True story: I was once at a concert in Vancouver, BC, where the whole crowd sang along (with great passion) to the lyric “I hate Winnipeg!” The band was The Weakerthans, a Winnipeg-based folk-punk group best known for their literary lyrics; the song is called “One Great City!” and, despite what a lot of people around me at the concert seemed to be feeling, it is a love song by lyricist and frontman John K. Samson to his prairie hometown.
This chapter considers the roles of locality and identity in John K. Samson’s song lyrics, particularly through Samson’s evocations of the people, landmarks, and history of Winnipeg, Manitoba in “One Great City!” Locality means the particular place or position of something, and is related to the idea of the “local,” which connotes a specialized knowledge about a certain place or community by virtue of being part of it. Samson, a lifelong Winnipeg resident frequently termed “the poet laureate of Winnipeg rock” (Sorensen), has often made the city his unlikely muse, saying, “I think of Winnipeg as my subject . . . that I’m always trying to get right. . . . Even if I leave, I’ll always be writing about this place” (qtd. in Chong 77).
Novelist Miriam Toews, a fellow Manitoban and close friend of Samson’s, has called Samson’s favourite lyrical subject, his hometown, “the coldest nowhere nothing mosquito-ridden barren bleak and desolate city in the world—the punchline of every joke about hellholes” (qtd. in Tough n. pag.). Samson, however, sees Winnipeg and his choice to remain living in and writing about the city quite differently than people who use it as a punchline:
There is a lot of potential in places that are removed from the centre of power. I have this feeling that that’s where a lot of interesting things are going to emerge—things that have the potential not to be sullied or defeated as soon as they’re created. They can be ignored for a while. (qtd. in Tough n. pag.)
Through his complicated relationship to his much-maligned hometown, Samson challenges the listener to rethink their own suppositions about place, power, and identity.
With the help of the CanLit Guides chapter on Close Reading Poetry, this chapter will first introduce students to techniques for analyzing song lyrics by assembling adjacent scholarship and using the tools of literary criticism, and then model a close reading of Samson’s “One Great City!” focusing on locality.
Questions to Keep in Mind While Reading/Listening
- Take a listen to “One Great City!” (available on YouTube or through iTunes), and look up the lyrics on The Weakerthans’ website, or find them in
John K. Samson’s print collection Lyrics and Poems, 1997-2012. What words or phrases seem to suggest that the speaker has a specialized, or local, knowledge of Winnipeg? Does the speaker take ownership of these places and ideas, or do they feel overwhelmed by them?
- You may have noticed that the lyrics for “One Great City!” are transcribed in paragraph form, rather than by verse and line. Why do you think Samson chose this transcription style? How does this change your reading/listening experience?
- Chong, Kevin. Neil Young Nation: A Quest, an Obsession (and a True Story). Vancouver: Greystone, 2005. Print.
- Samson, John K. Lyrics and Poems, 1997-2012. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2012. Print.
- Sorensen, Sue. “John K. Samson, Poet Laureate of Winnipeg Rock.” State(s) of the Art: Considering Poetry Today. Ed. Klaus Martens. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2010. 123-34. Print.
- Tough, Paul. “City Still Breathing: Listening to The Weakerthans.” Geist Magazine. N.d. Web. 2 June 2017.
- The Weakerthans. “One Great City!” Reconstruction Site. Epitaph, 2003.