The Significance of the Title Hymns of the 49th Parallel
K. D. Lang’s album Hymns of the 49th Parallel is widely considered to be one of the best albums that Canada has ever produced. The album consists of eleven songs, all of which are covers of tracks originally created by some of Canada’s best musicians. The significance of the album is to almost glorify Canadian music, artists, and the Canadian way of life. This essay examines the significance of naming the album Hymns of the 49th Parallel and discovers the significance of the song in relation to the artist’s vision of Canada.
The 49th parallel refers to a circle of latitude 49° north of the equator, a straight line that was chosen to demarcate the border between Canada and the United States of America. The “49th Parallel” therefore can be used as a stand-in for Canada, or, more generally, Canadian-ness. Hymns, meanwhile, refer to widely-shared religious songs and poems (which are of particular prominence in the various Christian traditions which make up much of Canada’s religious landscape). More broadly, however, the concept of a hymn implies a song with a unifying, spiritual effect; a song shared between all members of a community. In combining the two aspects of the title, we see that the album is intended to provide a set of songs of wide cultural importance to Canada – the country to the north of the 49th parallel. In specific, these songs all address a particular part of the human experience, including conflict, love, and worship. These hymns all deify and dissect what it means to be human through a uniquely Canadian lens, creating an album of unique cultural significance to the nation.
The song “After the Gold Rush” (originally by a Canadian musician, Neil Young) is the first song on Hymns of the 49th Parallel. This song demonstrates beliefs held as part of the growing new age movement in Canada in the 70s (which was when the song was originally released). In the song, the singer describes having dream visions about Mother Nature, and sounds as if they are worshipping her. The aspect of nature worship was a core aspect of the new age movement, and in the song, the artist describes aspects of nature dreamily and with reverence. As the singer is lying in bed, “with the full moon in his eyes”, a nuclear bomb erupts, and humans have to leave the Earth. This imagery best describes the feelings of paranoia that most people in North America had during the Cold War. The song is significant to Lang’s album and the use of the term hymn in its title makes sense here, as it is intended to serve as a worship song for Mother Nature. The line, “look at Mother Nature on the run” shows how humanity is having a negative impact on the planet and the environment (Rounds, 2007).
A hymn is generally understood to be a song of praise, and the application of the term in K.D Lang’s album title would indicate that most of the songs have an aspect of religion to it. The song “Hallelujah”, which was originally sung by Leonard Cohen, is featured as the 6th song on the album. The song features many strong biblical references, particularly in the characters of Samson and David. Many incorrectly view the song as a gospel song, when it is not. According to Lang, the song is an internal conflict about the friction between worshipping God and pursuing earthly pleasures (Cohen, 2008). The significance of this song to Lang’s album is that apart from being originally sung by a Canadian, Leonard Cohen, the song best describes the conflict that most new agers have. In their pursuit of peace and piety, new agers also served as the ambassadors of the sexual revolution that swept North America in the 60s, 70s and 80s. There is a function that religion has on society and any society uses religion for its own end. The Canadian society used the new age movement to liberalize Christianity and to make sexual freedom an aspect of life divorced from biblical sin. “Hallelujah” is a prime example of the conflict between liberal lifestyle and conservative Christian beliefs. It would seem that liberalism won that war. Forbes (2005) posits that there is always a conflict between popular culture and religion, and that this fight arises out of the different views that religion and popular culture have. This conflict can be resolved through acceptance, or through a purge. The song “Hallelujah” is an example of how religion and popular culture can accept each other’s ideals.
The song “Birds on a Wire,” which is the 10th song on Lang’s album was also originally sung by Leonard Cohen. In this song, the singer describes a man’s love for his girlfriend as well as the difficulties and pain inherent to loving another. The song describes the pressures that humans face, and how their struggles against difficulties end in failure. Despite this, it is the efforts made against these failures that eventually add up to an individual’s worth (Mahan, 2005). The significance of this song to the album is that it attempts to deify love, and it does this by examining how man tries his best at love, just the same way in which he tries his best at being good and religious. Even though man will always lose in his efforts at devotion and pure love, he will eventually be redeemed through his constant attempts.
The songs in Lang’s album all serve as hymns because they impose love upon specific aspects of human nature. Whether it is reverence for love (Birds on a wire), popular culture (Hallelujah), and Mother Nature (After the gold rush), it is clear that the songs are meant to serve as praise or adoration from a religious perspective on these subjects. For this reason, K.D Lang used the term hymn with the specific intention of drawing people’s attention to human nature and how some aspects of it can be deified.