By: Bob Mersereau
A Lennie Gallant sighting doesn’t cause much of a stir in Charlottetown. After all, he was born and raised on Prince Edward Island, and has never really moved away. The waitress isn’t star-struck, and nobody comes up to interrupt his meal, but in a region that appreciates its excellent songwriters, Gallant has long been considered one of the very best.
The song that has come to be considered his finest, “Peter’s Dream,” earned Gallant the top accolade in his craft when it was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame during this year’s East Coast Music Awards earlier this month. For Gallant, no stranger to trophies (he has 18 ECMAs, and is a Member of The Order Of Canada), it was a long-dreamed-of honour.
“When I was starting to write songs, I’d go up to my grandmother’s house after school, and go to my uncle’s bedroom and get into his record collection,” he recalls. “He had Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, all these amazing Canadian songwriters. I think of it now, to have a song of mine in the presence of some of the works of these writers, it’s really fantastic for me. And to have it inducted at the same time as Stan Rogers, that’s pretty cool.”
“Peter’s Dream” is a song that never fails to draw an emotional response from listeners. First released on Gallant’s 1994 album The Open Window (Columbia Records), it saw him join the elite ranks of East Coast artists putting the national spotlight on the scene. With The Rankins, Ron Hynes, Ashley MacIsaac, The Barra Macneils, Great Big Sea and others, suddenly Atlantic Canada was finally on the musical map, and Gallant has proved to be one of its enduring stars. Produced by Colin Linden, The Open Window won four ECMA’s and Gallant was named SOCAN Songwriter of the Year for “Peter’s Dream.”
With this latest honour, Gallant has been thinking back to how fast the song came to him, and is reminded of stories he heard from other great songwriters.
It was a bit of a gift song,” he marvels. “Gene (MacLellan) was a friend of mine, and Ron (Hynes) was a friend of mine, and both of those guys talked about how their most famous songs, “Snowbird” and “Sonny’s Dream,” came very quickly. And it was the same for me, with “Peter’s Dream.” I wrote the song in about an hour, and I don’t think I changed a single word after. You almost feel like you’re taking notes at that point, it happened so quickly. And afterwards, you kind of go, ‘Wow, I wonder where some of that imagery came from?'”
The song tells the story of the collapse of the Atlantic fishery at the end of the 20th century, when the industry could no longer support the thousands of traditional jobs thanks to rapid industrial overfishing. The verses focus on the frustration of a few in one village no longer able to go out on the ocean to work. Meanwhile, the haunting chorus makes reference to a striking Biblical image, that of Peter the fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, with Jesus helping him pull in his net.
“I never think of it as a religious song,” insists Gallant. “I like to think of it as a spiritual song, and the fact so many fishermen have a spiritual relationship with the ocean.”
He thinks the imagery was a case of one artist influencing another. “At that time I was very fascinated with the work of [Newfoundland painter] Gerald Squires. I had seen a series of his paintings in a magazine based on the Stations Of The Cross. He took all the stations, and he did them in Newfoundland settings with Newfoundland fishermen and women in the place of all the characters in the story. When I was over doing a festival in St. John’s, I went off on a trek to find the church they were in. It was in Mount Pearl, and the priest let me in to see them first-hand. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it when I was writing the song, but after the fact, that might be where it came from.”
As for the verses, it was simply the conversation that everyone close to the fishery was having. “The song was written right on Rustico Harbour, my dad had a cabin there. The night before, we were all sitting around talking about what was going to happen to so many small communities, not unlike the one I grew up in, the little fishing community of Rustico. And I had spent time in Newfoundland, in various fishing villages, and I had a sense of what kind of impact it was having over there. It was bad on the Island, but even worse over there I think. It was the next morning, very early, 6:30 or 7 in the morning, that I wrote the song, watching a few fishing boats head out to sea.”
The dramatic payoff of the song happens in the closing verse, as desperation boils over, and one fisherman leaves a gathering, grabs his shotgun, and sinks his boat with 14 shotgun blasts. “I wanted to take you right into the village, so in my mind that whole last verse takes place down at Davy’s at the harbour, P.E.I.’s most famous bootlegger’s, where we used to hang out a lot,” says Gallant. “Everyone was sitting around having a beer, and getting frustrated in that last verse.
“I’ve been to Israel, and I set foot on the Sea of Galilee, and that all happened before I wrote the song, so that probably had something to do with it too. And it’s funny, I get all these messages now from people who have been out on tour boats on the Sea of Galilee, and they say, ‘The tour guide was playing your song.'”
It’s such a poignant narrative, it never fails to connect in concert. Gallant has always kept it in his setlist. “I enjoy playing it, and even when we play it to audiences that haven’t heard it before, it gets a big reaction. Sometimes it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because I haven’t really written that many songs about fishing or fishermen, unlike some other singer-songwriters from around here, but I get tagged with that a little bit. I’m working on my 13th album now, and I think I might have two or three songs in my whole career that have anything to do with the fishery.”
While the song has no doubt been good to Gallant, there’s at least one person in Canada who appreciates it even more than he does. “There’s a lawyer near Hamilton, he says he plays that song every time before he goes to trial,” says Gallant with a laugh. “He says it’s been a winning song for years. He just plays “Peter’s Dream” over and over before the trial. I have no idea why, but apparently it’s working for him.”