Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip

Updated on February 12, 2019
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.

The Tragically Hip performing at the 2009 Juno Awards

The Hip at Canada's Juno Awards in Vancouver BC in 2009
The Hip at Canada's Juno Awards in Vancouver BC in 2009 | Source

On May 25th 2016, Canada awoke to the news that one of her beloved sons, Gordon Downie, frontman for The Tragically Hip, had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. During a news conference the previous day, the group’s managers and Downie's oncologist disclosed that Gord has already undergone surgery, chemo and radiation therapy. But this cancer, glioblastoma, has no cure. It will be back.

The good news, if there is any good news in this, is that Gord is currently healthy, and the doctors have given him the green light to go out on the road. Nobody is calling this a farewell tour, but that’s essentially what it will be. And like pretty much every Hip show for eons, it will be sold out. This time though, there is a real poignant reason to go and see this band…one last time.

Who are The Tragically Hip?

To try to describe to a non-Canadian what makes The Tragically Hip – simply “The Hip” – so quintessentially Canadian, would be impossible. They are like mosquitoes and blackflies, maple syrup and Mounties. They are part of us and we are part of them.

The boys hail from Kingston, Ontario, a place that was once the home of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A Macdonald. This university town on the shores of Lake Ontario is known for its gardens, 19th century buildings and now closed federal penitentiary. It was here in 1984 that the band got its start, when Downie, Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair met at school, and like so many other young men in those days, decided to form a band. They played their very first gig at a party in Kingston, and by 1986 were on the road, part of the club scene playing dances and small venues all over the province of Ontario. They were discovered by an executive from MCA records during a gig at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern, and signed to a multi-year deal.

Hip Songs

In 1987, the guys released their debut, an EP that featured the song “Small Town Bringdown.” Though the song got some airplay, especially on university FM stations, it really didn't have much commercial success. That was to change when the band released its first full-length LP called Up To Here, featuring the songs “Blow At High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking.” The album sold over one million copies, and earned the guys their first of 14 Juno awards, Canada’s version of the Grammy Awards.

Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip in 2003

Frontman Gordon Downie performing live in 2003
Frontman Gordon Downie performing live in 2003 | Source

New Orleans Is Sinking

This song, from the group's first album, was the one that really put them on the map. It still gets a lot of airplay in Canada, and is one of the band's most instantly recognized songs. If you say the words "New Orleans Is Sinking" to a Canadian, chances are they will come right back with "I don't want to swim."

The song was actually voted one of the best Canadian songs ever, coming in at #16 in a list put together by the CBC in 2005. So, why is a song about New Orleans one of the top Canadian songs ever? It's complicated...

Performed live, the song morphs into an opportunity for Gord to explore other songs and stories. The live version is always an extended version, often having other songs kind of stuck in the middle of it. Often, Gord will tell a story. Sometimes, you get a song and a story. We eat it up, either way.

After hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy in 2005, Canadian stations temporarily stopped playing the song out of respect for the people impacted by that terribly tragedy. The song took on a life of its own when relief sites for the disaster started playing it.

Tragically Hip performing "New Orleans Is Sinking"

38 Years Old

Another hit from the album Up To Here, this single from 1990 is about a prison break in Kingston. It is based on a true story, though the boys took some artistic license with the story and changed some details so the lyrics would rhyme.

The song tells the tale of one of the escaped convicts paying a visit to his family's home in the middle of the night. A tap on the glass lets the family know that Mike is home after 20 years in jail for killing a man who raped his sister. But the Mounties are in pursuit, and take Mike back home to prison.

"He's thirty eight years old, never kissed a girl."

The Tragically Hip "38 Years Old"


This is one of those songs that is simply identified with summer in Canada, right up there with Max Webster's "Million Vacations". Named after one of the major cottage areas north of the city of Toronto, the song just fits with time at the cottage, though the lyrics really have nothing at all to do with that. This one, like so many Hip songs, is a bit of a mystery, and references the checkerboard flooring at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern and a local band called "The Men They Couldn't Hang" that used to play the club scene in that city.

Tragically Hip's "Bobcaygeon"

The Hip

The Hip performing in Aspen, Colorado on October 16, 2007
The Hip performing in Aspen, Colorado on October 16, 2007 | Source

Ahead By A Century

This much-loved song is from the band's fifth studio album, Trouble at the Henhouse. It contains references to being stung by a hornet, the resulting feverish dream, and then getting rid of the hornets' nest by "smoking it out", best done at night. The video contains images that help tell the story best.

See? I told you it was complicated.

Tragically Hip "Ahead By A Cantury"

Little Bones

The name of the song that declares "Happy Hour is Here" is taken from the name of a cat in a book Gord was reading when he wrote the song. The little bones reference also came from a taxi driver warning Gord to eat his chicken slowly, because of the little bones. Gord loved the double reference, and worked it into a song.

The song also has references to New Orleans, a place Gord has always been intrigued by.

The Hip "Little Bones"

Quiz time...

What is your favorite Hip Song?

See results


Gord's death was announced on October 18, 2017. The news said he was surrounded by family and friends.

I hope Gord knew we were all there with him too.

"...'Cause these are the days worth livin'
These are the years we're given
And these are the moments
These are the times
Let's make the best out of our lives..."

© 2016 Kaili Bisson


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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      4 years ago from Canada

      Tickets will go fast I'm sure...I am also going to try to grab some.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I use to have it on a mixtape someone made for me years ago, and at one time I had it in Mp3 form (before iTunes, and lost it when my computer got reformatted). But I just checked, it is definitely posted on YouTube. Gord's improvisations, along with his manic energy during live performances will definitely be missed. I noticed tickets go on sale June 3rd, so I'm going to try to get tickets to at least one of the shows. I've only seen them a couple of times, but it was a real treat each time.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      4 years ago from Canada

      Hi spartucus, I was hoping I would hear from you. I was devastated when I read this in the National Post before the birds were even up this morning. I have seen these guys so many times...one very memorable show was in St. Louis in 1995? opening for Page and Plant. I think there is at least a bootleg of the Killer Whale version, if not an official release. Wishing Gord and his family all the best...sad, sad.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I heard the news the day it happen because I noticed that Gord Downie was trending, and I clicked on it hoping that he didn't die. Even though he didn't die, I was devastated by the news he had terminal cancer. Shortly after cliking on that, I noticed that #CourageForGord was trending. Gord, along with the Hip are true Canadian icons. At least there will be one last opportunity to see them live before Gord goes.

      Also, concerning Gord's improvisations of "New Orleans Is Sinking", I absolutely love the "Killer Whale" live version of the song. I don't think it ever been officially released, but I know some radio stations use to play it and I know it was well circulated.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      4 years ago from Canada

      Oh my gosh Jodah, my heart goes out to your and your wife. After I read about Gord in the newspaper at 5:00 am this morning, I googled glioblastoma and was saddened by what I read. This seems to be a particularly virulent cancer, as when it returns, it is in a new form that the drugs and chemo don't kill. They have made so many strides, but this disease is so sinister.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      A wonderful tribute hub, Kaili. This is very close to home for me as my wife's younger sister died from glioplastoma stage 4 at 44 years of age, and recently her older brother has been diagnosed with the same incurable condition.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      4 years ago from Canada

      Hi Flourish and thank you for reading the hub...I just tested the video for "New Orleans Is Sinking" and it seems fine now; maybe youtube was overloaded.

      Gord was diagnosed in December, and went through treatment. Can you imagine performing after that? I think, for him, touring is how he will live life to the fullest.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      4 years ago from USA

      I've never heard of The Tragically Hip but enjoyed the videos. (I had a problem playing the first one; got a message that it was unavailable.) It's so sad that someone so vibrant and loved has been stricken with brain cancer. I hope he lives his life to the fullest in the time remaining.


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