Andrew Hunter began his essay for the massive catalog, Tom Thomson, published for a
touring exhibition of Thomson's landscape painting in 2002 and 2003, by quoting a line
from a song titled “Three Pistols” by the Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip:
"Well, Tom Thomson came paddling past – I’m pretty sure it was him.”
I’d heard of the band but not the song and the use of this lyric struck me as no more than a
display of cultural hipness. Since completing my book, Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's
Last Spring, I have learned that every true Canadian knows The Tragically Hip. The band
speaks of what it is to be Canadian through their music and lyrics, from myths and
legends, historical moments, trivia, and almost every aspect of Canadian culture, The
Tragically Hip is Canada’s leading rock and roll band. Their live concerts are legendary.
One of the greatest live rock and roll albums ever recorded is Live Between Us by The
Tragically Hip on November 23, 1996, at Detroit’s Cobo Arena. Gord Sinclair, the group’s
bass guitarist said, “This is not the first live record made at the venerable Cobo Arena.
Simply put, it's a great room to play as far as hockey rinks go. Unlike most arenas, there is
nothing behind the stage area, just a wall which projects everything outwards to the crowd.
As a result the room sounds great, and that sound quality adds to the quality of the
performance and so on and so on. Maybe that's it. The end result is there on tape, an
evening when all the intangibles of live performance come together to create magic. It's the
room, the band, the crew, the crowd, the set, the evening and about a thousand other
elements all falling into place. Who knows, maybe it's the water. Detroit Rock City!”
While doing research on bipolar disorder for Algonquin Elegy, I found a note on a website
at http://www.psychforums.com by a fan of The Tragically Hip, whose signature included a
few other lines from the “Three Pistols” song:
“Bring on the brand new renaissance,
Cause I think I'm ready.
I've been shaking all night long
But my Hands are Steady.”
His note said, “The bottom part of my signature is from a song by the Tragically Hip, called ’
Three Pistols’ which is about a Canadian artist, Tom Thomson, who was brilliant but had
bipolar. The words are actually from a letter they found in his cabin after he went missing.”
That sent me scrambling for three reasons. First, when Tom Thomson’s body was
recovered from Canoe Lake on July 16, 1917, Algonquin Park Superintendent George W.
Bartlett ordered Park Ranger Mark Robinson to search and secure Tom’s few belongings.
A key part of the myths and legends that grew up around Tom’s drowning over the last 100
years is a missing letter to him Mowat Lodge owner Annie Fraser said she found in his
room from Winnifred Trainor, which said, “Please, Tom, you must get a new suit, because
we’ll have to be married.”
I thought that a letter in which Tom wrote about seeking a new renaissance because he
was ready might be a suicide note or a reference to his experience of delirium tremens that
can occur after a period of heavy alcohol drinking, especially when the person does not eat
enough food. I thought, perhaps, that the finding of such a letter had escaped my earlier
Second, the note’s statement that Tom Thomson was brilliant but suffered bipolar disorder
agreed with everything I knew about him.
On May 15, 2005, I posted a reply, asking, “Did these words come from a Tom Thomson
letter? If so, where can I find a copy?” The writer had said he had recently begun taking
Lithium, a popular medication for those suffering from bipolar disorder. I seriously doubted
that Tom would have written about seeking a new renaissance but hoped to encourage an
exchange by e-mail in which I would also delve further into Tom’s symptoms but never
received any answer.
Third, meanwhile. I wanted to see all of the lyrics to “Three Pistols,” read the liner notes
and learn more about the band.
In sum, I quickly learned that no such letter was found, that Thomson experts consider the
song so much nonsense, that the Hip are notorious for writing obscure lyrics and that fans
of the band often say it’s their favorite song. "Three Pistols" was released in 1991 on an
album called Road Apples, slang recognized by all Canadians as frozen horse dung, used
as hockey pucks. The song's lyrics refer not only to Tom Thomson, very frequently
misspelled by fans as Tom Thompson, but also to his last girlfriend, Winnifred Trainor, in
“Well he found his little lonely love
His bride of the northern woods
. . . .
Little girls come on remembrance day
Placing flowers on his grave
She waits in the shadows ‘til after dark
To sweep them all away.”
William T. Little’s book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, said that Ms. Trainor often visited Tom
Thomson’s grave site at Canoe Lake. “[W]hen camp children visited the vicinity of the grave
site . . . to strew it with wild flowers, it was her habit to go up to the lonely little graveyard
after they were gone and dispose of the flowers. Why, one wonders, if the body was not in
the grave, did she bother?”
Fans of the song have failed to decipher other lyrics referring to an Opera House, a balcony
scene, Shakespeare and the three pistols refrain. I tried and failed to dig up anything
which might explain anything more except the obvious reference to the tragic suicide of
Romeo. However, I think I can explain the three pistols refrain.
At an early live performance of the song, lead singer Gordon Downie introduced it with the
following: “Here’s one of many Canadian myths, that like many Canadian myths, just
happens to be true.” Downie has made reference to a love triangle during other
introductions and interludes.
“Three Pistols” is a very clever twist on the Quebec town, Ville de Trois-Pistoles, said to
have been named for a silver goblet worth trois-pistoles that was lost in the river in 1621.
Pistole is the French name given to a Spanish gold coin. A French ship ran aground to the
west of the Island to the Basques in Quebec. Fresh water being exhausted, two sailors
and an officer paddled over to a nearby river to fill water barrels. The officer, reaching for a
drink, dropped his silver goblet into the river and exclaimed, “Here are trois-pistoles lost!”
The river was named Rivière of Trois-Pistoles. The "three pistols" refrain of the song ends:
"Three pistols came and three people went on their way,
Three pistols strong and three people spent.
Three pistols came and three people went on their way,
One pistol strong and three people spent."
The Tom Thomson Mystery describes a triangular love story among Tom Thomson,
Winnifred Trainor and Martin Blecher, Jr., which I disbelieve completely. However, Tom
drowned, Blecher died of a heart attack in 1938 and Winnie survived them both. The
Tragically Hip juxtaposed the earlier myth of a loss to nature in the water of Trois-Pistoles
against the loss of Tom Thomson to the waters of Canoe Lake for a bi-lingual audience of
Canadians, who would find these lyrics both familiar and obscure. It is so satisfying a
conclusion that I adopt it as my own.
“The song deals with a tragic accident and the all too familiar artistic misfortune of
receiving recognition only after losing your life,” concludes a website that makes a
desperate effort to explain the song. “’Three Pistols’ is a tribute to the difficult, humbling
and often thankless work of those who create. It honors a man not because he died young
but because he made the most of his potential energy.”
You can find an interesting website about the song here and listen to the song here.
Myself, I will end this essay by listening once again to “Three Pistols,” which, for me, brings
together Tom Thomson and Detroit, where we really appreciate good rock and roll from
bands like The Tragically Hip.
Tom Thomson, Detroit and
The Tragically Hip