Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stan Rogers

His name was Stan Rogers. I didn't even know about him till long after he died. He was brought to my attention seven or eight years ago by P-Doug (and, ironically, a friend in New England), who was astonished and dismayed that I had never heard of the man. Ever since then, so have I been.

The United States is stuffed to the gills with people who sing about it, unabashedly, unreservedly. There seems to be no impediment at all to picking a city or a state or an event, or even the country itself, and just letting loose with your feelings in verse. That's something that's been so rare, nearly entirely absent in Canada. The few examples a Canadian was prone to hear at all seemed either so forced or so trivial as to make one blush and deepen the conviction there was nothing to say about this country. Certainly nothing to sing. There have been so few exceptions. Gordon Lightfoot and Stompin' Tom Connors are only a handful of examples that spring to mind when I think of English Canadians who can, and do, sing about this country and make it stick in an enduring way.

But there was also Stan Rogers.

Stan Rogers was kind of the opposite of me. He was born in Hamilton, Ontario to parents from the Maritimes and considered Halifax, Nova Scotia his home. I, on the other hand, was born in Halifax to parents from central Canada, and moved to Hamilton as a boy, to the province where my roots were and with which I've come to identify. We swapped birthrights, it seems. But we're both Canadians.

Stan took accessible, real-life things about Canada and wrote beautiful, singable songs about them. Most of what I know of his work comes from a live album, Home in Halifax. This is an album where he writes sobering but hopeful lyrics about a farmer watching his friends fall away as he struggles on; about the farm wife facing "beauty's finish, like Rodin's Belle Heaulmière", only to find herself forever beautiful in her husband's eyes at the the long-awaited Legion dance. Jocular songs about a rodeo rider made good fighting off cattle rustlers, or the Halifax privateer telling of his misadventures preying on Yankee shipping during the Revolutionary War. Frank but proud songs about easterners heading out west for work, either from factories in Ontario or the decimated fisheries of Newfoundland. On other albums, a paean to the other hero of the Battle of Queenston Heights, Brock's forgotten lieutenant and successor, John MacDonnell, whose brave (and personally fatal) charge leading the redcoats "set the heights aflame" and arguably saved the country from annexation in the War of 1812. Or the beautiful song I first heard by Rogers, long before I knew who he was: Northwest Passage, about the lost Franklin Expedition, as well as all the other explorers who opened up the country centuries ago. Who else writes songs like this? Who else could, without forcing a blush to the cheek of the average sanguine anglo Canadian? No one I can think of. But Stan Rogers did.

It bothers me he's not better known. That I could grow up and not have heard of him well into my 30s. What's wrong with this country that this man isn't mentioned in conversation on a nearly daily basis, his songs heard at every public function, sporting event, and cottage weekend?

Stan Rogers died, far, far too soon and too young, at just 33, in an airplane fire on the runway at a Cincinnati area airport in June, 1983, coming back from an event in Texas. He was on his way home. Five days before he died, a recording was made of the last song he performed in public. This is that song... Down the Road. For this, and everything else you gave us and never got the chance to, Stan... thank you.

MacDonnell on the Heights
Night Guard
The Idiot
Free in the Harbour
The Field Behind the Plow
Northwest Passage


jim said...

If Canada had the US's nationalistic spirit, this guy would have been impossible to avoid on the radio in his day, and would be considered a cultural icon today.

barefoot hiker said...

Alas for Stan... he should have been born in Rochester. :)