Victory In Every Quarter Mile:
Folksinger Stan Rogers
by Dean Brooks

 

 

The scene was Calgary, Alberta, 1981. A bandshell in a downtown park was playing host to a summer music festival, and a thunderstorm broke out. Huddling under umbrellas and tarpaulins, the crowd pondered whether or not to go home. Then a new act climbed onto the stage. Stan Rogers was a large, balding man, well over six feet tall, with a powerful, booming voice, a twelve-string acoustic guitar, and a genius for songwriting. His equally tall, long-haired, wisecracking brother Garnet accompanied him on the violin and flute.

They were billed as folk musicians, but it didn’t take long to discover, between the blasts of thunder, that Stan Rogers was no ordinary folksinger. One familiar analogy to his talent might be the work of the more famous Harry Chapin. But where Harry Chapin wrote bittersweet, lonely ballads of how life can turn out wrong, Stan Rogers mainly wrote in praise of what goes right.

One ironic Rogers piece for flute and violin, “The Idiot,” is set to the beat of a tune that was well-known in medieval times, but the lyrics are decidedly modern. It got a wildly enthusiastic response from the capitalistic Calgarians that day. A former resident of the perpetually depressed Maritime provinces stands looking down on the brown hills of Alberta and the stinking black oil refinery he works in:

I remember back six years ago, this western life I chose
When every day the news would say some factory’s going to close
Well, I could have stayed to take the dole, but I’m not one of those
I take nothing free, and that makes me—an idiot, I suppose 

So I bid farewell to the Eastern town I never more will see
But work I must, so I eat this dust, and breathe refinery
Oh, I miss the green, and the woods and streams,
     and I don’t like cowboy clothes
But I like being free, and that makes me—an idiot, I suppose

In “Northwest Passage,” sung a capella, Stan praised the great explorers of North America:

And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west,
I think upon Mackenzie, David Thompson and the rest,
Who cracked the mountain ramparts, and did show a path for me
To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.

Rogers was just approaching thirty when he began reaching audiences across the country. He produced a handful of albums, including Turnaround, Between the Breaks… Live!, Northwest Passage, and From Fresh Water, before he died at thirty-three. His albums followed a regional theme, capturing the spirit of a particular way of life or a part of Canada. One song about the Great Lakes, “Tiny Little Fishes For Japan,” tells of the irony of catching fish that no one in North America wants to eat. Meanwhile, in a song about farming, “The Field Behind The Plow,” Stan captured the emotions, not of the harvest, but of what makes harvests possible:

Watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Feel the trickle in your clothes, blow the dust cake from your nose
Hear the tractor’s steady roar, oh, you can’t stop now
There’s a quarter section more or less to go. 

And it figures that the rain keeps its own sweet time
You can watch it come for miles, but you guess you’ve got awhile
So ease the throttle out a hair, every rod’s a gain
And there’s victory in every quarter mile. 

Poor old Kuzick down the road, the heartache,
     hail and hoppers brought him down—
He gave it up and went to town.
And Emmett Pierce the other day, took a heart attack and died at 42

You could see it coming on, ‘cause he worked as hard as you. 
In an hour, maybe more, you’ll be wet clear through
The air is cooler now, pull your hat brim further down
Watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Put another season’s promise in the ground. 

Many of Stan’s songs are about sad occasions and how they can be turned into cause for happiness. “Lies” is about a farm wife wondering if she is still beautiful after years of work.

Is this the face that won for her the man
Whose amazed and clumsy fingers slipped that ring upon her hand?
No need to search the mirror for the years
The menace in their message shouts across the blur of tears
So this is beauty’s finish! Like Rodin’s Belle Heauimere,
The pretty maiden trapped inside the ranch wife’s toil and care.
Well, after seven kids, that’s no surprise,
But why cannot her mirror tell her lies?

Then she shakes off the bitter web she wove,
And turns to set the mirror, gently, face down by the stove.
She gathers up her apron in her hand,
Pours a cup of coffee, drips Carnation from the can.

And 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.

Another song describes the feelings of a man who walks the decks of the ship he served on for many years, the night before she is to be broken up for scrap, and thinks how much he will miss her. Still another, “The Flowers of Bermuda,” describes a captain’s quick decision when his ship goes onto the rocks:

“Oh, Captain, are we all for drowning?”
     came the cry from all the crew,
The boats be smashed, how are we all then to be saved?
“For they be stove in through and through.”
“Oh are ye brave and hardy collier-men,
     or are ye blind and cannot see?
“The captain’s gig still lies before you whole and sound,
“It will carry all of you.”

 But when the crew was all assembled and the gig prepared for sea,

Twas seen there were but eighteen places to be manned
Nineteen mortal souls were we.
But cries the Captain, “Now, do not delay,
     nor do ye spare a thought for me.
“My duty is to save ye all now, if I can
“See ye return quick as can be.” 

Oh there be flowers in Bermuda, Beauty lies on every hand
And there be laughter, ease and drink for every man,
But there is no joy for me;
For when we reached the wretched Nightingale
     what an awful sight was plain
The Captain, drowned, was tangled in the mizzen-chains
Smiling bravely beneath the sea. 

He was the captain of the Nightingale, 21 days from Clyde in coal
He could smell the flowers of Bermuda in the gale,
When he died on the north rock shoal

One cannot help but contrast this with Stan’s hilarious song “The Athens Queen,” about a collection of drunken Newfoundlanders salvaging chickens, brandy, and a leather sofa from another wrecked ship. Whether the songs are sad and contemplative, or rollicking and humorous, or angry and powerful, they are invariably the kind of song that make a listener glad and proud to be part of the same human race that Stan is singing about. A song dedicated to his wife Ariel, “45 Years,” is a promise that love will last. He even has a song about tactfully turning down the amorous interest of a female fan and staying faithful while on the road, entitled “You Can’t Stay Here.” But what makes Stan Rogers stand out from other folksingers is his interest in modern life as a positive folk topic—his determination to include oil refineries and steamships in the realm of the human and admirable.

In a song about fighting modern rustlers, “Night Guard,” he again showed his admiration for the productive individual. The chorus contains all the anger against injustice that every victim feels:

He was star of all the rodeos, but now they rob him blind;
It took 18 years of Brahma bulls and life on the line;
To get this spread and a decent herd
But now he spends his time pulling night guard.

In a few brief lines we are brought into a vivid scene:

He never thought she’d wait for him at all
She wanted more than broken bones and trophies on the wall;
But when he quit and finally bought the farm
She ran into his arms—
And now they’ve got a kid.

Seventh one this summer yesterday
Half a year of profits gone, and now there’s hell to pay;
The cops say they know who, but there’s no proof
The bankers hit the roof—
And damn near took the car.

Stan Rogers was renowned—even resented, by some of his more traditional folk-music peers—for his tough, individualist moral stance. He stood against terrorism, against fraud and bullying, and for the right to liberty and property. “Night Guard” sets justice before us squarely:

He hears the wire poppin’ by the road
Sees the blacked-out Reo comin’ for another load
This time it’s not one they take, but two;
Two minutes, and they’re through
And laughing in the cab. 

And here will be the end of this tonight—
For all the proof he needs is lying steady in his sights
It may be just the worst thing he could do,
But he squeezes off a few—
Then makes his call to town.

It is always difficult to convey in print just how lyrics really sound, because they are written specifically to be heard along with music and sometimes scan strangely without the accompaniment. But when sung, his lyrics become poetry, and his songs emerge technically sound, strongly visual, and moving. When sung by him and accompanied by guitar and violin and flute, they are superb. They are written for his voice, with the deceptive simplicity of all folk music. In “Harris and the Mare,” a lifelong pacifist must fight and kill to save his wife and himself from a violent drunkard in a bar. Wounded, bleeding, he reaches the house of his friend Harris, to whom he tells his revelation:

With the wife as cold as clay, I carried her away
No hand was raised to help us through the door
And I’ve brought her half a mile, but I’ve had to rest awhile
And none of them I’ll call a friend the more 

For when the knife came down, I was helpless on the ground
No neighbor stayed his hand, I was alone
By God! I was a man, but now, I cannot stand
Please, Harris, fetch thy mare, and take us home 

Oh, Harris, fetch thy mare, and take us out of here
In my nine and fifty years I’d never known
That to call myself a man for my loved one I must stand
Now, Harris, fetch thy mare, and take us home.

Stan Rogers died in 1983, only thirty-three years old. Despite a long period of grieving, his younger brother Garnet has gone on writing songs and performing. Though Stan and Garnet are very different men with distinct artistic visions, some of the same spirit occasionally shows up in Garnet’s work, as in his 1992 “Small Victories” about a mare that seems destined for the knacker’s yard:

I recall her well ten years ago, she was a winner in her prime.
She was fast and lean and willing, but they raced her past her time.
And though she had the heart, her legs were gone,
And it wasn’t hard to see, they kept her at it
In the hopes of just one more small victory.

As they so often did in Stan’s songs, events find their way right in the end:

Well that was near two years ago, she’s filled out some since then.
The more so since she’s been in foal, she eats enough for ten.
And this morn as I crept to the barn, around ‘bout
half past three,
There stood nursing on still trembling legs, one more small victory.

Stan Rogers saw something of the nobility of the human spirit, and he had—has— the gift of persuading others to that cause, in the easy guise of entertainment and storytelling. His is art immunized against cynicism, unalienated, passionate and clear-eyed. His songs are one long love affair with the work that men and women do, the tractors and ships and roads and farms that we build and live with (and sometimes must die with).

There remains just one more song, with one more story, to tell: The song is “The Mary Ellen Carter,” Stan Rogers’ best-known and best-loved work. He wrote it, he said, as a “non-religious inspiration song.” At least one sailor swept overboard in the Atlantic can attest to its abiding popularity among Maritimers; for more than two hours he shouted out verses of the song while treading water in a storm until he was rescued.

In live performances, the song usually began with Stan teaching the chorus to the audience:

Rise again, rise again,
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men—
Those who loved her best, and were with her till the end,
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again

After which the tale was told:

She went down last October, in a pouring, driving rain;
The skipper he’d been drinking, and the mate he felt no pain.
Too close to Three Mile Rock and she was dealt her mortal blow—
And the Mary Ellen Carter settled low.
There was just us five aboard her when she finally was awash—
We’d worked like hell to save her, all heedless of the cost.
The groan she gave when she went down, it caused us to proclaim,
That the Mary Ellen Carter would rise again. 

Well, the owners wrote her off, not a nickel would they spend.
“She gave twenty years of service, boys, then met her sorry end.
But insurance paid the loss to us, so let her rest below.”
Then they laughed at us, and said we had to go.
But we talked of her all winter, some days around the clock,
For she’s worth a quarter-million, a-floatin’ at the dock—
And with every jar that hit the bar we swore we would remain
And make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

(Chorus)

All spring now we’ve been with her, on a barge lent by a friend—
Three dives a day in a hard-hat suit, and twice I’ve had the bends.
Thank God it’s only sixty feet, and the currents here are slow,
Or I’d never have the strength to go below.
But we patched her dents, stopped her vents,
     dogged hatch and porthole down—
Put cables to her fore and aft and girded her around—
Tomorrow
noon we hit the air, and then take up the strain
And make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again 

(Chorus)

For we couldn’t leave her there, you see, to crumble into scale;
She’d saved our lives so many times, living through the gale;
And the laughing, drunken rats who left her to a sorry grave—
They won’t be laughing in another day.
And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go—
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again! 

Rise again, rise again,
Though your heart it be broken,
Or life about to end
No matter what you’ve lost,
Be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

It was the high point of the music festival: the rain-drenched crowd of Calgarian oilfield hands and office workers, shouting out the choruses of “The Mary Ellen Carter” to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning and that great, booming voice. It left a larger-than-life, large-as-life-should-be impression. Stan Rogers, folk singer and moralist, was a splendid man, a proof that such men still exist and will never disappear.

The final story is about how Stan Rogers died. He was on an Air Canada flight traveling between Texas and Toronto, when the plane caught fire and was forced down in Cincinnati. Every tire burst on impact, and the fire moved so swiftly that only half of the passengers and crew got out alive. One of the women who survived says that, in the smoke and confusion, she went the wrong way and couldn’t find the exit. Before she could panic, “a big bald man” picked her up, turned her around, and pushed her out the door—but never emerged himself. It was Stan Rogers, who died on his feet, still trying.

Freelance writer Dean Brooks was for two years Associate Editor of ART Ideas.

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