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
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.
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
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
Well, I could have stayed to take the dole, but I’m not one
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
“Northwest Passage,” sung a capella, Stan praised the
great explorers of North America:
And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage
I think upon Mackenzie, David Thompson and the rest,
Who cracked the mountain ramparts, and did show a path for
To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.
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
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
Watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Feel the trickle in your clothes, blow the dust cake from
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
To see that maiden shining in his eyes,
And laugh at how her mirror tells her lies.
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
“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
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
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
He could smell the flowers of
in the gale,
When he died on the north rock shoal
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
She was fast and lean and willing, but they raced her past
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.
so often did in Stan’s songs, events find their way right in
Well that was near two years ago, she’s filled out some
The more so since she’s been in foal, she eats enough for
And this morn as I crept to the barn, around ‘bout
There stood nursing on still trembling legs, one more small
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
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.
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
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
Too close to Three Mile Rock and she was dealt her mortal
And the Mary Ellen Carter settled low.
There was just us five aboard her when she finally was
We’d worked like hell to save her, all heedless of the
The groan she gave when she went down, it caused us to
That the Mary Ellen Carter would rise again.
Well, the owners wrote her off, not a nickel would they
“She gave twenty years of service, boys, then met her sorry
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
For she’s worth a quarter-million, a-floatin’ at the dock—
And with every jar that hit the bar we swore we would
And make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.
All spring now we’ve been with her, on a barge lent by a
Three dives a day in a hard-hat suit, and twice I’ve had
Thank God it’s only sixty feet, and the currents here are
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—
hit the air, and then take up the strain
And make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again
For we couldn’t leave her there, you see, to crumble into
She’d saved our lives so many times, living through the
And the laughing, drunken rats who left her to a sorry
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
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.
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.
story is about how Stan Rogers died. He was on an Air Canada
flight traveling between
when the plane caught fire and was forced down in
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,
writer Dean Brooks was for two years Associate Editor of
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