Downie was one of Canada’s most revered singers, songwriters and performers, known for capturing the country’s culture and history in his albums.
Deemed the “quintessential Canadian band,” the group has received 12 Juno awards and released a steady stream of radio hits, including New Orleans Is Sinking, Ahead By a Century and Bobcaygeon.
“I don’t think you can get a more Canadian band than the Tragically Hip. They are as Canadian as touques, moose and double-doubles,” music historian, Alan Cross said.
WATCH: Music historian, Alan Cross calls for ‘national period of mourning’ for Canada’s frontman
Downie’s poetic lyrics unified Canadians coast to coast, exploring powerful moments in history like the disappearance of Toronto Maple Leafs’ player Bill Barilko to the wrongful imprisonment of Manitoba’s David Milgaard.
Not only have the Hip become Canada’s unofficial house band, they also influenced an entire generation of musicians.
“If you’re a musician and you’re born in Canada, it’s in your DNA to like the Tragically Hip,” Dallas Green of City and Colour told the Canadian Press in 2016.
“He’s the gold standard,” Green said. “The way he writes and cares about music. The way he cares about the song.”
WATCH: The Tragically Hip’s fans sing ‘O Canada’ before historic concert
Canadian rapper k-os also credited Downie for introducing him to Canadian culture while growing up in Whitby, Ont.
“As a Trinidadian, West Indian kid, I was always obsessed with (the questions), ‘What is Canada?” he told the Canadian Press. “I needed to understand it because that’s where I was from.”
He said Downie’s lyrics inspired him to write his own songs at a young age and ultimately the band was a “huge part” of why he pursued music. Later, he would pay tribute to the Hip with a wink in the lyrics of his Juno-award winning song “Crabbuckit.”
The Hip became Canada’s national band partly because they did not break through into the United States music scene, Cross said.
“There became a sense that they were ‘ours and ours alone,'” he said. “They spoke to what we thought, what we felt, what we hoped for and what we got angry about. I mean think about all the hockey songs they released.”
Downie’s live performances are often nearly as theatrical as they are about the music. He’s been known to jump around the stage and riff poetically during extended musical interludes.
And his performance is part of the reason many Canadians loved him, Toronto music publicist Eric Alper said. “We could not take out eyes off of him.”
“The Tragically Hip did everything correctly,” Alper said. “They didn’t go for the wallet, they went for the heart,” he said.
WATCH: Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie opens up about his terminal cancer
Cross, whose band opened for the Tragically Hip at a staff Christmas party in 1988, credited the group for inspiring every Canadian rock band that came out of the 1990s.
“Everyone was inspired in some way by the Hip, whether it’s by presentation, music, lyrics, or the love of this country,” Cross said.
The Tragically Hip was able to conduct a career as a domestic act, selling millions of albums, something many Canadian bands have not been able to successfully do, he said.
“Downie could sing about Canada without it being cheesy,” Cross added. “Many people have not been able to pull this off.”
WATCH: Gord Downie honoured by First Nations in emotional ceremony
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said words of condolences Wednesday, visibly upset about Downie’s passing.
“Gord was my friend,” Trudeau told reporters while tears streamed down his face. “But he was everyone’s friend … our buddy Gord, who loved this country with everything he had. And not just with a nebulous ‘Oh, I love Canada’ way, he loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life.”
WATCH: Prime Minister Trudeau fights back tears remembering his ‘buddy Gord’
He also released a statement about Downie and said his “evocative lyrics came to define a country.”
“When he spoke, he gave us goosebumps and made us proud to be Canadian. Our identity and culture are richer because of his music, which was always raw and honest – like Gord himself,” Trudeau stated.
In terms of Downie’s legacy, Cross believes the country, from coast to cost, will come together and build it together in the upcoming weeks.
“We are going to go into a period of national mourning,” Cross said.
“The country will come together over this and the rest of the world will think ‘who is this band? Who is this guy? Why are you going crazy about it?’ And we are not going to really be able to articulate it other than this band, this singer exemplified the soul of Canadian culture.”
WATCH: Tragically Hip documentary Long Time Running trailer
LISTEN: Remembering the life and legacy of Gord Downie on Calgary Today
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