It is hard to believe that as of next June, thirty years will have passed since an all-too-young Stan Rogers departed this earth at the age of 33 in the inferno of Air Canada 797 on the tarmac at the Greater Cincinnati Airport. Flight 797 reported smoke in the cabin mid-air and made an emergency landing, and during the evacuation of the passengers a flash fire erupted, trapping and killing the 23 souls still on board, of which Rogers was one. He was on his way home to Ontario at the time of his death, returning from a triumphant appearance at the famed Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, with the consequent promise of wider exposure in the U.S. to supplement his phenomenal popularity in his native Canada. As with any other death of one so young, even decades later there remains a lingering melancholy over all that promise unfulfilled, all those tales and tunes that Rogers might have produced had he had the chance to do so. The composer who left behind him wonderful creations like "Barrett's Privateers" and "Northwest Passage," which were written around the time he was 30, was growing visibly in his songwriting craft album by album, and where that growth might have taken him over the next three decades is something that we can never know. Some of Rogers' more enthusiastic followers have declared him to be Canada's greatest songwriter - sadly, not likely in the nation that has produced Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ian Tyson, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn and more. That is not to denigrate Rogers, really, as much as to underscore the aforementioned sense of loss that his death engendered.
It may at first seem odd to make so apparently tragic a story the topic of a post that celebrates the end of one calendar year and looks hopefully toward the next. Not so at all, I would say, because even in his short life and career, Rogers had developed an ability that one finds rarely and only in the most sensitive of artists, the capacity to see and express the dignity and resilience of the human spirit, even or perhaps especially in times of difficulty and travail. The hardscrabble life of the small farmer, for example, seldom finds as noble an expression as it does here in Rogers' "The Field Behind The Plow" - not even in John Steinbeck or James Agee:
All the attributes of a great folk artist are apparent here - the superior vocals of Rogers' rounded baritone, the impeccably supportive instrumental arrangement, the simplicity of story and lyric that makes it sound as though the age of "The Field Behind The Plow" could be measured in centuries rather than decades. And what stands at the center of this wonderful composition is a recognition of the essential and enduring heroism at the core of the what it means to be human. Or as Don McClean put it in another fine contemporary folk song, "Weathered faces lined in pain/Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand" - which is precisely what Rogers has accomplished here.
I had been dimly aware of Rogers at the time of his death, mainly from hearing the occasional random cut from one of his early albums on FM radio. I thought his voice was pleasant, sort of a more refined and richer version of Tommy Clancy's, but little else about his work leaped out and grabbed me until about fifteen years later. I have always been possessed of a restless and wandering spirit, and from the late 70s through the late 90s, I had seized every possible opportunity to go wandering around the vast stretches of North America's Big Empty, from the Great Basin to the northern Plains to Alaska and to the crown jewel of it all, western Canada from Saskatchewan on the east and south to the Pacific and Arctic coasts, along the few and mostly gravel highways that traverse Alberta and BC and the Yukon and the old Northwest Territories. I have spent months and months and months of my life in the Canadian sub-Arctic and Arctic regions, mostly alone.
Knowing this and having seen a PBS special on Canada that used Rogers' songs as the soundtrack, my brother John bought several of Rogers' albums, copied some songs from them that he thought I would like, and sent the tape to me as a Christmas present. I was transfixed by the first song in the collection, "Northwest Passage," because it seemed almost written for me:
This was something special - the testament of a solitary wanderer who discovers himself in the process of trying to discover his land and its history. It was something I myself had tried to do, both in my own country and in Rogers', but which I think we all have tried to do in our own ways, even if we have traveled widely only in our own imaginations and have spent our lives working the fields behind our own plows.
Which brings us to "The Mary Ellen Carter," which may well prove to be Stan Rogers' most enduring song. The incident described in the lyric is as fictitious as are the events of "Barrett's Privateers," but like the latter number, there is in it a truth that transcends mere facts. The story of a small group of men trying to accomplish a virtually impossible task and succeeding by dint of "arm and heart and brain" though adversity seems to have gotten the best of them - this is Rogers at his uplifting and optimistic best:
Probably nothing else that Rogers has written, nor likely any other lyric written in Canada in the last three decades or so, has become as famous as that wonderful conclusion:
And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Rise again, rise again - though your heart it be broken
And life about to end
No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend.
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
And that is precisely what makes "The Mary Ellen Carter" the perfect song with which to look forward to a new year as we try to move past the darkness of the passing one.
After Rogers' own version, I think I like best the effort of the late Dave Guard, co-founder of the Kingston Trio, recorded for his 1988 solo album Up and In, nearly thirty years after he left the group he organized:
Guard had had a rough go of it at times in the decades after he left the Trio, and he was less than three years away from his own terribly premature death at 56 in 1991. I have always thought I heard a special kind of affirmation in the way Guard sings this song, especially in the last verse.
Stan Rogers' singing was clearly influenced by the gusto and energy of the vocal style of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, so it is no wonder at all that Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, a successful duo for many years after the original group had broken up, would interpret Rogers' composition with - signature gusto and energy:
I would think that Rogers must have been thrilled to have heard his creation so well interpreted by the progenitors of his own musical style.
Maine's Schooner Fare, originally a trio at the time of this recording before the death of member Tom Rowe, presents the tune a bit more reflectively...
...but hitting the appropriate crescendo at the final verse and chorus.
The last word for this week and year will belong to Stan Rogers himself. There is a story famous among Rogers aficionados about this song and the sinking of the Marine Electric - I was going to summarize it until I found that in this clip from a CBC special on Rogers, the actual sailor involved tells the story himself, immediately before a live performance with a shortened lyric by Rogers. It is a good and inspiring way to end this year, and may we all Rise Again in the coming twelvemonth.