Northern Sightlines: Song Introductions And Lyrics

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These are songs that I have written and developed for use with students across a time span of twenty years in the classroom. I am pleased to be able to share these original Canadian songs with you, because they have been tremendously successful for me. The process of writing a successful song is challenging, and I would like you and your students to know that every effort was made to ensure that the songs are informational, resourceful, enjoyable, and commercially viable.

Ballad of John Franklin

The tragic story of the Franklin Expedition, told to include historic detail and instil emotion. Used in Grade seven Alberta-authorized Nelson Social Studies Teacher’s guide.

Franklin set sail, they say for the north arctic way,
with the ring of the king on his hand.
He had two fine ships, and ten dozen men,
As a key to the cruel arctic land.
In an age when fear of failure . . . would frighten many a sailor.
But to perish from the bitter chill, in a land with its own free will?
Aboard (H.M.S.) Erebus, and (H.M.S.) Terror, they’d face the cold reality
. . . face the cold reality.
The ships on their way traveled through Baffin Bay,
For the Northwest Passage they did sail.
The glory of the quest, would keep the crew at rest,
But the north wind whistled the tale.
And the endless stories were told . . . of the orient, spices, and gold.
Thirty below on deck, fifty below below . . . This land demanded its price.
Soon those ships would be meals for the ice!
Both ships were locked into the ice.
Outward they marched, marking stones on their quest,
And the dead to their graves they did send.
Main ‘nest became a coffin, even for the best,
On the deck was the devil’s good friend.
And the long, cold arctic nights . . . dwindling coal was the poor stoker’s plight,
When a murderous gale suddenly prevailed! Transforming the main sail,
Into a dangling guillotine of ice . . . a dangling guillotine of ice!
Eighteen months frozen in, now they’d pay for their sins!
Amidst wreckage where they prayed for hell
Overland they did go, it was sixty below. Where they ended up, no man dare tell.
And the puzzle still remains, for what the final message contains.
How the last log reads? We may never see!
A doomed man’s will to perceive . . . John Franklin.

When They Touch The Sky

Lift your heart to the mountain top . . . soar through the sky!
Can you see harmony and poetry?
Are we something in disguise?
Can we prove that we are wise?
Are all creatures as free as you and me?
Let the eagles fly,
Where the mountains lie.
Hear the young ones cry.
Can we truthfully reply?
When they touch . . . the sky.
Yes there’s power up above and it comes down with love,
it’s a miracle of birth and truth and life,
But there’s something happening here, and it’s painfully clear,
an illusion of power and greed and strife.
Let the eagles fly,
Where the mountains lie.
Hear the young ones cry.
Can we truthfully reply?
When they touch . . . the sky.
If it’s wild and spectacular we put it in a cage,
it’s a pity we haven’t come of age.
We display them in such shame when they don’t want to be tamed,
then we park them on an illustrated page.
Let the eagles fly,
Where the mountains lie.
Hear the young ones cry.
Can we truthfully reply?
When they touch . . . the sky.

Lacombe

Albert Lacombe was known as the Great Translator. He was vigilant in his work as a language transcriber and decipherer for the Blackfoot, Blood, and Cree First nations, and a renowned peacemaker. An Oblate missionary, he became known as “ah-sas-ka-pap-i-wah” (Blackfoot), the Man of Good Heart. In June each year, this song is in use at the annual Lac Ste. Anne (Alberta Beach) pilgrimage, attended by Northern Alberta and other touring faithful who come there to benefit from the “healing” waters.

When he came to the Territory . . .
The wild lands of the Blackfoot, the Blood, and the Cree.
Four thousand light years from his home on the Seaway,
Albert was his name. And the Lord was his fame.
And there’d be no more comfort, no fortune, just glory.
Where? . . . in God’s name.
An Oblate priest, He’d follow the plan,
With a mission as clear as the bell.
To work with the natives at Lac Ste. Anne,
And make them believe – pray tell!
How you never question your station,
Never cry when you grieve for your home,
And the priest, called Lacombe,
Like a castaway did roam!
Bearing his cross, like an albatross, on his heart.
Travelling far and away, the Lord’s word to impart.
Never ceasing in kindness, always stopping to pray.
Staying and talking, smiling and giving, boldly praising the day.
Blessing and healing, teaching and sharing, throwing himself in the way!
He’d say, “The Lord is our constant companion,
On this frozen earth that we roam!
And very nearby, there is Heaven,
To get there . . . just visit our home!”
As an honour in death the natives who called him Good Heart,
“Aah-sass-kit-si-pah-pi-wa’s* gone!”
a death cry did start.
A lake full of tears, they mystically praised the dead father,
And forever, amen, Lac Ste. Anne . . . will have healing water.
*Blackfoot for “The Good Heart”

Take Me Back Lord

Another town, another round . . . I ain’t got nowhere to go.
Rumblin’ sound, of a Greyhound . . . she’ll be leaving, I know.
Late this morning I got to wondering
Now she’s on that bus today.
Could she be right for me?
Guess I’ll be on my way.
I walked on, and I heard the song og a daddy and his little boy.
It was beautiful and as usual, I wished I could share their joy.
But I let family life get the worst of me,
Why can’t I have that chance again?
Lord my nose just found a liquor store,
Guess I’ll spend my last fin.
My illusions, I can see myself . . . in a soft cozy chair.
Children playing, they’d be saying, “Daddy take us to the fair!”
Late at night, they’d be sleeping . . . sweetly breathing, prayers all said.
And she’d be waiting, she’d be there for me,
Soft gold hair, big warm bed . . . I could rest my weary head.
Take me back, Lord,
I wanna go back there,
Soft gold hair, big warm bed . . . I could rest my weary head.

Chilkoot Mountain Trail

The Yukon Gold rush is portrayed from the perspective of a typical stampeder and his experiences. A favorite of the Atlin Arts and Music Festival committee.

There’s gold-dust fever, where I’m travellin’
A cold old mountain that I’ll climb.
There’s a north wind blowin’, in a valley,
By a brook so clear, I’ll spend my time.
On the Chilkoot Mountain Trail,
With one more hill to go,
There’s gold a’plenty and souls for sellin’
But there ain’t no love . . . I know.
There’s a rumour tellin’, folks are yellin’
’bout a hidden river filled with gold!
And a poor man’s riches, liquor spillin’
It’s a tale of freedom . . . and I’m sold.
On the Chilkoot Mountain Trail,
The Klondike heavy haul
There’s claims a’plenty and lives for sellin’
But there ain’t no love . . . at all.
Well they stole my pack and took my saddle,
Left me out here, sure is cold!
There’ll be no more gamblin’, no more ramblin’,
Frozen toes won’t find no gold.
On the Chilkoot Mountain Trail,
The Klondike heavy haul
There’s claims a’plenty and lives for sellin’
But there ain’t no love . . . at all.
Guess I got lucky, just survivin’
Dawson graveyard’s got no room
Twelve men got rich . . . out of sixty thousand.
Not too many go tback home.
On the Chilkoot Mountain Trail,
The Yukon river flows
There’s demons a’plenty and death foretellin’ . . .
But there ain’t no gold. . . I know.

Ribbon of Broken Dreams

The plight of the real builders of the Canadian Pacific Railroad is brought to light. This song is featured in Our Canada: Origins, Peoples, Perspectives Teacher’s Resource (Alberta-Authorized Social Studies curriculum, grade seven, 2006 Nelson Thomson), and are transcribed to music notation for a feature article in Canadian Folk Music magazine, Spring 2008.

Chang left his family and home in Canton,
For a one-way fare on the sea.
Halfway around the earth he was tossed,
To work in the land of the free.
“Bring in more of those poor Chinese chaps!” cried Van Horne.
“We’ll have ten more miles of track in our lap by the morn!”
And “Onward!” the foreman did cry.
“We’ll blast through the rock, don’t be shy!
There’s a ten dollar bonus, for volunteers . . .
Just don’t trip or slip in the cavern ’til you’ve clamped the wire.
And if you don’t make it, we’ll wire your wages to China . . .
If you desire.
And your families can come here with a dollar in their hand,
to the Golden Sun they’ll travel, to this great land!”
Trans-Canadian line, British Columbia’s future design.
In the true north, where the dream rolls on.
On the backbones . . . of the men from Canton.
And their strong young bones lay shattered,
Their broken dreams lay tattered,
Under long, cold, tar-tied ribbons of steel.
In the nearby trees, the ghostly shadows are real!
And for every mile of track,
A proud Cantonese man lays six feet down,
In the graveyard of the newest railroad town.
Trans-Canadian line, British Columbia’s future design.
In the true north, where the dream rolls on.
On the backbones . . . of the men from Canton.
At Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon
Of the six hundred workers left standin’
Only three hadn’t lost . . . their best companion.
Trans-Canadian line, British Columbia’s future design.
In the true north, where the dream rolls on.
On the backbones . . . of the men from Canton.

Riel (The Batoche Campaign)

* Upgraded and edited for re-recording 2013, including Francophone content), The 1885 Riel Rebellion is still stirring the hearts of Canadians. Told with historic detail of names, places, and events, the song is used for lyric study and listening activities in the 2006 Alberta Social Studies grade seven teachers resource. *Important recent update: This song was also a main-stage headline media selection for “Back to Batoche 2013”, 48th annual festival (Saskatchewan), for which John was chosen as a feature performer.

We arrived near Batoche that day, with chains to take Riel away.
Our orders from Middleton were clear: “Rout the Metis . . . right here!”
The Saskatchewan River, on a steam paddlewheeler, we sailed.
With our cannons and horses, provisions and tack,
And a fine eight hundred, we’d surely prevail.
And those men of Dumont were a ragged brigade,
God wouldn’t allow them to lose! Riel said, and they stayed . . .
With our scarlet and polish, we smelled of the English,
They could see us from miles away.
And in the trenches the Metis started to pray . . . they started to pray!
We had the finest of rifles and ammo’ in our revelry.
With one gun, made by Gatling, let loose! The devil to see!
And the two hundred Metis had muskets for shot,
And for three remarkable days, they fought, and they fell . . .
“Stop the madness! Stop killing! Stop in God’s name!”
We could hear the priest yell . . .
Speaking: I was first up to the church . . . Riel looked my soul right through.
He said “Oh, Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
I squirmed and started shaking when he looked me in the eye,
And I knew deep down in my soul that this great man. . . would have to die.
And in chains we took Riel away
And the little church rang its bell.
And dozens of men lay dead on the ground . . .
With a tale they never could tell.
With a tale they never could tell!
And the little church rang its bell . . .

Edith Cavell

An acclaimed ballad that tells of the heroics of the famous British nurse, and subsequent naming of the beautiful mountain and lake in Jasper National Park. Transcribed in Canadian Folk Music magazine, summer, 2007. Edith Cavell (words and music by John Spearn, © 1999 (Socan)

Johnny worked on the farms of the Alberta prairies, and thrived in the land of his birth
Then the war to end all wars, and adventure in Europe, he signed up to prove out his worth.
He advanced with the charge, through the gunfire and cannons, pressed on with his proud bravery
When the ground exploded in his tracks he just floated right down in the mud and debris
Gerry fought for the Kaiser when wars made us wiser in the trenches near Alsace-Lorraine
He dreamed of the Rhineland and a Fraulein so fine, but a chest wound, he struggled in vain
In a Hospice near Brussels, they awoke near each other, thank God we’re alive they did pray
I was sure I was a goner, they agreed with each other, through a sweet British nurse there that day.

Chorus:

She cared for the wounded, her heart to share, the lucky ones there did tell
Thanks and praise for a smile so rare, the soldiers, survivors of hell
At the feet of Nurse Edith Cavell

Refrain:

She calmed all the wounded, wherever they came from, she healed them and toiled with no fear
In a German advance she was caught and was questioned…she was executed that year
How could they know this fine lady so kind would be taken from them that day
The grief, and the sorrow, all mankind would borrow, in tears all the world would pray

<Repeat Chorus>

Johnny and Gerry saw armistice come, soldiers’ stories to tell
Then it happened one day, by chance two were there
Two veteran survivors of hell, in the world’s most beautiful dell
At the foot of Mount Edith Cavell.

Homesteader

Based on an actual story from childhood, as told to the writer by his own father, on the arrival by train of a family to their unbroken northern Alberta homestead (Dapp, Alberta). Also used in above-mentioned grade seven Alberta Social Studies Teacher’s Guide, Nelson Thomson.

My God! Where are we? They’re letting us off
In the middle of the bush and the snow,
The conductor said to find our neighbour
We still had six more miles to go.
I’m prayin’ my story will rhyme
On a quarter section of prime.
We’ve left our family and friends back in time
To stake out our claim if our luck stays in line.
Oh, homesteader, homesteader where are you bound?
From southern Ontario by train
On the endless prairie to God knows where?
I’m needin’ to seed there by spring.
We’re cutting an acre a day, as they say.
But it’s more like woodpile a week.
And the dust and mosquitoes are eating way
My skin and my bones as I speak.
In a soddy old shelter full of dust in the sun
And pouring inside when it rains!
I’ll never get warm from September to spring
And I’ll never breathe salt-air again.
Oh, homesteader, homesteader where are you bound?
From southern Ontario by train
On the endless prairie to God knows where?
I’m needin’ to seed there by spring.

Ode To Wild Goose Jack

A tune to honour the pioneer environmentalist Wild Goose Jack Miner. Jack was the first researcher to band birds for migratory study. His son Kirk uses the song (gifted to him from the project) for visitors to the Wild Goose Jack Sanctuary in Kingsville, Ontario.

There still is a place up in Kingsville they say,
But man and his machinery will soon come their way.
We must find some time, and do more than pray,
To help save the wild birds . . . we must not delay!
‘Cause they’re Canada’s geese, they’re a long way from home,
Travellin’ with fear of the men below.
Strong on the wing,
young Jack heard them sing,
Godspeed, mother nature . . . let her children go!
Now the whales and the seals deserve a place to play,
And we are their brothers in nature’s own way.
But those high flying wild birds, the lords of the sky,
Are a great majestic treasure, no one can deny!
Yes they’re Canada’s geese, they’re a long way from home,
Travellin’ with fear of the men below.
Strong on the wing,
young Jack heard them sing,
Godspeed, mother nature . . . let her children go!
Yes they’re Canada’s geese, they’re a long way from home,
A symbol for Peace on Earth, seen from below.
Strong on the wing,
young Jack heard them sing,
Godspeed, mother nature . . . let her children go!

Bill Miner’s Betrayal

A tune to honour the pioneer environmentalist Wild Goose Jack Miner. Jack was the first researcher to band birds for migratory study. His son Kirk uses the song (gifted to him from the project) for visitors to the Wild Goose Jack Sanctuary in Kingsville, Ontario.

“Bill Miner, my love won’t you come to the table?” she said.
“It’s been a long night and it’s time to make up my bed.”
“I’m glad that we had such a fine time,” said Bill,
“How long has your husband been dead?”
“I’ve been a widow three times now,” she answered instead.
“Bill, there was a ponyman here, asking where you’ve been,
I told him you’d been here all night, so he scratched his chin.”
She cried, “Billy, I can’t tell your stories no more,
for I’m in a family way – The child needs a father and I need to pray.”
She awoke to find Billy was gone the very next day – long gone.
Bill’s gang blocked the tracks down on Deadman’s Flats in the rain,
And as quick as a whistle, they collected the loot from the train.
Their booty was full, and they went chasing beauties in Trail,
Once again, his plan had worked out to the last detail.
Bill Miner, Bill Miner, there’s a C.P.R. train on time.
And I’ve heard rich old Fawcett’s aboard and his carry is fine.
But there’s two gee’s reward on Bill’s head said the sign,
That was posted along the telegraph line,
And the white widow on money had her designs.
So they set up a trap on the railhead that day
And the mounties were there to take Billy away
But he soon outwitted the warden of ‘Westminster Pen
He was much too clever for him and escaped from within
– long gone
Bill Miner, Bill Miner, there’s a C.P.R. train on time.
And I’ve heard rich old Fawcett’s aboard and his carry is fine.
But there’s two gee’s reward on Bill’s head said the sign,
That was posted along the telegraph line,
And the white widow on money had her designs.
Bill laughed as he snuck his way south to the Georgia line,
But the marshal knew a trooper knew a white widow so fine.
And they caught Bill Miner, and then,
to the Macon maximum prison they’d send:
Bill Miner, Bill Miner, never to come out again . . .

Immigrant Refuge

A portrayal of the experiences of many early Canadian immigrants and settlers.

In the bowels of a ship, from a far away land they did come
– free again
To a windblown shack made of earth, sticks and toil the kids were born
– Canadian
six inches underground where the future was found
weighing down on the plough
Let’s pray again for the rain to wash away all our pain
– God knows how.
Canadian soil we are breaking
Our heritage we are making.
From war-torn lands we are taking . . . Dispossessed!
And we won’t forget our own history,
Here we stand proud and strong with our dignity,
Nevermore to run . . . immigrant refugee.
When we look way up high to the Rocky Mountain sky
We see peace . . . tame and free
On the grain-wave ground there are riches to be found
And they’re ours . . . for all the world to see!
It’s a big backyard and we stand on guard
To erase tyranny.
Canadian soil we are breaking
Our heritage we are making.
From war-torn lands we are taking . . . Dispossessed!
And we won’t forget our own history,
Here we stand proud and strong with our dignity,
Nevermore to run . . . immigrant refugee.