Inside the song: That Damned Filthy River

Jake Ian GigCity EdmontonYou can tell that a songwriter is being honest when they get inspired by their own backyard. Hard to fake that.

Local rootsmith Jake Ian has hit the mark with a worthy song of the land, or water, anyway, called That Damned Filthy River. It’s a dark and beautiful love letter to the North Saskatchewan. On a lark, Ian and his guys recorded a black & white video performing it while sitting at a kitchen table, just acoustic instruments and vocals. He says the song is unfinished, but it sounds just fine the way it is. It’s real, raw bluegrass soul – a vivid slice of Alberta country lore that hits you right in the gut.

Over a lazy slow groove, the first line, “That damned filthy river took my baby from me” brings a shock of unpleasant thoughts: Chances are that anyone who’s lived in Edmonton a long time has known someone who lost their life in that river. Ian says he does – but is quick to state that the song is not based on a specific personal experience. He’s just inspired by the river. The key line despite the loss mentioned earlier is this: “Still the prettiest river that I’ve ever seen.”

Ian says, “I grew up so close to the river that I always felt a major connection to it. It’s not a true story directly. It’s kind of based on my grandmother, who lived on the riverbank her whole life, near Smoky Lake, just a few miles down from the Victoria Settlement, which was an old trading post. I spent a lot of time there growing up.” His grandmother died of cancer this last September at the age of 94.

“She was always a funny lady,” Ian says. “She always enjoyed my music. And I took a lot of my songwriting habits from her. If you called her on the phone you’d need a half a day to sit and talk because she’d tell stories and stories.

“I wanted to make the song into a bit of a story as well, incorporate the river in there. I was looking to write a timeless story, something that could’ve taken place 100 years ago, or it could’ve taken place a year ago.”

On notions of death that crept into the song, which is open to interpretation, he says, “I don’t know if the woman in the story took her own life, or if it was an accident. But I’ve always lived around the river. I used to live in Forest Heights, and one day my wife and I were walking along that path, and the river looked particularly high and dirty and kind of angry that day. I just started thinking: since the beginning of humankind, people from the fur trade, I’m sure there are souls that still reside within that river. People died in there. People live their lives and their lives are over, and the river is still moving.”

Jake Ian opens for Tim Hus Friday at Yellowhead Brewery.