Guess who wrote one of the most definitive rock anthems about an American woman?
If you answered “The Guess Who,” you are both right and possibly starting an Abbott and Costello bit. The Canadian rock act cemented itself as a worldwide favorite thanks to a slew of ’60s and ’70s hits, though the members are probably most well-known for their wary ode to their neighbors to the South, “American Woman.” The band will bring that song and the rest of their repertoire to a show at Gallo Center for the Arts on Saturday, Sept. 24.
The irony of a group of guys from Canada writing an enduring song about America is not lost on them, said founding drummer Garry Peterson, one of two original members still touring with the band.
He said the song was written impromptu, during an onstage jam session back in Canada after the group had toured extensively through the United States. They were playing at a curling rink when the number came to them while trying to get founding frontman Burton Cummings’ attention to get back on stage.
“It was such a crazy night,” Peterson said. “We were four young, successful Canadians from a little town called Winnipeg, Manitoba, back in Canada after all the success we had started having back in the States. We saw things we couldn’t understand because we had no experience in that. How many racial riots were happening in Winnipeg? How many Vietnam Wars were in Winnipeg?
“We were in Chicago during the Democratic convention when they had riots there. Traveling through the States, we saw young soldiers going to and coming back from Vietnam. So I think being back home that particular day after our extensive touring through the United States, I think that might have been an outpouring of emotions felt by the band,” he said.
A careful reading of the lyrics also reveals that the “American Woman” in question is more metaphorical than physical. Despite its catchy riff, the song should be categorized as a protest song with its condemnation of America’s “war machines” and “ghetto scenes.”
“It’s funny,” Peterson said. “It tells you how sometimes people don’t really listen to the words – it’s a metaphor. When you sail into New York harbor, what is first thing you see? The Statue of Liberty. And what is the Statue of Liberty? An American woman. A lot of people thought we just didn’t like American women.”
The song became an almost instant rock classic and in 1999 had a popular resurgence thanks to a cover by rocker Lenny Kravitz. Peterson said Kravitz did a “great job” with the number, giving it a more hip-hop rhythm and harmony.
“Thought it was a great cover of it. It probably opened us up to even a newer age of people to like that song. I thought it was good, and of course the royalties were nice, too,” he said.
Founded more than 50 years ago, The Guess Who broke into the American rock mainstream as one of Canada’s biggest exports to date. The band scored radio hits across both borders with songs like “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “No Time,” “No Sugar Tonight,” “Share the Land” and, of course, “American Woman.”
Peterson, who lives in North Carolina and has since become an American citizen, said breaking into the rock scene at the height of the British Invasion of the mid-1960s was no small feat.
“A group from (Canada) wasn’t really of all that much of interest to people back then, I don’t think. We kind of drove all over from Winnipeg in our little vehicles and played everywhere and paid our dues not only in Canada but in the United States,” he said. “We were on our own, really; we were the pioneers for that. We had to convince American radio to play a Canadian band. I don’t want to say we had an insurmountable obstacle. Looking back at it, I think it was neat and the old-school way to do that.”
Today Peterson and original bassist Jim Kale continue to tour as The Guess Who along with newer members Will Evankovich on lead guitar, Leonard Shaw on keyboards and Derek Sharp as lead vocals. While the band’s lineup has undergone several changes, Peterson said its spirit remains the same for one simple reason.
“It’s the music. It became hit records and is indelibly etched into the minds and heart of people that have associated it with different time in their lives. They might have been graduating at the time ‘These Eyes’ came out or might have had a bad breakup or somebody in the family passed away. Music in this country I believe is associated with special times in people’s lives – that’s something that stays with you forever,” he said.
Peterson also said now, thanks to the internet, whole new generations are able to discover and now make their own associations with The Guess Who’s past catalog. And the band isn’t finished yet. Next month members will go into the studio in Nashville, Tenn., to record new music. They hope to have it completed and ready for release by the first quarter of 2017.
“If you are an artist and a musician, you’d always like to play new music. You’ve played the same song for 50 years. I don’t think the creative juices ever stop flowing in any band. It’s just that there has been nowhere until the advent of the internet as an outlet to get it to fans,” he said.
But don’t worry, fans, they won’t be saying bye-bye to their old hits anytime soon. Peterson said the band still gets a thrill each time it steps out on stage.
“The real joy of all of this is entertaining people. It’s getting on stage and seeing how these songs that I’ve been a part of make the audience feel,” he said. “It’s about the audience, the people who bought the record and came to the shows. Without them, we’re nowhere.”