Mentor Text: Wheat Kings by The Tragically Hip
- Poetic Narrative
Waiting for the last day on Friday means I’m in my classroom, wrapping up this year, cleaning up, prepping for next year… that kind of thing.
It means a pretty much constant stream of music is playing. I’ve been testing out the albums that I feel are going to be the albums of the summer for me, diving deep into a couple of new gems, and just letting shuffle bring me what it will.
A couple of artists loomed large in my classroom this year. One of these artists was The Tragically Hip, fronted by Gord Downie. One of my first Mentor Text Wednesdays of the year was about one of his poems, and he was the catalyst for what we called The Chanie Project, as Secret Path, his album, and the accompanying graphic novel, were core texts as we talked about the legacy of residential schools in Canada.
As I was pondering a text for this final MTW of the school year, I felt compelled to pull a good Canadian text in. It is Canada’s 150th year as a country this year, which is being celebrated with great fanfare. There’s a sticky note protruding from my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale marking a passage that I will feature at some point, but The Hip came on.
One of the notable things about The Hip, and Downie’s songwriting is that it is somehow quintessentially Canadian. There are references to people and places that are so resonant within our collective Canadian heart. They are, just so darn Canadian, eh.
Such is the case with the song I chose to feature this week, ‘Wheat Kings.’ It is the tale of what many feel is one of the great miscarriages of justice in modern Canadian society, the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of David Milgaard. The story is that Milgaard’s sister approached the band to try to raise awareness of her brother’s innocence. Inspired by the case, ‘Wheat Kings’ was released six months after Milgaard’s release. It has undoubtedly served to share this piece of Canadian history, as it has since become one of the band’s most iconic songs.
How We Might Use This Text:
Poetic Narrative– As these are lyrics, Downie was bound by that structure as he tells Milgaard’s story. What I think is particularly striking about this form is that rhyme isn’t the only poetic convention used, but also a heavy use of figurative language.
There is a heavy reliance on mood in the words, as Downie almost shows, and doesn’t tell. In many ways, this piece is “spiritually connected” to Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ another song about an innocent man jailed. However, unlike Dylan, Downie doesn’t simply narrate the events. He paints pictures with the words, giving a series of images and impressions to tell us the story, almost like he knows we know the story, and if we don’t, we’re compelled to learn more. In lines like, “In his Zippo lighter, he sees the killer’s face / maybe it’s someone standing in a killer’s place” the idea of Milgaard’s innocence is broached, but with, I feel, subtlety and grace that gives it resonance.
ALso powerful are lines like, “Twenty years for nothing, well that’s nothing new, /besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do” artfully expand upon the way that a story like Milgaard’s can be set aside. Wrongful convictions are often a result of our collective need to have a solution. This lyric tells that part of the story succinctly, and is kind of damning of society in general, without being overly confrontational.
The repeated phrase that suggests we’ll wait to “see what tomorrow brings” adds much to the story, as it is repeated throughout the lyrics. We wait at the beginning, as Milgaard protests his innocence. After his release, we wait again, but this time, tomorrow brings freedom.
Symbolism – One of the beautiful things about Downie’s lyrics over the years has been the inclusion of Canadian iconography. Like any good storyteller, he peppers in references that mean something to the listener, that resonate. (There are those that suggest that this very thing is what has made The Hip little more than a curiosity outside of Canada.) This song is rife with them, and I think a careful look at their use in this piece would help our writers see how we can use symbolic material without making them capital S Symbols, with overwrought meaning within the piece. Here they serve to shorthand things, to establish the character of the piece.
In interests of translating things for non-Canadians, and demonstrating the effect:
Wheat Kings refers to the farmers upon whose efforts the Prairies of Canada were settled. This is where our story takes place.
The Paris of the Prairies was a title given to Winnipeg, where Milgaard was from, and is where the prison he was walked out of, a free man, is.
Late breaking story on the CBC is a reference to our public broadcaster, the CBC. To this day, if you want someone to know that something is serious, you reference the CBC.
Using these references establishes tone, context and mood. I love, as I mentioned, the idea of using symbolic material in this way, not as an integral symbol in the story, but to add more subtle textures to the piece.
Last weekend’s rebroadcast of what was likely The Hip’s final concert from last year on CBC has loomed large in my mind this week. It brought me to this song, again. In the end of year wrap-up, a colleague and I were discussing multigenre projects, and some things we’d like to have our students write. This piece ties right into that, as it’s a creative way to share learning, with some really great lessons in poetics built in.
I try really hard to use lyrics, and music, in my classroom. How do you do this? How do you encourage your writers to use symbols as something other than heavily integrated elements of their writing?
Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!