Greatest Songs of My Lifetime: Special Friday Edition

Stan Rogers, 1982 Edmonton Folk Festival. Photo by Brian at Flickr. Creative Commons License

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!

16 thoughts on “Greatest Songs of My Lifetime: Special Friday Edition

  1. Thanks Seneca….I love Gordon Lightfoot and have seen him twice in the last few years here in Georgia.


  2. Ted, as I was writing this, I thought to myself, “I’ll bet Ted likes Stan Rogers too.” I haven’t listened to Gordon Bok in years, but remember getting a couple of his records out of the library when we lived in Vermont. Man, I wish you guys and Gail and I and the Zehners could get together sometime. We are really kindred spirits, especially when it comes to music.


  3. Mike! I didn’t know you were a Stan Rogers fan!

    All of the songs you’ve listed are incredible, and I’d add “Barrett’s Privateers” to the list, just for a start. Here’s part of a documentary where Stan and his piratey friends are around the kitchen table singing it. I’d call it a ballad, but it’s in the style of a chantey. Americans should prepare themselves for the culture shock of being on the wrong side of history (I always get that feeling when I’m in a maritime museum in Canada).

    One of my regrets in life is not buying a Stan Rogers cassette for my Dad before he died. He would have liked this stuff.

    For a tribute to Stan from another of my favorite folksingers—Scottish-Australian Eric Bogle—listen to “Safe in the Harbour.” In the recording, Bogle describes meeting Stan Rogers and sharing a few bottles of Glenfiddich with him.

    Kate Wolf was in with this crowd too; Eric Bogle also wrote a tribute song to her after she died (Katie and the Dreamtime Land). Kate dedicated an album to Stan Rogers, and also included his lyrics in the title of a tribute song she wrote for him (All He Ever Saw Was You). She died of leukemia at age 44, a few years after Stan.

    Eric Bogle survives, but I think he feels defeated after the recent death of his sidekick John Munro, who played mandolin and sang a great harmony. I heard Bogle and Munro here in Maine about 10 years ago, one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to.

    If you like Rogers, try also our Maine folksinger Gordon Bok. A similar baritone voice to Rogers, and a lot of sea songs too. I especially like his earlier music with Ann Muir and Ed Trickett.

    And to make life more difficult, there’s an annual Stan Rogers Festival in Nova Scotia. Don’t know if I’ll make it.


  4. Wow – so many life moments have been accompanied by a Stan Rogers or Rogers-inspired tune. Just a few: my three year old daughter in the back seat of the car demanding to hear “Finding Franklin” (Northwest Passage) over and over again on the trip from day care; crying alone in the house after my mother died and listening to “First Christmas Away From Home”; sitting in the cockpit of a sailboat at anchor in the Chesapeake at the end of summer humming Eric Bogle’s “Safe in the Harbor”, his eulogy to Stan. Glad to see some more appreciation out there.


  5. Oh, my, goodness.

    Stan Rogers was my favorite folk singer back in the days when he was playing the corner bars in the upper Midwest. I remember one concert where I poured dimes and nickels into his hands at intermission to pay for his songbook.

    And on a morning not unlike today, when I was slowly shaking off sleep, I turned on public radio to hear The Mary Ellen Carter played, and then, the horror, to hear his obituary. It was 1983.

    You know, I think Stan Rogers is still my favorite folk singer. I’m missing all the music he would have written, might have written, in the years since that horrible day.

    Thanks for the memories, CM


  6. The beauty of imagination! His in hearing the music and the lyrics and yours in living them with Head and Shoulders in your hair.


  7. It would amuse the late Stan Rogers to know just how many miles I’ve mentally trekked across the barren wastes of the Canadian Arctic to reach the Northwest Passage. In the shower.


  8. Nice! We all have been enriched by Canadian musicians. I go faithfully to two music festivals each year, and there is always at least one Canadian band. I don’t think we could do the Indiana Fiddlers Gathering or the Indy Irish Fest without Canadians. Meanwhile, Stan Rogers has become “a wandering presence in the Maritime – or Canadian even – psyche.”


  9. I was 11 years old when this song was released and received heavy airplay on the radio. It made an indelible impression on me, the lyrics and tune sunk into my memory forever; now at 60 I still sing this song to myself at work.


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