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Talkin’ Ten Lost Years

This song is dedicated to Barry Broadfoot.  Canada is indebted to his brilliant works of oral history.  His books await you at your local library. 


TALKIN’ TEN LOST YEARS (words and music Mike Ford 2004)

Let me tell ya little story ‘bout hobos and dust, kind-hearted people and hearts fulla rust A time when heartache made a big impression, talkin’ ‘bout Canada’s great depression(lasted ten years...seemed like a hundred and ten...well I guess years where longer back in those days)

 Started when the wealthy were feelin’ fine, dancin’ the Charleston, drinkin’ up the wine, buyin’ up stocks, buyin’ things on credit, sayin’ we’re gonna be rich ‘cuz our broker said it - All of the suddeneverybody started cryin’ when the stock market crashed in 1929(wiped people out...they didn’t see it comin’ can’t blame ‘em, the didn’t have text messaging back then.)

 Factories closed, folks got fired and a lot of bank accounts just plain expired Mother Nature dealt us some real big whoppers, 3 years of drought and swarms of grasshoppers(it was a plague...right across the prairies...

 Folks lost their home and lost their farm and hung on to their decency and charm, Men took to hoppin’ on movin’ trains ridin’ out to Vancouver and right back again(lookin’ for work...anything to do...somebody’d hollar “hey, how’d ya like ta shovel slop for 50 cents a day in Winnepeg and you’d say mmmmmmmm...)

Ridin’ the rods, a popular form of travel, in a boxcar watchin’ things unravel, Huddlin’ with friends in a similar bind, sharin’ any scraps of food you might find Gatherin’ in hobo jungles at night, a fire, a song, and you could feel all right ‘Til three in the morning feel the police whip crack sayin’ get outta town and don’t ye come back

 Now if you’d had a car before the Depression struck, chances are my friend you’d be in luck, Weren’t no gasoline you could afford to buy, but you could give automobile conversion a try, Tear off the engine, don’t need no fuel, just hook that thing up to a skinny old mule - A vehicle for days sunny or muggy, a contraption known as the Bennett Buggy(Named for the Prime Minister of the day...R.B. Bennett...they don’t name cars after Prime Ministers anymore, do they?...)

 The Depression lasted pretty darn, longer even than me singin’ this Depression song At the end of the Thirties, relief came to the poor in the shape and form of the Second World War(Yehooo....celebration, we had a war...there’s nothin’ like a bit of bullets and bloodshed to keep your mind off your financial woes...)

 So from coast to coast we gathered in session sayin’ sure hope we never have another depression It affected this country more than a bit, and it’s been said the Prairies were the hardest hit Maybe that’s why in later years it was Prairie folks who gave us some good ideas about givin’ each Canadian their fair share and healin’ us for free with Medicare So if hard times hit, and they’re likely to, and some stranger’s holdin’ up a hand to you Ye don’t have to puzzle this ole Depression song through, just stop and help them out

Who knows...maybe one day we'll call it the Canadian thing to do...




Key Terms & Phrases

The Charleston

A 1920’s dance craze, named for the city of Charleston, South Carolina. 


Stock Market Crash of 1929

October 29th, 1929 (often called ‘Black Tuesday’) was the day of the ‘Great Crash’ - the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its fallout. The crash began a 10-year economic slump that affected all the Western industrialized countries.


Ridin’ the Rods

Term used to describe the action of hitching free rides on trains during the Great Depression (sometimes referred to as ‘Riding the Rails’). Riding the rods was a dangerous necessity before the Second World War when workers sought rare employment on farms and logging, mining, and construction crews across the country. The ‘rods’ one laid on were actually underneath the cars, in between the axles of the train wheels. Thousands of individuals were maimed or worse attempting this dangerous means of travel. Luckier ones often found empty boxcars to huddle in. When free-riders were caught, railyard police (or ‘Bulls’) could be harsh in their punishment. There are stories of friendly ‘Bulls’ who would ‘look the other way’.

In 1935, thousands of unemployed workers rode the rods and rails in a protest journey that began in British Columbia and picked up more on the way to Ottawa, demanding answers from government regarding the severity of the Depression and the harsh treatment they were receiving in Relief Camps.


The Bennet Buggy

A Bennett buggy was a term used in Canada during the Great Depression to describe a car which had its engine and windows taken out and was pulled by a horse. The term was named after R.B. Bennett, the Prime Minister of Canada from 1930 to 1935, who was blamed by some for the nation's poverty.Cars being pulled by horses became a common sight during the Depression. During the boom years of the 1920s, many Canadians had bought cheap vehicles for the first time, but during the depression, many found they did not have enough money to operate them. Gas, and gas taxes, became unaffordable for most, thus the ‘Bennett Buggies.



Medicare is the unofficial name for Canada's publicly funded universal health insurance system. Established gradually across the country (Hospital coverage began post-WW2 in Saskatchewan, then spread to other provinces, and full health coverage began in 1961 Saskatchewan, and became a national law in 1966. Saskatchewan’s great champion of Medicare, Tommy Douglas, is often called ‘The Father of Medicare”. He often described his experiences and observations during the Depression as being central inspiration for his decades-long fight for publicly-funded healthcare.




Historical Context


◾Economic dependence on and (export of) Primary Resources

◾Economic dependence on USA economy

◾Over-production and over-expansion

◾High debt amassed by Canadian individuals, business and government

◾Crippling drought and dust storms


The Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 had a huge impact across Canada. So much of Canada’s economy depended on resource industries (forestry, mining, agriculture), and thus the workers, families and communities that depended on these suffered the most. It is said that coal-mining dependent areas like Cape Breton, NS and the prairie farm country of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta faced the most severe impact of the Depression. The burgeoning manufacturing centres of southern Ontario and Quebec also experienced near-complete shut-downs due to the collapse in exporting.


Political Reactions

The federal government, headed by R.B. Bennett first made moderate attempts at loan relief and make-work programs, but backed off when the national debt exploded as a result. After great public outcry, his conservative government proposed lighter versions of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ policies in the U.S., but provinces would not agree to such federal intrusion. The crisis gave birth to many new political parties, most notably The Social Credit parties of Alberta and BC, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a for-runner of the NDP, and the party of Saskatchewan premier and ‘Father of Medicare’ Tommy Douglas.


Composer Notes

One of my greatest Canadian heroes, or Idols, if you will, is the late journalist and writer Barry Broadfoot. If you don’t know his work, visit any library in english Canada and you’ll find his books – all but one with the word ‘Years’ in the title. For several decades, Barry chris-crossed the country in his Volkswagen, armed with a tape recorder and a typewriter. His books are all collections of the memories of ‘common’ Canadians – unadorned, non-annotated – a real People’s history of World War Two, immigration, homesteading, prairie farming, internment, and in his first collection, The Great Depression. I find every page in his books to be like a treatment for a movie, jumping out of the book and transporting me into lives lived, into moments and images that speak so much louder than any statistical or scholarly report. I often suggest his books to students looking for acting audition soliloquies – every page exposes the human heart in one way or another. His first book – Ten Lost Years is easily the most informative body of information I’ve ever encountered about Canada in the 1930’s. In the ‘70’s Cedric Smith & Jack Winter created a stage play based on excerpts from the book. My song is dedicated to Barry Broadfoot, whose work is a constant inspiration.

The song style I chose was a no-brainer. The Talkin’ Blues (or Ramblin’ Blues) is a song form forever connected to The Great Depression, largely thanks to the brilliance of Woody Guthrie (who in turn left an indelible imprint on the work of such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and The White Stripes, to name a few). The Talkin’ Blues lend themselves to an improvisational style – the singer can almost be a Town Crier or roving melodic reporter, changing up lyrics and adding new asides to suit the occasion. I like telling students that it is the original ‘Freestyle’, and is one of Rap and Hip Hop’s true ancestors.


Activities & Lesson Ideas

Political Party Pamphlet

Have students imagine they are a leader of a new political party during the Great Depression that seeks to address some of the major problems of the day. Students will create a political pamphlet outlining their party’s platform. In addition to devising a name for their party and a slogan, they should identify their target audience (e.g. farmers, families, the unemployed, etc); three problems that this group faces; and three solutions that their party proposes to resolve them. Pictures, graphs and other creative components are encouraged.

Suggested Readings

Broadfoot, Barry Ten Lost Years- 1929-1939 Memories of Canadians who survived the Depression McClelland & Stewart, 1973