Week 164: “Ballad to the East” by Oscar Peterson


In 1964, Canadian jazz legend Oscar Peterson released “The Canadiana Suite”, a record as beautiful and diverse as the country to which it was dedicated. Unfortunately, at the time of the album’s release, Canada was in the middle of a bit of an identity crisis.

The problem was that although the country was nearing its 100th birthday, it didn’t really have a flag. It kind of did, but the version that had been unofficially used for decades didn’t do much to give Canada its own identity. As a flag, it didn’t exactly scream, “We are Canada!” In fact, its message was more along the lines of, “property of Great Britain – if found, please return to the Queen”. Canada needed something that looked…more Canadian.

So in 1964, while Peterson was recording his Canadiana Suite, then-Prime Minister Lester Pearson appointed a committee to come up with something new to symbolize Canada. The search for a new flag yielded some wild proposals, not to mention plenty of opposition. Former PM John Diefenbaker was viciously opposed to it, and when the new flag was finally raised in 1965, he famously wept as the old flag was replaced in front of the parliament buildings. Today, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking the maple leaf. It became so familiar so quickly that it seems like the flag has been around forever, but it’s younger than Canada’s current Prime Minister.

To me, Peterson’s music stands the test of time just as well as the flag, and this song, the opening track on “The Canadiana Suite”, makes a great soundtrack to a Canadian summer afternoon.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Peterson’s playing, famously frenetic, is fairly subdued here, though he still finds spots to throw in little flourishes.

2. The drums come in so sneakily at 1:30 that it’s easy to forget they’re there.

3. The upright bass, finger-picked for most of the song, is bowed at the end, giving the final cadence that extra richness.

Recommended listening activity:

Anything, as long as you’re in a canoe while doing it.

Buy it here.