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Soulpepper explores intersection of railway, music across Canada

The Canadian Pacific Railway is the theme of the latest show in the Soulpepper Concert Series.

"For they looked in the future and what did they see, they saw an iron road runnin' from sea to the sea" – Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy

Soulpepper music director Mike Ross and I were talking about what constitutes the "Canadian sound." The call of a loon? Ambient ice-hockey clatter? Margaret Atwood reading poetry? "No, I'm speaking about music," said Ross, "Canadian music."

Well, that's even easier: American Woman, probably on CBC Radio's Vinyl Tap, with the host and the song's co-writer Randy Bachman jabbering over top of it. Joking, of course. (Half-joking.) But no, what Ross meant was culture and community and people, and the ties that bind it all together. He was talking about the Canadian Pacific Railway, a national unifier and the theme to the latest show in the Soulpepper Concert Series.

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The performances in the series are described by Ross as a "middle place between concert and theatre." Past volumes include Aboard the Orient Express, American Pie: A Songbook Investigation and, earlier this month, The Voyager Golden Records, a meditation on the music attached to the 1977 Voyager spacecraft and its mission to connect extra-terrestrially.

Using a diverse, versatile and shifting ensemble of musicians, actors and dancers, Ross and his team develop a song-based documentary-style concert, housed in a context that is sometimes narrative-based and sometimes tied to a time or a place. For The Canadian Pacific Railway, the creative squad was composed of musician John Millard, director Erin Brandenburg and CBC's Tom Allen as writer and host.

The show, which completes its three-night run on June 25, traces the route of the railway's construction, with regional songs and songwriter stops along the way. "We're looking at Canada's culture and the connection of communities across a vast space," Ross explained over the phone last week. "The building of the railway helped some communities and demolished others."

Thus far, all the songs used for the thematic concerts in the series are previously written ones. "I think it's coming," Ross said, when asked about original material. "We're not quite there yet though."

A new song (God Damn the CPR!, a frustrated Prairie farmer's familiar grumble) was considered but ultimately scrapped. Instead, the set list includes some songwriters you would expect (Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers) and some that might surprise (Tom Waits).

There's a certain nostalgia attached to railways, a mode of transportation evocative of a bygone era. Included in The Canadian Pacific Railway program is Harry Nilsson's old-timey Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore, with the line "It did something to ya, when you'd hear that 'All aboard.' "

"It's a huge part of our history and our culture, but it's going away," Ross said about railways. "Let's face it. It doesn't have the same relevance in our lives the way that it once did."

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So, train sounds are no longer a Canadian sound. But train songs are still Canadian songs. Lightfoot himself has a choo-choo canon that boasts Fast Freight, Sixteen Miles, The Watchman's Gone and, from the 1967 Canadian National Railway film and EP Movin', we have Steel Rail Blues, Talkin' Freight and the title track.

And, yes, can't forget about Canadian Railroad Trilogy. In a recent interview with the London Telegraph, Lightfoot spoke of the song – commissioned by the CBC to commemorate the 1967 centennial – and one of its biggest fans, the Queen. "She told me how much she loved the Canadian Railroad Trilogy," said Lightfoot. "She looked at me and said, 'Oh, that song,' and then said again, 'That song,' and that was all she said."

Ah, the blasé tone of vague, reluctant recognition from British royalty. There's your Canadian sound right there.

The Canadian Pacific Railway runs to June 25 at Toronto's Young Centre (

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