Stan Rogers was born November 29, 1949 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada—and to the end of his tragically foreshortened life on June 2, 1983 was a proud Canadian. He died in Hebron, Kentucky on board Air Canada Flight 797 in a plane crash coming home from the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, after performing with his band—who were not on board. Canada and the world lost an irreplaceable artist that day, a folk singer who forty-five years later remains an icon of moral authority.
Let me tell you his story. To highlight this anniversary, we’ll begin with his song:
(This is for my wife—Ariel Rogers)
Where the earth shows its bones of wind-broken stone
And the sea and the sky are one
I’m caught out of time, my blood sings with wine
And I’m running naked in the sun
There’s God in the trees, I’m weak in the knees
And the sky is a painful blue
I’d like to look around, but honey, all I see is you
The summer city lights will soften the night
Till you’d think that the air is clear
And I’m sitting with friends, where forty-five cents
Will buy another glass of beer
He’s got something to say, but I’m so far away
That I don’t know who I’m talking to
Cause you just walked in the door, and honey, all I see is you
And I just want to hold you closer
Than I’ve ever held anyone before
You say you’re twice a wife and you’re through with life
Ah but honey what the hell’s it for?
After twenty-three years you think I could find
A way to let you know somehow
I just want to see your smiling face
Forty-five years from now.
So alone in the lights on stage every night
I’ve been reaching out to find a friend
Who knows all the words, sings so she’s heard
And knows how all the stories end
Maybe after the show she’ll ask me to go
Home with her for a drink or two
Now her smile lights her eyes, but honey, all I see is you (Final Chorus)
From the Bi-Centennial—1976—when 45 Years was recorded on his first album—Fogarty’s Cove—until today—2021, 45 years later—we are at last at the date Stan was looking towards when he wrote his signature love song to his wife. But Stan Rogers died on June 2, 1983—from a plane crash just six days after his May 28 concert at McCabe’s—followed by his stopover at the Kerrville Folk Festival—so he never lived to see those 45 years. He was only 33 when he died from smoke inhalation trying to save other passengers on the doomed Air Canada Flight 797:
Stan Rogers, the Canadian folk singer, aged 33, was a victim on the flight. Rogers is known for songs such as Northwest Passage, The Mary Ellen Carter and Barrett’s Privateers. He was going home on Flight 797 after attending the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. He died of smoke inhalation.
So it is up to us to look back for him, and to wonder what he might have made of them. Canada’s best songwriter—in a country whose heritage is filled with great songwriters— Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Ste.-Marie, and Ian Tyson—what can we say of Stan?
We may start by noting that all but one of them—Stan Rogers himself—are Canadian in name only—look for example at Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song:
Tower Of Song
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song
I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song
Hank Williams tells you right off the bat that this is an American tower of song.
Joni Mitchell sings of a Big Yellow Taxi, where
They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot
Where would they charge “a dollar and a half” just to see ‘em—in America—where they “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
And where is Neil Young’s Heart of Gold?
I’ve been to Hollywood
I’ve been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold
I’ve been in my mind
It’s such a fine line
That keeps me searching for a heart of gold
Again, in America! Not Canada.
Indigenous Cree Buffy Ste-Marie’s famous early song for the Indian– Now That the Buffalo’s Gone—celebrates the disappearing Native American, but leaves out her own Canadian heritage, for she was born on the Piapot Reserve, Saskatchewan, Canada:
Has a change come about Uncle Sam
Or are you still taking our land?
A treaty forever George Washington signed
He did dear lady, he did dear man…
I wish she had told me about her own land, as well as George Washington’s.
Two more great Canadian songwriters will illustrate what makes Stan Rogers stand apart and alone: Ian Tyson and Gordon Lightfoot—first Someday Soon by Tyson:
There’s a young man that I know, his age is twenty-one
Comes from down in southern Colorado
Just out of the service, he’s looking for the sun
Someday soon, going with him someday soon
Later on he’ll be “driving in tonight from California.”
And finally The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Lightfoot:
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?
Make no mistake: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Ian Tyson, Buffy Saint-Marie and Gordon Lightfoot are all great songwriters, but except for the last named Canadian Railroad Trilogy, I don’t think of them as great Canadian songwriters, whereas with Stan Rogers, the association is unmistakable and unavoidable. Stan is as inextricably bound to Canada as Woody Guthrie is to America. He is the voice of Canada, as surely as Woody is the voice of America. His Northwest Passage is widely considered Canada’s unofficial national anthem:
Northwest Passage (Stan Rogers)
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea
Westward from the Davis Strait ’tis there it was said to lie
The sea route to the Orient for which so many died
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones*
*In the Canadian Maritimes, cairns have been used as beacons like small lighthouses to guide boats.
His song The Mary Ellen Carter—the song closest in theme and spirit to Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is defined by its proximity to Canada’s seascape “Too close to Three Mile Rock” in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Stan Rogers’ most traditional-sounding song of the sea, however, may well be Barrett’s Privateers, with its tell-tale chorus:
God damn them all! I was told
We’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears
Now I’m a broken man on the Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s privateers.”
White Squall This dramatic song paints a vivid picture:
Now it’s just my luck to have the watch, with nothing left to do
But watch the deadly waters glide as we roll north to the ‘So’*
And wonder when they’ll turn again and pitch us to the rail
And whirl off one more youngster in the gale
The kid was so damned eager. It was all so big and new
You never had to tell him twice, or find him work to do
And evenings on the mess deck he was always first to sing
And show us pictures of the girl he’d wed in spring
But I told that kid a hundred times “Don’t take the Lakes for granted
They go from calm to a hundred knots so fast they seem enchanted”
But tonight some red-eyed Wiarton girl lies staring at the wall
And her lover’s gone into a white squall
* “as we roll north to the So.” refers to Sault Ste. Marie on the Ontario side of the Lakes versus the south, or Michigan side. Stan Rogers uses geography in his songs to underscore his Canadian roots. He’s very precise in his descriptions—his metaphors have meaning—they are not just suggestive. He always hears Canada singing.
In December’s last song—First Christmas—he uses a British figure of speech to emphasize the Canadian as opposed to the American sources of his family: “When the “old girl” passed away…” And to anyone who has had to place a loved one in a nursing home (as I have), Rogers’ culminating images will bring tears to your eyes—as they did mine—distinguishing the “flashing Santa Claus on top” from the homemade ornament you remember as a kid. It is just as someone once described it: The saddest Christmas song ever—and this from an artist who would pass away at such a young age.
When the “old girl” passed away
He fell apart more every day
Each had always kept the other pretty well
But the kids all said the nursing home was best
‘Cause he couldn’t live alone
First Christmas away from home
In the common room they’ve got the biggest tree
And it’s huge and cold and lifeless
Not like it ought to be
And the lit-up flashing Santa Claus on top
It’s not that same old silver star
You once made for your own
First Christmas away from home
As Dylan put it so memorably—Death Is Not the End.
Four Strong Winds (Ian Tyson)
NEW VERSION by Ross Altman
Bonnie Dobson, Gordon Lightfoot, and Buffy Ste. Marie
Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia and Neil Young
Leonard Cohen, Oscar Brand and Stan Rogers sing for me
Un Canadien Errant~ Long may all your songs be sung.
Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change come what may
My good times are all gone
And it’s time for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.
One wind’s for Nova Scotia and two’s for Ontario
Three is for New Brunswick and Four is Quebecois
July 1, 1867 a hundred fifty years ago
Dominion Day Canada’s Sesquicentennial. (Ch)
You were there in 1967 when my lottery number came up
And the antiwar road not taken led me north to you|
And you were there during slavery times when they sang of Canaan Land
So no matter what you’ve lost be it a home, a love, a friend
Like the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!. (Final Chorus)
That’s why Stan Rogers remains Forever Young.
In memory of Roz and Howard Larman of KPFK’s Folkscene, who broadcast Stan’s last concert.
Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); belongs to Local 47 (AFM); heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club; writes for www.folkworks.org; may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org