Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Stan Rogers' untimely passing would give "Northwest Passage" the sad distinction of being the last recording released by the artist during his lifetime. He was working on an ambitious concept that involved writing entire albums around the theme of specific regions in Canada. His first two sets dealt with the concerns of the Atlantic Provinces. "Northwest Passage" was devoted to life in the western prairies and the north. I rank it as his finest collection of songs.
Rogers was a wordsmith, possessed of a rich baritone voice and the soul of a poet who crafted intelligent music that continues to inspire anyone lucky enough to be introduced to it. The title track, once hailed as the alternate Canadian national anthem, details the futility of the quest that early explorers undertook to find a route across Canada to the Pacific ocean. Rendered a cappella, here's an excerpt of the chorus.
Unfortunately, there is not enough video catching him in performance to be found online.
This music has been in my life well over thirty years, thanks to my mom, though I didn't really appreciate it until she took me to see him in concert in the early 80's. When I eventually learned to play, the true depths of his talent really became evident.
One of the most depressing stories I have ever heard involving Stan came from a good friend of mine (and fellow fan). My buddy and a small group were driving through the desert toward Vegas, with various types of music providing the soundtrack. It was his turn to pick a CD, so he threw in "Northwest Passage". No fewer than three songs elapsed before a whiny, sing-song voice was raised in protest from the back seat.
"Could we, like, turn off this stupid country music?!?"
To keep the peace, he shook his head in disgust and switched to something else. Ignorance, it's not just for breakfast anymore.
Far from writing "stupid country music", Rogers turned in work that had diverse roots in folk and traditional forms. "The Field Behind the Plow" is one of the most eloquent and heart wrenching tributes to the men and women who toil quietly to help provide the food on our tables that we too often take for granted. Equally beautiful is the metaphor employed in lyrics of "Free in the Harbour" which compares the extensive whale hunting in times past to ongoing oil exploration and how these creatures are no longer pursued in favor of extracting an entirely different type of "oil from the sea". It is one of his greatest compositions, which says a lot as he had many that defied gravity.
Regardless of the subject matter, he infused the characters that populated his writing with a wonderful accessibility. You knew them or at least had a sense that you did. Skipping an afternoon of work to escape a few hours of drudgery, the protagonist in "Working Joe" steals some time to relax. Managing to balance light hearted fun with a touch of pathos, the tune also swings. "The Idiot" takes up an all too familiar tale of young men leaving their hometowns in the east to work in the oil patches of the west. Being a maritimer, I know this all too well as my parents were lured there in the mid 70's by the offer of high paying teaching jobs that didn't exist in our own area. Stan wrote for everyone and he captured the west as masterfully as he did in his earlier paeans to the east coast.
I would highly recommend this and all of his discography to anyone with a love for smart, well played, heartfelt music. He was real, living and breathing his craft.
Brilliant, outspoken, opinionated and on the cusp of greater notoriety, Rogers left the world in a fire aboard Air Canada flight 797 on June 2, 1983. He was just 33 years old. Such promise, of new music to be made, stories yet to be told, all disappeared with him in an instant. My mom, who remained stoic and level headed regardless of circumstances, wept openly that day. She wasn't alone.
Though not part of this set, here he is performing "The Mary Ellen Carter", one of his signature songs.