let me sing you the song of my people

This week, the blackflies arrived. Swarms of them. Clouds. Voracious, pesty little bastards flying around our heads, getting in our ears, crawling through our hair and even going on suicide missions into our open mouths.

Given that the east coast is coming off the worst winter I can remember, and that two months ago my front yard was literally six feet deep in snow, I’m trying not to complain too much.

Come, wingéd harbingers of spring! Place your tiny hairy feet upon my pale winter-faded skin, as I blink in the warming sun like a newborn foal. Dive-bomb my face. Drink of my blood. IT’S ALL GOOD, AT LEAST I DON’T HAVE TO SHOVEL YOU.

I keep trying to remember this mantra as I’m going through gallons of bug spray just to stand at the bus stop in the morning without getting eaten alive.

Instead, what runs through my head is The Blackfly Song, by Wade Hemsworth.

If you went to elementary school in Canada, I’ll bet you a substantial sum of money and a bottle of Deep Woods Off! that you are familiar with The Blackfly Song. I honestly can’t remember the name of the hardcover songbooks we used in our music class back in the mid-80s, but they were Canada-specific and so included songs about blackflies, fishing, and Terry Fox.

It was almost as if the people behind curriculum development were bound and determined to give us a Canadian identity, whether we wanted it or not. What we ended up with were long, long songs (so long, The Blackfly Song has seven verses, and after each verse you have to sing the chorus again) about times and places we had no frame of reference for.

Here’s another one I remember singing – and hating – as a fourth grader. Squid-Jiggin’ Ground. I’ve never in my life jigged for squid, and did you know it’s not really possible to sing a Newfoundland folk tune if you don’t have a Newfoundland accent? It’s true. This version is Stompin’ Tom performing it live, which is fun, but now imagine a bunch of nine-year-olds accompanied by a bitter woman on the piano and you can maybe see why it’s a little sad.

Every September when we did the Terry Fox run to commemorate the Marathon of Hope, we had to sing a song called “Run, Terry, Run”. It was, I’m pretty sure, terrible. I can’t find a recording of it anywhere on the internet, but I can still remember quite clearly that the chorus went like this:

Run, Terry, run / run, Terry, run / was the chant from the heart of everyone.

The reason I say “terrible”, aside from those shlocky awful treacly lyrics, is that the children were also supposed to clap in a rhythm that mimicked the sound of him running on his artificial leg.


My kids are in elementary school now. My oldest son is the same age I was when I was plowing through Squid-Jiggin’ Ground and hating music class. What’s he been doing? Well, they’ve learned how to play K’Naan’s Wavin’ Flag on the recorder. They have sung the entire soundtrack from Frozen and learned all the lyrics to Happy. There is nary a fishing boat nor a blackfly among them. I don’t even think they’ve learned the Canadian version of This Land is Your Land:

On the one hand, I’m happy for them. I loved music and singing, but honestly while trying to sing some of those the overwhelming feeling was one of embarrassment, with a side order of boredom.

On the other hand, these were uniquely Canadian songs, and it did actually end up giving us a shared national experience. I feel like maybe our kids are missing out on this stuff, in a zillion-channel universe.

Who among us, for example, regrets knowing all the words to The Log-Driver’s Waltz? (incidentally also by The Blackfly Song guy.)

This played on CBC every afternoon, it seemed like, as a way to end the after-school kids’ programming block. Isn’t it fantastic? Log drivers! Weird animation! Kate McGarrigle! THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD!!!!

I don’t know how it gets more Canadian than that.


5 thoughts on “let me sing you the song of my people

  1. I scrolled through anxiously, thinking “Surely she hasn’t forgotten the Log Driver’s Waltz!” – silly me. I actually… don’t remember the Blackfly Song, though. The only one I really liked was that Land of the Silver Birch one, and then they fucked around with the chorus until it wasn’t as nice – I still have no idea why.

    “A bunch of nine-year-olds accompanied by a bitter woman on the piano.” *snort*


  2. Hmm, I wonder if it’s because I grew up in the Quebec of the 1970s and 1980s after the quiet revolution, but I have no recollection of either of these songs. I’m all over Land of the Silver Birch though. I mean, I was in Girl Guides for more than half of my life.

    The smell of Muskal is a solid part of my childhood memories, which we regularly bathed in as we spent our summers up in the Laurentien Mountains.


  3. I don’t actually know The Blackfly song, which is funny since I grew up in rural Ontario, among the hoards of blackflies. When I was a kid, and I wanted to go outside to play in May or Jun, my mom used to spray an knee-length nylon with bug repellent, then I’d wear it over my head to protect me from the blackflies. Breathin’ in bug repellant…good times.

    I remember the Squid Jigging song well, as I had a 4th grade teacher who was totally into East coast music. When I was 15 and travelled out to Newfoundland with my parents we went to a singalong evening at one of the Provincial Parks. I knew the words to I’s the B’y better than most of the people there from Newfoundland.

    The one NFB clip I still find myself singing music from is this depressing little film about the coureur du bois:

    Halala-lala-la-la-laaaaa! Halala-lala- laaaaa-laaaaa!


  4. I do not know the Blackfly Song! Maybe it’s because there aren’t any blackflies here. Or at least I don’t think there are. Maybe this is going to be one of those things where someone stridently corrects me, which seems to be happening a lot lately. Blackflies, I don’t know you at all.

    This Land Is Your Land, though. Love that song.


  5. I don’t remember the fly song at all. I do remember the cranky/bitter piano player though. I remember one year our class had to stay in music during lunch because we were singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas wrong. We were singing we weeeeeeeeeeeeesh you a Merry Christmas and should have been singing we wish you a Merry Christmas.


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