Ahead by a Century: The Hip Imagines a Better Future

By Morrison, Robert; Professor of English Language and Literature et al. | The Canadian Press, August 18, 2017 | Go to article overview

Ahead by a Century: The Hip Imagines a Better Future


Morrison, Robert, Professor of English Language and Literature, University, Queen's, Ontario, The Canadian Press


Ahead by a century: The Hip imagines a better future

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Robert Morrison, Professor of English Language and Literature, Queen's University, Ontario

Good poetry is explosive. It makes us re-examine what we thought we knew, and in some instances it urges us to start again with a different, usually broader, viewpoint. Good songs -- as Bob Dylan's Nobel Laureate reminds us -- have a similar impact.

One year ago, on Aug. 20, the Tragically Hip played the final gig of their 2016 summer farewell tour. Their lead singer, Gord Downie, had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and many thought it might be the last time they were together on stage. If you missed their shows, the documentary, Long Time Running, premiering next month at the Toronto International Film Festival, chronicles those exhilarating and emotional performances. I watched the final show on the big screen in Kingston's Market Square. I wanted the Hip to play several songs, but none more so than "Ahead by a Century." It is, I think, their greatest hit, and it was wonderful to hear them perform it as the last song of the show.

Why is it such a fitting way to finish? What about it is explosive? What does it mean to be "ahead by a century?" The song is so rich that there are a variety of good interpretations, but here is one way of thinking about it.

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.

Childhood's golden years

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 out." Literally, of course, the "them" in this line refers to the hornets, but it 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. …

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