I’ve mentioned it before on this blog that I grew up in rural Northern Canada in the 1980s. And although it is a lifetime ago now every once in a while, when I least expect it I am reminded: my childhood was very different. Yesterday, it happened at Karaoke.
Until I was 13, I never lived in a town with more than 1000 residents. Most of these towns weren’t accessible by road (or at least not for the whole year – we used ice roads in the winter and ferries in the summer), and we would be one of a handful of white families amongst first nations groups. In one place, our groceries for the year came by ‘sealift’ – a large ship that delivered food, (frozen and canned) ever spring and fall before the Arctic Ocean froze.
We drank powdered milk (the trick being, if you’re interested, to use half the prescribed powder, and let it sit 24 hours before drinking), and we only bought fresh fruit and veg on occasion – as all was flown in. A 2 litre jug of fresh milk could cost upwards of $10, and this was more than 20 years ago. It was all, and I mean ALL frozen and canned.
All this isolation naturally affected our access to pop culture – we had one channel (the CBC of course) and CBC radio. Canadian content ruled our homes – we watched Street Legal, the Beachcombers, North of 60 and any US television series the CBC deigned to buy the rights to (Laurel & Hardy, the Munsters, the Addams Family). Basically I grew up in a time warp. Life was kind. Canada was good. I picked my Christmas and birthday presents from the Sears catalogue. It was pretty exciting the day it arrived in the mail.
So of course we were entertained in other ways: instead of surfing the interwebs, tweeting, watching TV or even spending time outside (too cold!), I played piano. The piano was a Christmas present when I was 9 – an amazing mystery that I couldn’t immediately play with, a giant investment and leap of faith on the part of my parents for a girl who did little more than sing around the house.
It had been shipped from Edmonton, driven along the ice road to Fort Simpson. The town’s music teacher agreed to take me on as a student despite her retirement as I’d shown enthusiasm in her music classes the year before.
And so when my parents travelled “down south”, I would request sheet music – and be left in their hands in terms of what I got. “Send in the Clowns” and Andrew Lloyd Webber from my mother; Santana and “Great Balls of Fire” from my father. They were usually songs I had heard vaguely, somewhere, and usually just a bit too hard for me to play.
And one day, when I was about 12, my dad set the music for “Bohemian Rhapsody” down on the piano. I had never heard it, nor had I ever heard of it. The cover was black and mysterious, I was compelled. So I learned to play it purely from the music, piece by piece, bit by bit. I loved its symphonic nature, the mini-movements, I had no idea I was playing guitar solos in running arpeggios on the keyboard, or that there were multiple male voices. My dad sometimes hummed the melody when I struggled to decipher it. Eventually I learned it, and I hold firm that if you take out the ‘scaramoush’ part in the middle, I think I did a pretty decent version for a 12 year old kid who’d never heard the recorded song before. And maybe even if you kept it in.
So yesterday, when we sang Bohemian Rhapsody to close out our evening of songs at Lucky Voice, I remembered that I learned this song not as a suburban child listening to their parents records, or from Wayne’s World or MTV/Much Music, but as a child of the Canadian winter, sight-reading sheet music and singing along as best I could, waiting for spring.