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Remembrance Day in Canada in the 1970’s: Poppies and Neil Young

Red Blanket Flower Mandala by Margaret Almon
Red Blanket Flower Mandala by Margaret Almon, glass mosaic on wood, 8 inches.

Growing up in Canada, November 11th was Remembrance Day, and we would have assembly in school, with a moment of silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in remembrance for the men and women who have served, and continue to serve their country during times of war, conflict and peace.   Growing up in the 1970’s made for some unusual assemblies.   I remember both being chosen to recite John McCrae’s In Flanders’ Fields.  McCrae was as a physician in WWI and wrote this poem about the red poppies that sprang up in the many fields in Flanders where soldiers were buried.  For a moving reimagining of these fields, read Maureen Doallas’s poem What Girls in a Poppy Field Know, from her blog Writing Without Paper.

«In Flanders' Fields» - published & illustrated in 1918 via stoixeia on Flickr.
«In Flanders’ Fields» – published & illustrated in 1918, written by John McCrae via stoixeia on Flickr.

I also remember my grade 5 class sang Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush at assembly in 1977.  We practiced for several weeks in the music room, which was a series of carpet covered steps, auditorium style, no chairs or desks, descending the lowest level, where the piano and our teacher would stand.  We learned the song from listening to a recording of Neil Young, and I picked up on the mournful nature of the lyrics, especially this stanza:

I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes.
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst thru the sky.
There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high.
I was thinking about what a
Friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie.
Thinking about what a
Friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie.

I don’t recall what my teacher said about why we were singing this song on Remembrance Day, but looking back, the image of being in a burned out basement, and hoping for a replacement seems apt for evoking the desolation of war.  I didn’t literally know what it meant to “get high”, but I understood the longing timbre in Young’s voice.  I remembered this assembly when hearing Neil Young interviewed on Fresh Air about his new album Americana, and how American folk songs and protest songs ended up in schools cleaned up and deprived of some of their power.  Young is Canadian, but drawn to these American tunes.  I wonder what he’d think of one his songs in a school assembly.

Here’s a great version by Thom Yorke of Radiohead:

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