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Search for a Western Anthem: “All Hell for a Basement” (Heaven in Alberta) - The Western Standard

Article by James Forbes


You must hear this song to understand why it speaks to so many Albertans on a visceral level.


The Western Standard put out a call for our readers to help us pick the unofficial anthem for Alberta (or more broadly, Buffalo or Western Canada). We asked you to submit songs that would inspire us during hard times, would speak to our distinct Western culture, and would be good for crowds to sing together. You didn’t disappoint.


We received many great anthem ideas: some familiar classics, some newer hits, and many excellent rarer songs which I had never heard before. Many are strong contenders, and some a little off mark. I have been sifting through reader e-mails and social media comments, and narrowed it down to the best handful of songs. We will not be able to cover all of them, but over the next few weeks we will be selecting some of the best suggestions and explaining why we think they would make a great pick to become the unofficial anthem of the West.


As expected, one of the top submissions was “All Hell for a Basement”, also known as “Heaven in Alberta”, by Big Sugar. Originally released in 2001, the song features thrashing drums and electric guitars. For some listeners, this original version evokes the feeling of driving an F350 to a rig site, across the empty prairie landscape before the sun comes up.



In my opinion, the unofficial acoustic version does the most compelling job of capturing the song’s emotions. Like all anthems, you can’t just read the lyrics. You must hear this song to understand why it speaks to so many of our people on a visceral level.

The title “All Hell for a Basement” sounds odd at first. The phrase actually comes from a quote by Rudyard Kipling, the novelist and poet famous for The Jungle Book. Upon visiting Medicine Hat, Alberta in 1907, Kipling was impressed by the region’s massive quantities of underground natural gas. He remarked, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.”

Gordie Johnson wrote this song when he was the front man for the Big Sugar. Johnson was born in Winnipeg and grew up in Ontario before his family moved back west to Medicine Hat.


The song is simultaneously tragic and hopeful. The opening line, “I am a working man, but I ain’t worked for a while,” captures a reality that requires no explanation for our readers. The writer feels discarded “Like some old tin can, from the bottom of the pile.” As the song understands, unemployment is not only a crisis of material means, but also of identity and meaning. So many of us derive much of our sense of self-worth from our work and from the ability to feed our families.


But there is hope in this song as well. The lyrics to the chorus are as follows:


“I have lost my way

But I hear tell

Of Heaven in Alberta

Where they’ve got all hell for a basement.”


There’s no question why this song was requested by so many of our readers. Alberta used to be a beacon of hope that attracted hard-working people from struggling economies far and wide. Many working men who had lost their way came here to find it. Of course, this song and its underlying drive hails from a time when Alberta’s economic engine was not under direct assault by Ottawa.


So yes, let’s acknowledge the tragedy that this song captures for us in the West: unemployment, loss of purpose, and the feeling of being discarded “like some old tin can” by those in power who no longer have a use for us. But let’s also take this anthem as a reminder of the hope that we in Alberta once provided for a hopeless people. Let’s reawaken that sense of hope within ourselves, and begin to take the necessary steps to get on the right path toward prosperity. Start with yourself as an individual by reclaiming who you truly are: not “some old tin can” to be discarded by the Laurentians, but a “working man” whose skills and work ethic are still valued by us here in the West.


So how does this song stack up as an anthem, based on the three main criteria we established? First, does it inspire us? Yes, in its call to face the tragedy of unemployment and reclaim one’s self-worth as a working man, this checks out. Second, does it speak to our unique culture, heritage, and experiences? Yes, at least to some aspects of our experiences (oil & gas: check). Third, is it good for crowds to sing at public events? That’s where I think this song may fall short of anthem material. The lyrics are simply not designed for that. With lyrics like “My words are like a rope / that’s wrapped around my throat,” people might see only the tragic side, and not the redemption part of the story.


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