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|As a California crowd braced for the bands next
number, Gordon Downie introduced an early performance of Three Pistols
with the following: "Here's one of many Canadian myths, that like many
Canadian myths, just happens to be true." As mythologies go, Canada can
hold her own. Granted, there are some doubts as to whether Captain A. Roy
Brown really shot down the Red Baron, a group of Australian field gunners
also staked a claim. There are even lingering suspicions surrounding the
Ogopogo sea monster, some would deny the lonely British Columbia leviathan
even exists. There is however a great deal of fact in the fable of Tom
Thomson was the inspirational force behind Canada's first indigenous renaissance. An unsatisfied commercial artist, Tom would escape to the northlands outside Toronto, sketching and painting Algonquin Provincial Park from all angles. Thomson was a stylistic missionary among his peers. He brought them a vision from the wilderness, a new way of interpreting their world. These admirers and contemporaries would often accompany Tom on trips into the Park. Together, they would rupture the fault lines of Canadian art.
Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H Macdonald and Frederick Varley carried with them the impressionistic style Thompson had pioneered. In the process the men became globally renowned as The Group of Seven. Today, the groups vibrant, florescent and passionate works adorn everything from concert bills to coasters. Their paintings hang in the solemn Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill. A reprinted pageantry exists in living rooms nationwide. The Group of Seven's images of Canada became the images of Canada.
Tom Thomson saw none of his revolution. His life ended at the very spot where his legend began, Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Three Pistols itself references some of the details surrounding Tom's disappearance, a love-triangle that may have been involved, Tom's rumored post-mortem return, and a little bit of Hamlet throw in for good measure.
On July 9, 1917 Tom Thomson's canoe was found floating upside down on Canoe Lake. Seven days later, while admiring the lake from his rented cabin, Dr. G.W. Howland spotted a body. It was sadly simple for two local guides, George Rowe and Lowrie Dickson, to immediately identify the corpse. Tom Thomson had become very well known to Park residents, an adopted member of their isolated and idyllic community. He was now confirmed dead at 39.
An experienced outdoorsman, as gifted with paddle as with brush, it seemed a tragic if not unlikely end for the painter. The official cause of death: drowned after a head injury had plunged him unconsciously into the water.
Described as quiet and gentlemanly by his Canoe Lake acquaintances, Thomson was fondly remembered by the locals. They saw a lot of him, both before and after his death. The first lines in the opening verse of Three Pistols seem to illustrate the phenomenon of Thomson sightings occurring long after he'd escaped his mortal masterpiece. The most commonly recorded apparition would silently appear on the water, paddle its canoe towards the startled witness, and then vanish.
There was nothing new in this habit of returning from the dead in order to not-so-subtly spook the living into reading between the lines. In Hamlet, Shakespeare's Danish Prince is asked by his fallen father to avenge his death. Doing what anybody would do in that situation, Hamlet decides to dress up his buddies and put on a play. Upon witnessing the re-enactment of the King's murder and the emotional reaction of the fictitious Queen in the play, Hamlet's real mother famously remarks "The lady doth protest too much."
The second verse reference to this Shakespearean line may be intended to draw attention to the paranormal similarities between Tom's tale and King Hamlet's exploits. Tom's death was a suspicious one to Canoe Lake regulars. Some believed that, like Hamlet's father, the accidental death was very deliberate cover for murder. The line may also carry a far more simple connotation, recalling a real life love-letdown being experienced by Gordon Downie or another band member. Downie has made reference to a love triangle during Three Pistols intros and interludes. And as with most stories involving a love triangle, it's at this point where things get interesting.
The songs "bride of the Northern Woods" appears to be Winnie Trainor. Winnie was the eldest daughter of Canoe Lake cottager and Tom Thomson neighbour Hugh Trainor. Various sources grant Winnie the status of friend, companion, lover or fiance. Roy MacGregor, author of Canoe Lake, theorizes that Winnie may have been carrying Tom's baby at the time of the artist's death. Winnie was also admired by another Canoe Lake regular, a star player in the Thomson mystery: Martin Blecher.
Blecher and Thomson simply did not get along. This was a rarity given most accounts of Tom's relations with Canoe Lakers. Their mutual disdain went beyond a competing interest in Winnie Trainor; Blecher eventually found another woman to call his wife. Their larger disagreement stemmed from World War One. The two men had a public argument that occurred just two days before the artist disappeared. Blecher, a young American of German heritage was thought to be hiding at Canoe Lake to avoid the U.S. military draft. Thomson had friends painting and fighting the war, and desperately wanted to join them. The public dispute ended with Blecher reportedly screaming at Thomson, "don't get in my way if you know what's good for you!"
Beginning in 1915 Tom Thomson had done all he could to get out of Blecher's way and into the trenches. Tom had attempted on three different occasions to gain immediate overseas deployment in the Canadian fusiliers. He even traveled 300km to a western Ontario recruitment centre. All three times he was turned down on account of his flat feet.
After his final rejection, Thomson was offered a position as an Algonquin Park ranger. Because of military enlistment, Thomson's friends, Mark Godin and Mark Robinson, were among the few remaining rangers in the park. Essentially a local police force, Thomson was pleased that if he couldn't fight overseas, he could at least take the place of a fighting ranger at home.
Had Thomson lived, he would have become, among his friends and in his area of the park, the "third pistol." This is a fitting coincidence. The song derives its name from a road sign for Trois-Pistoles, Quebec seen by Downie while touring. The other two pistols, Godin and Robinson, would eventually spend all their energies trying to uncover what really happened to their friend Tom on his final day.
The investigation began as questions regarding Thomson's death made their way around Canoe Lake. Could Tom have lost his balance, hit his head on the canoe or a rock, and simply fallen in? Could such a tumble have caused the serious wound on his head? Why was his canoe upside down? Why was a paddle tied into the canoe "as if for portaging" with a knotting method unknown to Tom's friends or family? Why was fishing line wrapped around Tom's leg? Why didn't he surface for over a week? And what did Martin Blecher have to say?
When a coroner arrived to conduct an inquest, he was met at the train station by Martin Blecher's father. After dinning with the Blecher's, the coroner made it known that the inquiry would be held inside the Blecher cottage. After interviewing locals and rangers, the official version of events was upheld: Tom tipped and hit his head on the way in.
Things only get stranger after the inquest. Tom's family asked to have his body moved from the Canoe Lake cemetery where he was buried, to a plot in Leith, Ontario. A portly, middle aged undertaker arrived at night to execute the order. As the undertaker prepared to leave the next morning with Tom's body in tow, Mark Robinson found it hard to believe the macabre man's story. The undertaker claimed to have dug up the old grave, transferred Tom into a new coffin, refilled the hole, and done it all by his lonesome, in a matter of four hours, in the pitch of night. As Robinson helped the man lift the casket onto the train, he noticed how light it felt, as if no body was inside.
Many, including Winnie Trainor, believed Tom was still buried at Canoe Lake. She would still visit the site of his original grave. This may be the ritual referenced in the third verse of Three Pistols. In order to avoid drawing attention to her pilgrimage, and perhaps to ensure that she and Tom would be free from ghost hunters and tourists, Winnie was known to wait until dark before making her way to the small Canoe Lake cemetery. She would maintain the site, sweeping away any debris or trinkets left by admirers. Despite Thomson's official removal, a body was discovered in his grave in 1970, and many devoted fans still visit the cemetery. Tom's sister eventually told the Globe and Mail that she believed her brother was left in Algonquin Park. Other family members maintained he was re-buried at Leith.
Perhaps the most poetic and visually striking line in the song is the lyric "I say, bring on the brand new renaissance/cause I think I'm ready/I've been shaking all night long/but my hands are steady.";
Thomson was legendary for wanting to capture an entire event in one image. He would become anxious; even physically twitch if he felt he was missing something he should be painting. Mark Robinson recalled such an incident. As he was speaking to Tom, he began to notice that the artist was fidgeting and peering over his shoulder. Robinson could see, through a window opposite, that a winter storm was commencing. Thomson, still feigning interest, began to nervously tap his fingers on the table before finally interrupting the one sided conversation and explaining to Robinson that he just had to paint what he was seeing.
One famous occasion, which may be the inspiration for the last lines in the verse, saw Tom painting outside in the frigid winter. Though his body shook from the cold, he warmed his hand with a fire, managing to paint with an incredible steadiness and ease.
That graceful and elegiac image of Thomson, creating art amidst his elements, is the landscape that emerges every time I hear Three Pistols. The song deals with a tragic accident and the all too familiar artistic misfortune of receiving recognition only after losing your life. In addition to being a straight laced rock tune with a bluesy roadhouse attitude, Three Pistols is a tribute to the difficult, humbling and often thankless work of those who create. It honours a man not because he died young, but because he made the most of his potential energy. A later Hip song would begin with the lyric "use it up/don't save a thing for later." Tom Thomson left nothing but his body at Canoe Lake. He left his soul to a collection of canvases, and his spirit of relentless toil to artists everywhere.Play Song 2016 Addendum: when I wrote this originally in 2005, Roy MacGregor and William Little's books were thought (by me at least) to be authoritative. In 2016, Gregory Klages wrote a book entitled "The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson." In it, he used academic methods, deep historical research and an exhaustive study of all Thomson literature (including Three Pistols) before thoroughly debunking both MacGregor and Little. It seems that most of the popular myths about Thomson, his relationship with Winnie Trainor, his supposed tension with Martin Blecher, the details about his corpse, the subsequent inquest and eventual exhumation of his body, were all either unverified, exaggerated or created as pure fiction years, and even decades, after the fact. If you are at all interested in Tom Thomson, then "The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson" by Gregory Klages is a must-read. He writes of the above mentioned elements in the Thomson mythology: "If the evidence could be established as shaky and the weakness of the arguments pointed out, then the theories themselves could be put in their proper perspective. Less the product of research and analysis, the suggestions Thomson was murdered or committed suicide are rooted in gossip, misunderstanding, and the desire to tell entertaining stories."
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