Greatest Songs of My Lifetime: Special Friday Edition
The Greatest Folk Singer You’ve Never Heard Of
It’s a special Friday edition of “Greatest Songs of My Lifetime,” which we began during last Saturday’s Brunch. Pastor Dan will be hosting tomorrow’s weekly feast, so I thought I’d move the “Greatest Songs” piece to today.
My life has been blessed with wonderful music from singer-songwriters and musical artists who hail from Canada. People like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, the Guess Who, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Anne Murray, the Rankin Family, and many others, cut a significant swath through the soundtrack of my life.
But perhaps the finest singer-songwriter Canada ever produced is little known outside of folk circles. He died young, at age 33, in a tragic airplane fire in 1983, just when he seemed on the verge of breaking through to a wider audience.
His name was Stan Rogers, and his songs sprang organically out of the waters, the land, and the hearts of the people who inhabited the place he called home. One of his tunes, Northwest Passage, has come to be called Canada’s unofficial national anthem. The song compares the journeys of those who cut their way through icy waters to find a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with his own life’s journey: “tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage.”
One thing I love about folk music is its ability to tell stories of ordinary people and to honor them. Rogers had a gift for vividly portraying the mundane lives and yet fundamental beauty of common people, like the hard-working farmer in his song, “Field Behind the Plow”.
My favorite Stan Rogers song is a rousing anthem of determination and hope in the face of adversity. It became a Rogers concert favorite, and you will see why. The Mary Ellen Carter tells the story of a ship that sank and a crew that lost their jobs because the owners decided to take the insurance money rather than raise and reclaim their boat. With vigor, Rogers narrates how ordinary people, working together, can stand up to the “smiling bastards” who fleece them and retain their dignity and hope.
Surely the meek will rise again and inherit the earth.
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 and life about to end
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend
Then like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!