’Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music from Hank Snow to The Band,’ by Jason Schneider

One of the few Canadian music books that goes back as far as Hank Snow and Wilf Carter—and sheds new light on some of the more canonized mouldy oldies
Michael Barclay

For a book about Canadian music, the word “Canada” is conspicuously absent from the title of Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music from Hank Snow to The Band. It’s likely a marketing ploy to attract U.S. readers who would never buy a book with “Canada” in its title. Yet as the book’s invisible thesis would suggest, Canadians were an integral and influential part of ’60s folk rock in all its guises precisely because they were musicians first and Canadians second, for whom borders—both geographical and between genres of music—were meaningless.

In revisiting oft-told stories of The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, Whispering Pines runs the risk of recycling mouldy oldies about boomer icons who have already been duly canonized several times over. But Jason Schneider’s reach is much wider—stretching back to the dawn of recorded music itself, and the role that Emile Berliner of Montreal, owner of the Canadian patent for gramophone technology, played in nurturing a nascent Canadian recording industry, starting with Wilf Carter and Hank Snow.

Though each chapter is primarily devoted to one major artist, Schneider’s skill is in highlighting the threads between them all. Many of them shared management with Bob Dylan, many of them received early breaks from the same people, many of them collaborated or toured together in some capacity. (In the case of Mitchell and Cohen, they were linked romantically.)

Schneider also makes some new arguments that challenge rock critics’ consensus: for example, he dares to call the canonical Neil Young album Harvest “disappointingly erratic.” He also goes to bat for Anne Murray’s first three albums as fine examples of the folk/country hybrid that Canadians spearheaded, filled as they were with a newer generation of songwriters: Bruce Cockburn, David Wiffen and Gene MacLellan. And did you know that Bruce Springsteen opened for Anne Murray in Central Park, just before Born to Run was released? (“It turned out to be the last show Springsteen ever played as an opening act,” deadpans Schneider.)

Ironically, it’s only his closing chapter on The Band that feels at all perfunctory and rushed, almost as if Schneider knows he’s revisiting well-trod ground (a feeling that doesn’t arise in the Neil Young chapter, for example). But by then he’s already dedicated an earlier, captivating chapter to their formative days as the Hawks, and the preamble to the book successfully posits The Last Waltz as the symbolic cap on an era in popular music that Canadians were integral in shaping.

The number of books to seriously examine Canadian popular music is shockingly thin—particularly ones that are neither encyclopedic nor a biography of one artist. Nicholas Jennings’ After the Gold Rush is the only other one about this era that comes to mind, and that focused more on rock and R & B in Toronto’s Yorkville scene. Whispering Pines works not just as approachable one-stop-shopping for those with a passing interest in the subject(s), but as a long overdue contextual framework for the tenants in this country’s tower of song.