Stan Rogers performs “Northwest Passage." From You Tube.
While still at teacher's college in 1970, Rogers was signed to RCA Canada and released the single, "Here's to You, Santa Claus." Not interested in RCA's vision of turning him into a novelty act, Canada's answer to Burl Ives, Rogers moved on. He spent the next years honing his skills at folk clubs and festivals, for a short time as part of Cedar Lake, a folk music collective that also included artists like Gord Lowe, Brent Titcomb, David Essig and Roger's friend and future producer, Paul Mills. He also had a brief turn playing bass in Tranquillity Bass, a semi-legendary Ontario band that launched the career of Ian Thomas.
After another failed recording contract, this time with American folk label Vanguard, Rogers all but gave up on mainstream record companies. He did some early recording with CBC radio in Halifax and for Sylvia Tyson's radio show "Touch the Earth," then in 1976 recorded his first album, Fogarty's Cove. It was released by Barn Swallow Records, a private company funded by Mitch Podalak, artistic director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The album reflected Rogers's early maritime influences, with demo tracks recorded in a young Daniel LANOIS's basement studio. Including signature songs like "Barrette's Privateers" and "Forty-Five Years," the album sold well, mostly through direct sales off the stage and through a mail order service run by Stan's parents. Rogers released three more albums during his life. Turnaround (1977) reflected more contemporary influences, particularly the songs of Joni MITCHELL, and included the popular ballad "The Jeannie C." Between the Breaks... Live (1979) was a live set recorded at the Groaning Board restaurant in Toronto. The album aptly captured the energy of Rogers's show and introduced a new standard to his repertoire: "The Mary Ellen Carter." Northwest Passage (1981) saw Rogers's songwriting skills mature and his focus expand beyond the maritime experience. While many of the songs, including "The Idiot" and "Free in the Harbour," were to become folk festival staples, it was the title song that captured the imagination of his audience. Today, this ode to everyday heroes is widely considered one of the finest songs to ever come out of this country, and is often hailed as Canada's "unofficial national anthem."
By now, Rogers was on the verge of stardom. Touring with his brother Garnet on guitar, fiddle and flute and bass player Jim Morison, Rogers was filling large halls on Canada's east coast and headlining folk venues across Canada and along the eastern seaboard of the US. He seemed destined for the kind of crossover success that few folk artists achieve. But, on the way home from a feature performance at a prestigious music festival in Kerrville, Texas, the electrical system in Rogers's plane malfunctioned and the aircraft caught on fire. En route from Dallas to Toronto, the plane made an emergency landing in Cincinnati: half of the 46 passengers and crew escaped before the plane burst into flames. Stan Rogers was dead at 33.
The folk music world was stunned by the news, and the tributes flowed. Peter Yarrow, of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, called Rogers "an extraordinary talent" and likened him to Bob Dylan, while Tom Paxton said that Rogers "was to Canada what Woody Guthrie was to the United States." Even Pete Seeger, the father of the American folk boom, was impressed, calling Rogers one of the "most talented singers and songwriters" in North America. At home, he finally found the widespread recognition that had eluded him in life. In 1984 the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences nominated him for an award as Male Vocalist of the Year, his first JUNO nomination. He lost to Bryan ADAMS. That year Rogers was also granted the Diplomme d'honneur, the highest award for artists in the country.
Within months of his death, two more Rogers albums were released. The first was For the Family, an album of traditional folk songs, including a couple written by Stan's uncle Lee Bushell. Recorded at Lanois's Grant Ave. Studio in Hamilton, the album was a commission for the Folk Tradition label. Rogers's final studio recording was his masterpiece, From Fresh Water. A collection of songs about Ontario and its inland waters, the album was Rogers's most ambitious and personal work, offering a perfect blending of the traditional and singer-songwriter styles. "Tiny Fish for Japan," "Lock Keeper" and the magnificent "White Squall" have been widely covered by other artists.
In the ensuing years, Rogers's Fogarty's Cove Music, now run by his widow, Ariel, has released three more albums. Home in Halifax (1994) features a live recording from a 1992 concert at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax. The album, co-produced by the CBC, features a fine sampling of Rogers's best work and includes one previously unreleased gem, "Sailor's Rest." The album earned Rogers his second posthumous Juno nomination, but once again yielded no award. Poetic Justice (1996) offers two CBC radio plays, one based on Rogers's song "Harris and the Mare" and the other a maritime fantasy by Silver Donald Cameron called "The Sisters." Both plays were produced by Rogers's long-time collaborator Bill Howell and feature songs and score by Rogers. From Coffee House to Concert Hall (1999) collected rare and previously unreleased tracks. Fifteen of the songs were Rogers's originals, and a number of them, eg. "Day by Day," "Your Lakers Back in Town" and, in particular, "The Puddler's Tale," stand up to his best work.
Rogers's impact on Canadian music and culture is profound. He was an early popularizer of traditional Celtic music, helping to pave the way for widespread acceptance of such artists as SPIRIT OF THE WEST, THE RANKINS and Great Big Sea. He was also a music industry pioneer, whose success as an independent artist - six of his albums have gone platinum, with sales of more than 100 000 copies each - inspired others and contributed to the development of Canada's thriving independent music scene. His greatest impact, though, is as a songwriter. Dozens of artists around the world have recorded Rogers's music, while songs like "Barrett's Privateers," "The Mary Ellen Carter" and "Northwest Passage" are modern folk classics. Indeed, while Rogers still gets little radio airplay outside of the Maritimes and the CBC, his work has gradually filtered into the vernacular. "Barrett's Privateers" is a favourite barroom singalong, although many do not realize that this traditional song was actually penned in the 1970s by one of their countrymen. Meanwhile, lines from "Northwest Passage" are frequently quoted, most notably by Governor General Adrienne CLARKSON, who in 1999 concluded her first public speech with a Rogers' quote about tracing "one warm line, through a land so wild and savage."
His reputation continues to grow. The subject of a poem by Al Purdy, who titled his 1993 autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea after a line in "Northwest Passage," and the focus of two East Coast tribute albums in the mid-1990s featuring such popular artists as The Rankins, The Irish Descendants and Matt Minglewood, Rogers's influence has moved well beyond the narrow corridors of folk music. A 1983 biography of the singer was a national bestseller, and 10 years later an online petition to get Rogers inducted into the Juno Canadian Music Hall of Fame, sponsored by Vancouver cultural magazine Geist, was national news and garnered 10 000 signatures in less than four weeks. Analogies to Dylan and Guthrie persist, but Rogers defies all comparison. He was a unique artist, whose art and presence personified an entire country and lifted the abstract notion of "Canadian culture" to the highest levels of art.
Author CHRIS GUDGEON
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