He called it a simple marching song. Nothing too lyrical, nothing too serious. Just something catchy that Canadian children could sing aloud in celebration of the country’s centennial. And that was a big part of the song’s appeal.
In fact, mention Bobby Gimby’s name today and someone who was in school in 1967 will invariably start singing the first lines of “CA-NA-DA”.
Robert Stead Gimby (pronounced Jim-bee) was born in Cabri in southwestern Saskatchewan in October 1918. The third of five children (an older brother died in childhood), Bobby was immersed in music from an early age.
His father, who ran the local hardware store, was a fiddler, while his mother played the piano. All of the children were encouraged to master an instrument. Bobby would later recall that “the little band in the family” made for a lot of “nighttime frivolity.”
It was an idyllic childhood. His father’s successful business meant there was time for weekend picnics and summer holidays at Antelope and Clearwater lakes. Bobby even got his own cornet when he was eight — in addition to regular piano lessons from one of the local music teachers.
Then, in 1929, the Great Depression put a stranglehold on Cabri’s fortunes, a situation made worse by an unrelenting drought that brought the farming community to its knees.
The family hardware store limped along before a lightning strike in 1933 reduced the business to ash. Bobby’s father took to the road selling life insurance, but it was a meagre living at best.
Bobby found solace in his music — he could be heard constantly practicing in the family’s Main Street home — but he never got the chance to showcase his burgeoning talent. There was no money for the Cabri brass band to travel to take part in local competitions.
The Gimbys moved in 1936 to Chilliwack, British Columbia, where Bobby completed his high school education. It was music that consumed him, though, and he played in local bands before making a name for himself in Vancouver.
His big break came in 1941 when he joined Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen as lead trumpeter and toured the country. That was followed in 1945 by a starring role in CBC radio’s “Happy Gang,” a gig that lasted through the 1950s. He capped the decade as musical director for the popular “Juliette” show on CBC television.
By the early 1960s, Bobby was writing pop songs and radio jingles when not working as an orchestra leader. His talent and reputation earned him a commission to produce something special for the 1967 celebrations.
The national Centennial Committee was initially lukewarm to Gimby’s “CA-NA-DA” song and decided to use it as background music to a centennial promotional film.
But then the calls and letters started to roll in from across the country from teachers who reported that their students were enraptured with the song. Where could they get a copy of the record?
“CA-NA-DA” sold 270,000 copies as the top selling single in Canada in 1967. There was also great demand for the sheet music.
It was Bobby, though, who turned his song into something special. Bedecked in a cape and with his long trumpet encrusted with costume jewellery and pearls, he toured the country that year as Canada’s piped piper.
Wherever Bobby went, children would march in a single line behind him as the notes from his trumpet led them in the singing of “CA-NA-DA.” The uplifting words, combined with the young voices, made for a magical moment. “CA-NA-DA” was the country’s unofficial anthem and Bobby it’s undisputed folk hero.
In looking back to 1967, there were other magical memories, some seemingly frozen in time, others probably never to be repeated.
Montreal played host to the hugely successful Expo 67 world’s fair. The centennial flame was lit on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. And the Toronto Maple Leafs won their 13th and last Stanley Cup.
But it was a simple children’s marching song that captured the imagination of the youth of the nation and continues to resonate over the decades.
“North south east west
There’ll be happy times
Church bells will ring, ring, ring
It’s the hundredth anniversary of
Ev’rybody sing together!”
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Bandleader Bobby Gimby leads children’s choir in singing of his hit tune, “Ca-na-da,” at Confederation Train ceremonies.
Photo: Published Aug. 28, 1967. Morris Edwards of the MONTREAL STAR.
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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.