Ballad of Dave Daley is about a local dog musher who lives his life large. As the song says, he has probably almost died about 100 times.
Leonard Cohen, a Canadian celebrated internationally for his eloquent exploration of universal themes. Roy Mexted, a transplanted Australian who celebrates the local nuances of a tiny, remote Canadian village on the tundra. These two musicians brought me great listening pleasure for very different reasons. They bookend my music listening pleasure in this, my COVID year. One artist connecting me to all humanity and another deepening my sense of place and linking me to all living beings in my new home.
Link to Roy’s album online here. You can buy it here. His Facebook page is Roy Mexted Music. I encourage you to support him. Local musicians in a village with a population of 815 at the end of a 1,700 kilometre rail line don’t have a large audience, especially since the venues are closed and tourists aren’t coming.
About Diane: Diane Beckett is not musical but her son is and, as a child, he took her on an unexpected detour into music from which she will never emerge as it brings her such joy.