There are few songs that embody this country more than Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy, which was performed live for the first time on New Year’s Day, 1967, in honour of Canada’s centennial. Now, more than 40 years later, Lightfoot’s paean to the national railroad gets a second life, a remix of sorts, in the form of an illustrated book. The six-minute song has been transformed into a 56-page picture book, illustrated by award-winning Canadian artist Ian Wallace.
The idea to turn song into book actually belongs to Patsy Aldana, publisher of Groundwood Books, who called up Wallace a couple of years ago and pitched him the concept. Wallace was a teenager when the song debuted, and part of him was terrified at the prospect of adapting the lyrics of a songwriter he’d long admired.
“I’ve always believed that the illustrator is only as good as the words a writer lays down, and so in that sense, I was dealing with a master,” says Wallace, 60. That said, he also knew the song would make a perfect book: “The building of the railroad is one thrilling saga, full of fascinating characters: entrepreneurs and capitalists and politicians and ordinary men, navvies and ladies of the evening — a great cast of characters that an illustrator can certainly sink his teeth into and find visual stimulus.”
Wallace lovingly recreates the country from coast to coast. From sketches of the mountains to the Prairies to the Maritimes, the book could almost be used as a tourist brochure. He credits Lightfoot with making his job easy: “Lightfoot is such a masterful storyteller. The lyrics that he wrote were so succinct, so spare, so well chosen that it was in fact as if I was dealing with the text of a picture book. He really understood less is more.”
While Lightfoot wrote the original in a blistering three days, Wallace took a bit longer — 21 months in all — to complete his work, though some of that was for research, which included reading books such as Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike, and scouring the Canadian Pacific archives and the Toronto Reference Library. Additionally, Wallace had to master a medium he’d never worked in before.
“I’ve always believed in the uniqueness of the writer’s voice, and my responsibility as an illustrator is to hear that voice,” he says. “In this instance, I wanted to capture [Sir John A.] Macdonald’s dream and Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic song all at the same time. And the only medium I thought could do that was chalk pastels … In one moment it can look ethereal and dreamy and as soft as clouds and in the same stroke you can create concrete rock and reflective surfaces of steel. That’s the real beauty of it.”
Just as those who built the railroads worked under dangerous conditions, so too did Wallace (albeit to a much lesser extent). During the process, he discovered that the chalk was toxic — he had to avoid breathing in the dust, and couldn’t let it linger on his skin lest it seep into his bloodstream.
I was so intent that this medium was just the right one that it was worth the risk to my life and lungs.
While Wallace never worked directly with Lightfoot on the book, the singer was there in spirit. He’s unsure how many times he listened to the original song, but adds
it never ever let me down or became boring.
“It was inspirational,” he says. “It kept me on track.”
Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot, art by Ian Wallace, is published by Groundwood Books.
Unabashedly sourced verbatim from: Mark Medley, National Post, October 8, 2010.