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Four decades later ~ the making of a legend

Bill Taylor writes: It’s 41 years this weekend – June 2, 1983 – that Stan Rogers died in a fire aboard an airliner after it had made an emergency landing and was in the midst of being evacuated. His life and what was set to be a brilliant career were cut heartbreakingly short. His best work surely was ahead of him, which makes the music he left behind all the more precious.

Stan Rogers was only 33. It’s hard to think of him without wondering where his rich baritone voice, distinctive DADGAD “Celtic” guitar tuning, songwriting abilities and compelling live performances might have taken him.

Pete Seeger described him as “one of the most talented singers and songwriters in North America.”

Tom Paxton said he was “to Canada what Woody Guthrie was to the United States.”

Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, praised his “extraordinary talent, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Bob Dylan.”

In 2021, Canada Post released a stamp commemorating “one of Canada’s most beloved and influential artists.”


(Stan Rogers postage stamp; illustration by Peter Strain)

Rogers was born in the Great Lakes industrial port city of Hamilton, Ontario. His parents came from the Maritimes and as he was growing up Rogers spent a lot of time visiting family in Nova Scotia. This was to have a huge influence on his music. In a short clip from a documentary about his life and legacy, he talks about how he’s always felt more at home there than in Ontario. And then he sings Make and Break Harbour from Fogarty’s Cove, the first of the four albums he made:

For my money, though, the song he did best isn’t one of his own, or even Canadian. It’s The Witch of the Westmorland, recorded during a 1979 club gig in Toronto.

Written by Archie Fisher, it tells of a wounded knight hunting down a sorceress – half woman, half horse – in the Lake District for some, let’s say, unorthodox life-saving treatment. It’s also been covered by, among others, Barbara Dickson and Kate Rusby.

It’s a full-blooded performance by Rogers and was included on his album Between the Breaks… Live! In the liner notes, he commented: “We have edited three verses from the original and modernised the language a little for the sake of having the story understood by the average North American...”

Another of Rogers’ best-known and best-loved songs is Barrett’s Privateers, set in the late 18th century during the American War of Independence. Privateers were sort of government-sponsored pirates, with a licence to prey on enemy merchant shipping.

The story, full of authentic period detail, is told by “a broken man on a Halifax pier,” smooth-talked (“We’d fire no guns, shed no tears”) into joining a crew of Nova Scotia fisherman for an ill-fated voyage to the Caribbean on a sloop hardly fit to sail, let alone fight.

Featured on Fogarty’s Cove and Between the Breaks… Live!, as well as a “best of” compilation album, it’s been covered numerous times by bands as far-ranging as Weddings Parties Anything in Australia to the McCalmans and the Corries in Scotland, and the Kingston Trio.

But it’s the title track from Rogers’ final album, Northwest Passage (1981), that is widely regarded as not only his best composition but one of the greatest Canadian songs of all time. In 2005, CBC Radio ranked it No. 4 (behind Neil Young’s Heart of Gold; the Barenaked Ladies’ If I Had a Million Dollars; and Ian and Sylvia’s Four Strong Winds). The Canadian Encyclopaedia says it’s “often hailed as Canada’s unofficial national anthem.”

Rogers started playing guitar when he was five, using a miniature instrument made for him by an uncle. Music and Maritimers go hand in hand, so at family gatherings there’d be a lot of singing, including the country and western tunes his uncles loved. By the time he was 12, Stan and his six-year-old brother Garnet were listening to C&W on the radio together and practising their harmonies. Stan played his first club date at the age of 14.

Garnet taught himself to play guitar, violin and flute and by his mid-teens was a member of Stan’s backup band. Stan, meanwhile, had sung and played bass in a couple of rock groups before getting seriously interested in folk music.

His last song, Down the Road, was recorded less than a week before he died. It’s the final track on the posthumous 1999 album From Coffee House to Concert Hall, a compilation of previously unreleased studio sessions and live performances.

Rogers was flying back from Dallas to Toronto after appearing at a Texas folk festival, when a fire started in one of the DC-9’s toilets. The cabin filled with smoke, forcing the airliner to land at Cincinnati’s main airport. The five crew members and 18 passengers escaped but then a flash-fire erupted and the plane was engulfed in flames. Rogers was among the 23 passengers who died.

Ironically, before the tragedy his music was not widely known outside the folk world, though he seemed on the brink of breaking through to a wider audience. Since his death, his reputation and recognition have grown steadily. Canso, Nova Scotia, hosts “Stanfest,” the Stan Rogers Folk Festival, in July every year. The three-day event attracts upwards of 10,000 people.

Garnet Rogers, who just turned 69, has long been recognised as a major talent in his own right. He’s toured with Archie Fisher and put out an album with him, Off the Map, in 1986. Garnet’s approach to music is less traditional than Stan’s, incorporating elements of rock, country and bluegrass. But he has that characteristic velvety baritone. There’s a definite family resemblance.

Then there’s Nathan Rogers, Stan’s son, a toddler when his father died. He’s 44 now and, as a folksinger, songwriter and recording artist, very much a chip off the old block. There are echoes of his dad’s voice, too.

It seems fitting then, as a tribute to Stan Rogers, to end this with Nathan performing Canada’s unofficial national anthem:



Rob Crew

He died, according to one report, while trying to save other passengers.
The Toronto Star was not going to put it on its front page until a rather junior copy editor created a fuss.

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