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folk music

Meet Stan Rogers: The Legend that Left Too Soon

Tallyhi, everybody! I am super excited about today, because I get to introduce you to one of my top three favorite non-canonized historical figures ever (other two are G.K. Chesterton and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn). Sort of…I mean. He’s dead. But y’know what I mean.

Here he is, Mr. Stan Rogers himself:

via Borealis Records

Yeah, I know, you probably think he doesn’t look like much. He also looks at least fifty. That’s inaccurate. Stan didn’t live past his early thirties.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning. Stan was born and raised in the Ontario province of Canada, but his family’s roots were in the Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island). This Maritime heritage would ultimately have a profound influence on his songwriting. After playing in garage rock-and-roll bands throughout high school, and having a brief stint at college, he signed with a record label and released his debut album, Fogarty’s Cove, in ’76. The album’s subject matter was heavily concerned with the Maritimes, and that would be a trend that would continue throughout his albums to follow. There would be nine albums, all told, many of them live recordings or compendiums of previously released music–and only four of them were released before his death.

It came to an end sadly soon for Stan. He died in ’83, in Air Canada Flight 797. For those who aren’t aware, the particular event was a disastrous plane fire that caused a massive watershed of new regulations and safety procedures for commercial flight around the globe. Stan was only 33.

Now I’ve told you everything–all the unimportant things.

But I didn’t tell you Stan’s high school garage band was called The Hobbits.

I didn’t tell you he was six foot four and had a brother named Garnet with whom he would sing as a child, and with whom he continued to sing throughout his professional career.

I didn’t tell you he had a wife, and several children–small children–when he passed away.

I didn’t tell you about his songs.

Let’s talk about Stan’s songs.

Westward from the Davies strait,

Tis there ’twas said to lie,

The sea route to the Orient, for which so many died,

Seeking gold and glory,

Leaving weathered broken bones

And a long forgotten, lonely cairn of stones…

Oh for just one time,

I would take the Northwest Passage!

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort sea…

Tracing one warm line,

Through a land so wild and savage,

And make a Northwest Passage to the sea!

Northwest Passage

That’s from one of his most well known songs, Northwest Passage. It’s one of the very first of his songs that I discovered, preceded only by Mary Ellen Carter, and it’s still one of my favorites. Just glorious, lyrically. For one thing, the thing it refers to is so fascinating–it’s pretty self-explanatory based on the first verse and chorus, but did you know people had been looking for a sea-route through the Arctic circle and particularly the Canadian archipelago since the 1400s? Only recently (as in like, 2009) did they find something usable!

Anyway, I really do love that song. And I’m not the only one. It’s been called an alternative national anthem for Canada.

But it’s actually not the best one, in my opinion. Not by a long shot. Stan’s songs make you think. Many of them are ballads–they sound like trad songs in a lot of ways–and he tells stories and points morals that make you think. Hard. Stan was a bard in the truest sense of the word. And his music was concerned, in large part, with the dying out of the old ways, and the accompanying grief of the working folk. Have a look at these lyrics to “The Last Watch,” a heartbreaking piece about an old man watching an old ship the night before it’s to be scrapped.

My guess is that we were young together.

Like hers, my strength was young and hard as steel.

And like her too, I knew my ground;

I scarcely felt the years go round

In answer to the wheel.

But then they quenched the fire beneath the boiler,

Gave me a watch and showed me out the door.

At sixty-four, you’re still the best;

One year more, and then you’re less

Than dust upon the floor.

***

So here’s to useless superannuation

And us old relics of the days of steam.

In the morning, Lord, I would prefer

When men with torches come for her,

Let angels come for me.

It’s the last watch on the Midland,

The last watch alone,

One last night to love her,

The last night she’s whole.

Okay, if those lyrics didn’t make you sad for the old man, the old boat, and the old traditions, then you’re reading it wrong.

Stan’s music doesn’t only concern the sea-world, though. He wrote about every province of Canada at different points in his life, and about places beyond Canada. Overall, if I had to pick just one consistent theme in Stan’s music, it’d probably be work.

So come all you fine young fellows, who’ve been beaten to the ground,

This western life’s no paradise, but it’s better than lying down.

Oh the streets aren’t clean, and there’s nothing green, and the hills are dirty brown.

But the government dole will rot your soul back there in your hometown.

So bid farewell to the Eastern town you never more will see.

There’s self-respect, and a steady check in this refinery.

You will miss the green, and the woods and streams, and the dust will fill your nose.

But you’ll be free, and just like me, an idiot I suppose.

The Idiot, Stan Rogers.

The main theme of The Idiot is that it’s not about what you gain from working, it’s the doing of the work. It’s the act of getting up every day and struggling for something–that’s what’ll make a man a man. Work is not merely a means to an end–not, at least, if you see the end as money. It’s a means to an end only insofar as the end is self-respect, and virtue, and the fulfilling of manly duty. And Stan’s songs often express that truth.

But not just that. They also deal with the fact that sometimes a man just gets tired, and doesn’t want to work anymore. They deal with the fact that men aren’t always perfect, and the trades they follow aren’t perfect either. They deal with the fact that no matter how hard a man works, no matter how much of a man he is, the age of industrialism is beginning to make obtaining a livelihood hard, even in the distant, quiet harbors of Canada.

What kind of fisherman can’t eat his catch

Or call what he’s taken his own?

Tiny Fish for Japan, Stan Rogers

I think one of the most poignant songs in Stan’s catalogue, despite not being my favorite in particular tune-wise, is Free in the Harbor. The song doesn’t sound like much–mostly singing about whales being free from their hunters. ‘Cause remember, Stan’s writing his songs and making his observations of the world in peak hippie culture.

But as gleeful as Stan seems to be that the majestic creatures are free, he still has a sober meditation for the human side of the situation.

Well, it’s a living they’ve found, deep in the ground

And if there’s doubts, it’s best they ignore them

Nor think on the bones, the crosses and stones

Of their fathers that came there before them

In the taverns of Edmonton, fishermen shout

“Haul it away! Haul it away!”

They left three hundred years buried up on the Bay

Where the whales make free in the harbour

Free In the Harbour, Stan Rogers

Stan captures, very poignantly, throughout his music, the idea of the ‘universal tragedy.’ Sure, it’s horrible for the whales to be killed. But it’s also horrible for people to get ripped away from their homes and livelihoods. It’s horrible that the crafts that have been the pride and joy of generations are suddenly spurned as ‘offensive’. It’s a tragedy. Plain and simple, universally a tragedy, all around.

Because the world is busted, and no matter how hard a man tries, while he can change himself, he can’t change the world. The world is still busted.

Now it’s so hard to not think of before the big war
When the cod went so cheap, but so plenty;
Foreign trawlers go by now with long seeking eyes
Taking all where we seldom take any
And the young folk don’t stay with the fisherman’s ways
Long ago they all moved to the cities;
And the ones left behind, old and tired and blind
Won’t work for a pound, for a penny

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten

Make and Break Harbour, Stan Rogers

While John Lennon’s Imagine was sweeping the world, and the hippie cry of “peace!” without any real understanding of what peace was, echoed across the globe, in quiet Canada, Stan Rogers was writing Harris and the Mare, a song that acknowledged the worth of pacifism while still realizing the aching truth–sometimes, to be a man, to do right, you just have to hit somebody.

Now Harris, well you know, I’ve never struck an angry blow

Nor would I keep a friend who raised his hand

I was a conscie in the war, cryin’ “what the hell’s this for?”

But I had to see his blood to be a man….

***

…In my nine and fifty years I’ve never known

That to call myself a man, for my loved one I must stand

Now Harris, fetch thy mare; take us home!

Harris and the Mare–a conscie is a conscious objector to a war who refuses drafting on moral grounds.

The bewildered heartache of the former pacifist is raw, and real, and I don’t know about you, but it made me think. Sometimes people do have to fight. And that is a result of original sin. So it’s really just tragic.

But it wasn’t all tragedy. Stan was a man, and even the best of men have other thoughts besides sober contemplation. Many of his songs poke humorous fun at this or that subject, even sometimes at himself. Still others note the glorious beauty of the simple life, and the beauty, even, of aging, so long as one is aging the right way.

Is this the face that won for her the man

Whose amazed and clumsy fingers put that ring upon her hand?

No need to search that mirror for the years

The menace in their message shouts across the blur of tears….

…And she thinks ahead to Friday, cause Friday will be fine!

She’ll look up in that weathered face that loves hers, line for line

To see that maiden shining in his eyes

And laugh at how her mirror tells her lies

Lies

This touching ballad of an aging farmwife, who finds her worth in her children and her husband, not in her mirror, is a strong contrast to that of the old maid, whose loneliness can only be attributed to her former arrogant stand-offishness:

“If I were to marry you, on me ‘twould be the blame

Your friends and relations would scorn me to shame

If you were born of noble blood and me of low degree

Do you think that I could marry you? It’s oh no, not me.”

***

So come all you pretty fair maids, a warning take by me

Don’t ever put your trust in the green willow tree

For the leaves they will wither and the root it will die

Make you think on all the times when you said “oh no, not I”

Oh No, Not I

Love was a topic often addressed in Stan’s lyrics, and he gave thoughtful precedence to his wife on many occasions, such as this piece about a real occasion with a female fan who attempted to flirt with him while he was on tour.

You can’t stay here
Maybe you can’t see why
But I’m an old-fashioned guy
And I’d rather be…lonely

You Can’t Stay Here

One of his best known songs, still considered a classic love song of the time, is 45 Years; addressed to his wife Ariel, who is still living to this day.

And I just want to hold you closer than I’ve ever held anyone before

….I want to see your smiling face forty-five years from now

45 Years

Alas, it wasn’t 45 years. Not anything close. Stan died young–way too young, as aforementioned, leaving his wife and his small son and stepdaughter behind to deal with the busted world. A bit of a folk legend grew up around him and his death–Air Canada got a chance to land, without completely blowing up beforehand, and some of the passengers and the crew were able to escape the fire. As for Stan? Well, nobody knows for sure, but they say he had the opportunity to get out, and instead died in the process of helping others escape.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord…

But while that may have been the end of Stan, it certainly wasn’t the end of his influence. His music lives on. There’s an incredible story about the Mary Ellen Carter, the song he wrote about the ship that ‘rose again.’

In 1983 the coastal cargo vessel Marine Electric capsized off the coast of Virginia. Robert Cusick, a fifty nine year old chief mate aboard the ship was trapped under the deckhouse when the vessel sank, and was forced to spend the night alone neck-deep in water. With waves washing over him and hypothermia setting in, Cusick claims he remembered the concluding stanzas of The Mary Ellen Carter and was able to keep himself awake, and consequently alive, by shouting the lyrics between holding his breath against the waves. This story is told by Cusick himself in the Stan Rogers documentary One Warm Line.

via the Longest Song.fandom.com

And what lyrics to stay alive to!

Rise again, rise again!

Though your heart it be broken, and your life about to end,

No matter what your loss, be it a home, a love, a friend,

Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Mary Ellen Carter (I also really, really love the Longest Johns version of this ‘un. maybe even better than the original, if that isn’t heresy heh)

His wife and recording company released many of his formerly recorded music posthumously, and he went on to inspire many throughout the folk industry. His brother Garnet and his son Nathan are well-established folk musicians, and often sing Stan’s songs. Mary Ellen Carter, Northwest Passage, The Idiot, and others have become more or less worldwide folk classics. In fact, the Canadian band the Dreadnoughts wrote a whole song in tribute to Stan:

A voice still echoes softly, ‘cross the rivers and the plains,

So don’t ya dare stop listening–and don’t forget his name!

Arise, and be merry,

And sing out while you can,

The world will never see the likes of dear old Stan…

Dear Old Stan

In conclusion, I really, really love Stan’s music. His singing voice, while it can take some getting used to, is a comforting sound to me now, and I put his songs on on the regular. I highly recommend all of them (with one exception–don’t try Barret’s Privateers. It’s about pirates and the lyrics are prohibitively iffy as a result.)

That aside, I encourage you to go and try anything and everything Stan flavored. I never knew him personally of course, but I almost feel like I did, after listening to his songs so regularly, and learning about his life. I am pretty sure, from some hints dropped in his earlier songs, that the man was a Catholic, and I know he was a Christian at the least, so let us hope he’s gone where all the good old fishermen went, and he’s casting nets out with St. Peter now. God bless him, and his family! He was a voice of reason and wisdom in a time heavily punctuated by madness, and while the madness has only gotten more mad since his day, Stan’s songs have remained good, true, and beautiful. I will truly never get tired of them.

I leave you with my own personal favorite Stan Rogers’ song, as well as a direct link to the song’s lyrics because they are gorgeous. It has been said that this song out of all Stan’s work described most poignantly his own struggles–the conflict between wanderlust and love of the simple home life was strong in him. And, if his songs are any indication, at the last, Stan held greater stock by the humble quiet of home than he did the pomp and circumstance of glory and adventure.

Well, I reckon that about wraps it up. I think I’ll be talking about some of my favorite underrated books next week, so stay tuned if you wish! I hope you enjoyed this–tell me what you think below; if you found the story interesting, or if you’ll be trying any Stan Rogers’ music in future. Do you have any great ‘anti-hippie’ figures that lived in hippie times to share about? Because it’s one of my favorite topics, ha.

15 replies on “Meet Stan Rogers: The Legend that Left Too Soon”

Very interesting, as usual. I didn’t know very much about Stan Rogers, really, other than some of his songs that you like, so this was very useful information for understanding folk song conversations, ha.

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Well, I’d heard the part about his wife and death before, but that’s really about it. I think the rest of it was new to me.

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This may be my favorite of your posts yet, Grim. Which is saying a lot. I knew nothing about Stan before reading this except that he was the folk musician who wrote Northwest Passage, was Canadian, had a vague idea he died tragically young, and I’d heard a few other of his songs I think (the lyrics to The Last Watch seem REALLY familiar), and…I had no idea about ANYTHING else, really. But he was incredible! And his lyrics GAH. *clutches heart* I am off to listen to some Stan Rogers and fall musically in love.

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Ok. So. I spent a lot of my time at work today listening to Stan Rogers, and I must admit to a great curiosity about what you mean when you say his voice can take some getting used to? Cuz I was curious about that, and so I was paying attention, and I didn’t notice anything all that unusual about it…unless that it’s unusually pretty and kind of unusually rich, haha.
Also, oh man I am in love with his songwriting. Reading snippets of the lyrics of songs is lovely, but the whole thing, with the music, ACK. “Lies” especially hit me very hard (I…know the lady in the song. I know her.), and I just….am SO SO SO glad you made me look up more of Stan’s stuff. ❤

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Haha you and me both (I was singing Mary Ellen Carter to keep myself awake while sorting receipts lol). Okay, so that’s a bit of a loaded question. I must admit that when I first ran into his stuff I much preferred the covers of it rather than the originals..it was less a matter of his voice and more a matter of his choice of percussion, which sounded too eighties to me. I have since got over that heinous opinion; I don’t give a whit about the percussion, and find his voice thoroughly comforting–and as you said, unusually rich. However, something that I don’t often talk about on here is that I’m more or less one of a family of folk music lovers? We all tend to listen to the stuff together and my siblings and I will sing it together for fun sometimes. And I have yet to convince my siblings to like Stan. I mean, they like his songwriting a lot. They really love a lot of his songs. But they prefer the covers. They just don’t like his voice that much. I’m not sure what it is–the vibrato? I dinna ken. But I guess I can understand the fact that it’s not to their taste and might not be to other people’s thusly, which is why I put that in there. 🙂
ACH YES I HAVE TURNED YOU INTO A FULL FLEDGED STAN FAN. Oh my goodness I know!!! I love his stuff so, so much, and it’s genuinely taught me so much, and really kept me sane over the last year, esp. with the craziness of secular college–I might have to spend my time studying evolution and reading that horrible Doll’s House but I can have the wisdom of Stan murmuring in my ears while I’m at it and that makes it so much better. (I know. I know the ‘Lies’ lady too. I can only hope that I end up like her someday. :D) Out of curiosity, did you try a) White Squall (which is one of my favorites, but I couldn’t find a place for it in the post) b) Lock Keeper (which I still can’t get over) c) First Christmas (which is, to my knowledge, the only song in the world that is too sad for stony-hearted Grim to listen to regularly)?
Well that was a pair of monster replies. pardon me. I’m just excited that somebody’s excited about the chap heh.

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Interesting. I showed “Lies” and “Tiny Fish for Japan” to my sister, who’s notorious for not liking much vibrato in people’s voices, and she said his didn’t bother her and she thought he had an unusually pretty voice too? So WHO KNOWS. ‘TIS A MYSTERY AND SO SHALL IT REMAIN.

I went and listened to White Squall and, uh, wow THAT may be the song that’s too sad for me to listen to on a regular basis OH MAN. Oh man. *opens and shuts mouth but finds she cannot word* *it was just that good*
Yes, Lock-keeper is gorgeous.
First Christmas I didn’t like as well as the others – the melody wasn’t my favorite? – but it’s still good and um, yes, sad. Although not nearly as bad as White Squall for some reason.

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Yay! Thank you! I’m glad I made the dear fellow another fan. 🙂 I’m actually a fairly recent fan myself (found him about a year ago)–I think. I have a faint memory of hearing his voice as a small child (my love of folk music comes from The Dead One’s love for it and constant playing of it), though I’m not sure if it was him or like, the Clancy Brothers or somebody. Anyway. Yeah. His music is beautiful, and his life was incredible, and I’m really just glad I found his stuff because it has afforded much wisdom for this here naive lassie. 🙂

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Wow, this is really interesting! I don’t think I’d ever heard of Stan Rogers, but I love his story, and I LOVE the excerpts from his songs that you included!

The ones from “The Last Watch”, and “Lies” hit me especially hard–those are beautiful. You actually made me want to go listen to all of “Lies”, which I did, which is quite hard to do. I liked it muchly.

Goodness, the story of the captain in the capsized ship is incredible!

Thank you so much for sharing someone you love with us! 🙂

(Also, I love your new end-of-post sketch-thing.)

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I know right!!! His lyrics are literally the best thing and Lies is brilliant and gorgeous and still makes me think so hard (one year after discovering it.) And his story is beautiful and incredibly sad though…in fact, a lot of Stan’s stuff strikes me as sad. To Stan Rogers goes the heretofore unbestowed honor of “Writing a song that is too sad for Grim the stony-heart to listen to.” (Last Christmas, if you were wondering.) But yeah. I’m really glad I was able to introduce him to some folks and that you liked him and his music. 🙂 I am dreadfully fond of “Dear Old Stan” and I think he definitely deserves some more remembrance in this latter day, if only because his music is still so very edifying. So I’m glad I could help out with that a little haha.
(Thank you!! I had Canva Pro briefly for a school project, so I figured I might as well take advantage of it haha)

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(Before I forget, I echo Sam: LOVE the signature sketch. It’s glorious. Very fitting.)

My computer battery is dying so I don’t have time to gush at length, but oh Grim. Oh Grim. I love this so much and need to start listening to all the Stan Rogers songs now. Northwest Passage has been dancing through my head all day thanks to this post. 🙂

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