Stan Rogers On The Heights: Remembering Canada’s Working Class Chanticleer

Four full decades have come and gone this month since Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers (November 29, 1949—June 2, 1983) perished in an airplane fire whilst traveling from Texas to Toronto. Let’s especially remember his life this month as we revisit his music.

I can’t rightly recall exactly when I first came across Rogers’ tunes. As I pound out this essay I think my earliest memory of the man’s work was somewhere around 2012. I’d have still been teaching in Ridgefield at that point, for I remember his MacDonnell On The Heights was stuck in my head during class one day, and that this class was in the hallways, and 2012 was the only year we did that.

And if MacDonnell wasn’t my first go at Rogers, then it must have been Barrett’s Privateers around the same hour. Without exaggeration the children and I sang it hundreds of times going to and fro on our daily carpools.

“Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs,” I’ll always remember one blond angel singing with all the drama she could muster, “And the main trunk carried off both me’ legs!” And you’d always have to say “both” with especial saltiness, mind you, or I’d nigh on make them walk home. Rogers was able to take a 21st Century kindergartner and turn her into a grizzled, disillusioned 18th Century seadog.

It wasn’t Roger’s impressive baritone which did this alone, it was the music itself. It changed him too. How surprised I was to learn that the singer had never worked a day on a ship or an oil rig; that he was born well inland in Ontario! To hear his songs, which I really hope you’ll take up this month, you would have thought he had spent thirty years before the mast. Such is the power of art.

Once the kids and I had mastered Barrett’s, we set about smelling the Flowers Of Bermuda, startled with its ship-bound conundrum,

But when the crew was all assembled and the gig prepared for sea,
‘Twas seen there were but eighteen places to be manned, nineteen mortal souls were we.

But no worries, the brave leader steps forward,

But cries the Captain “Now do not delay, nor do ye spare a thought for me.
My duty is to save ye all now, if I can; see ye return as quick as can be.”

His was good music; it was manly music. It served me well manys the midnight shift line cooking and dishwashing. The dullard American population tolerates their children’s teachers taking wage work to supplement their chronic parsimony. Well, if I was going to be a victim of circumstance in those woely Ridgefield days I was at least going to be a well-sung victim of circumstance, and Stan Rogers’ music helped me with that.

And if I was a victim of circumstance, no doubt you’ve been one too. This condition is called history. It is the special power of folk music to knit one’s present situation, however mean, into a larger tapestry of meaning. Rogers’ music was able to ennoble fishermen and trappers and forgotten soldiers, and he was able to give working class slobs a shot in the arm by doing so.

Anyway, forty years postmortem, let’s go over a few of our man’s most enduring pieces. If we won’t be a Canadian pioneer or Maritime fisherman or Revolutionary privateer by the end of this piece, we’ll at least want to be one, and you’ll at least know something of the spirit which hewed a people out of the wilderness.

Let us take heed, those of us who while away our days with the froth of politics and the controversies of the hour, not until we delve into this hewing spirit, this thing which Stan Rogers’ music so well preserves, will any higher works of betterment obtain. Until we “get” art and culture, don’t hold your breath about elections, and Church politics, and stopping the New World Order, and economic reform, and all this jazz. Grace builds on nature, and art precedes froth, and you can bet your bippy that until the men of Canada and America, and whatever blessed hollow you haunt, grasp culture nothing of this control system will change. Until we verb culture, nothing greater will avail.

On the menu towards this end we’ve Rogers’ Northwest Passage, The Lock-Keeper, and The Idiot. 

At the end of this paper, I will also list some honorable, and more than honorable mentions; those excellent songs of Rogers’ which deadlines do not allow me to discuss.

We start with Northwest Passage.

Immediately in its acapella rendering we feel the barrenness of wild Canada. Yet this piece is epic in its scope and inspirational in its mood. On these points it is evocative of Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy. We are confronted from the jump with how stark the untamed wilderness is,

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 wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
Westward from the Davis Strait 'tis there 'twas 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.

The sobriety of the environment is made clear enough by the mention of John Franklin, and his ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the Passage. The only legacy of that trip, a journey which doubtless started with high hopes, are some remarkable mummies. However cool those corpses, corpses are all the expedition left.

This would all be a rough enough opening commentary on our songly environment, but we are on a mission to find the famed Northwest Passage. The Passage was that hoped-for route between east and west coasts of North America via northern Canada. Hence, we hear, “Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage.” While the passage was eventually found in the early-20th Century – and incredibly claimed by the United States’ attorneys to this day! – the mention of Franklin places us hearers at a time when the Passage was just a possibility. This is fundamentally a song about hoping against hope, of being a visionary when all about doubt you. This is a theme which Rogers reprises in The Mary Ellen Carter.

Of course, the loneliness of sticking to your guns when everyone says otherwise always brings with it the horrible herdish pule, “I told you so,” should failure in fact occur. Thus we hear the stark line, “And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.” The hero may be a hero, but even he may be buried in a rude caveman’s grave; “long-forgotten” for all his troubles.

Northwest Passage suddenly contrasts this by-gone precarity with modern ease, especially modern ease in travel.

Three centuries thereafter, I take passage overland
In the footsteps of brave Kelsey, where his Sea of Flowers began
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again
This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain.

The singer contrasts the starkness of voyageur Canada with latter days. His and ours is a time unimaginable to John Franklin and Alexander MacKenzie; MacKenzie who beat Lewis and Clark in crossing North America. From the horrible wilderness which swallowed and mummified Franklin and his men, a time would come when cities would be a dime a dozen to a traveler speeding by them.

And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west
I think upon Mackenzie, David Thompson, and the rest
Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me
To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.

“Who cracked the mountain ramparts,” has there ever been a better encapsulation of the adversarial conquest of man over nature?

How then am I so different from the first men through this way?
Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men
To find there but the road back home again.

Here, as in our next song, Lock-Keeper, the narrator contrasts two men. In Northwest Passage the modern narrator compares his devil-may-care attitude to the likes of Franklin. Rogers would extend this theme of contrast to objects. In Last Watch the musical narrator, who is soon coming up on mandatory retirement himself, sings to a ship which is to be junked on the morrow.

In the closing lines of Northwest Passage we sense Rogers is speaking close to home when he asks, “How then am I so different from the first men through this way?”

Our next song is Lock-Keeper.

It is set during a layover where a sailor and the titular lock-keeper contrast their avocations and the ties that bind them.

You say, “Well-met again, Lock-keeper!
We’re laden even deeper that the time before,
Oriental oils and tea brought down from Singapore.”
As we wait for my lock to cycle
I say, “My wife has given me a son.”
“A son!” you cry, “Is that all that you’ve done?”

The sailor and his swagger dominate the opening lines of this song. Trade evidently has gone well since the last time he’s been through this lock. He brags, “We’re laden even deeper that the time before.” And the sailor has traveled far and wide in pursuit of his lucre, and he means to let you know about it.

The lock-keeper speaks almost as an afterthought, having only one line of six in the stanza. His mention of a new son is hardly impressive to the far-traveled sailor. “Is that all that you’ve done?” he asked dismissively.

The lock-keeper then mentions his land-bound happinesses.

She wears bougainvillea blossoms.
You pluck ’em from her hair and toss ’em in the tide,
Sweep her in your arms and carry her inside.
Her sighs catch on your shoulder;
Her moonlit eyes grow bold and wiser through her tears
And I say, “How could you stand to leave her for a year?”

Our lock-keeper is not bragging in this stanza, but his confidence is certainly growing as we auditors learn about his domestic felicity along with the bold sailor.

Not to be outdone the cocky seaman puts his arm around the parochial lock-keeper and invites him to the lures of the sea. Leave this place, you Prufrock, where you are measuring your life out with coffee spoons. See the world! You’re dying by inches in this place, lock-keeper. Come to the sea! The sailor tempts,

“Then come with me,” you say,
“To where the Southern Cross rides high upon your shoulder.”
“Come with me!” you cry,
“Each day you tend this lock, you’re one day older,
While your blood runs colder.”

This tension between the static landlubber and the sailor is all very reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows river scene, and there’s a recording out there of Roger’s widow Ariel mentioning the influence of Kenneth Graham’s book on this song.

So quiet at first, the lock-keeper now has the last word on the vapidity of the sailors life, however sexy and exotic.

But that anchor chain’s a fetter
And with it you are tethered to the foam,
And I wouldn’t trade your life for one hour of home.

Notice how he turns the images of the sailor’s transience, the anchor which can be pulled up at a moment’s notice, into a shackle.

Finally, having patiently stayed quiet during the initial bragging, it’s the lock-keeper’s chance to dismiss the trophies of the sailor. Are all the frivolous notches on his belt anything compared to domestic felicity?

Sure, I’m stuck here on the Seaway
While you compensate for leeway through the Trades;
And you shoot the stars to see the miles you’ve made.
And you laugh at hearts you’ve riven,
But which of these has given us more love of life,
You, your tropic maids, or me, my wife?

Fundamentally, Lock-Keeper is a meditation on the stress a man feels between the freedom of bachelorhood and the obligations of marriage. People have been debating this for thousands of years. For our lock-keeper, however, the debate is over.

Our final song in this remembrance of fond Stan Rogers is The Idiot.

Of these three songs, The Idiot is probably the one most relatable to Rogers’ early-1980s audience. Canada went into recession in the song’s year of release, and unlike the United States, there was no Reagan riding to the rescue in Pierre Trudeau.

Like always happens in these failures, these things bankers and gombeen men say is as natural as breathing, people’s lives are up-ended during recessions.

We join one such disrupted person on his late-night shift.

I often take these night shift walks when the foreman's not around
I turn my back on the cooling stacks and make for open ground
Far out beyond the tank farm fence where the gas flare makes no sound
I forget the stink and I always think back to that Eastern town
We are placed in a far-away western gas field, reminiscing about home.
I remember back six years ago, this Western life I chose
And every day, the news would say some factory's going to close
Well, I could have stayed to take the dole, but I'm not one of those
I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose.

We find out the 1970s betrayal of the working class, the substitution of heavy industry for service sector work, was not solely an American phenomenon. If you cross over the hills here in western Connecticut, you will be in New York’s Catskills region. Complementing the ghost of the famous game farm, of happy memory, and millions of abandoned Jewish bungalows, is the beginning of the Rust Belt. You’ll see nothing but dying factory town after dying factory town, the carcass of a nation abandoned by its leaders to globalism. Cold comfort it is to know Rogers was documenting the equivalent betrayal of the Canadian middle class.

Also revealed in this second stanza with the song’s title. This upended working man is too proud to take handouts. As folk music is so good in doing, Rogers is able to sum up an entire type of man in one line. With a great deal of muted contempt, he says, “I’m not one of those.”

So I bid farewell to the Eastern town I never more will see
But work I must so I eat this dust and breathe refinery
Oh, I miss the green and the woods and streams and I don't like cowboy clothes
But I like being free and that makes me an idiot I suppose

The worker is reconciled to not seeing his hometown again, but his desire for independence trumps all the beauty he remembers.

So come all you fine young fellows who've been beaten to the ground
This western life's no paradise, but it's better than lying down
Oh, the streets aren't clean, and there's nothing green, and the hills are dirty brown
But the government dole will rot your soul back there in your hometown.

So often when reviewing Stan Rogers’ songs, we come back to the topic of character. What an old-fashioned word in these enlightened Hypermodern days! Who needs character in an age when adulterated adults believe “ghosting” is acceptable behavior? Well, time was character mattered. See in the above stanza the certainty that taking something for nothing will “rot your soul.”

So bid farewell to the Eastern town you never more will see
There's self-respect and a steady cheque in this refinery
You will miss the green and the woods and streams and the dust will fill your nose
But you'll be free, and just like me, an idiot, I suppose

We finish this song on a note of, if not solidarity, hearty commiseration. Not everyone is going to agree with our western oil worker that his rough relocation was worth it to keep his dignity and freedom. In fact, like in Northwest Passage, more people will think our subject is mad. But for the few of us who agree with him, he welcomes us – in fact he grammatically commands us – to join him on the dusty oil rigs. At least all of us “fine young fellows who’ve been beaten to the ground” by globalism and by life will keep our dignity.

By way of honorable mentions, as promised above, Barrett’s Privateers,

and our titular MacDonnell On The Heights

are clutch in appreciating the masculine adventurous spirit which so accented Rogers’ work.

Also, White Squall,

Harris & The Mare,

Tiny Fish For Japan

…are musts in unlocking the genius of our working class chanticleer. Most of Stan Rogers’ work is freely out there online, including a fair amount of modern and humorous songs like The White Collar Holler

Stan Rogers—in the immediate physical sense we’re used to—has been gone for forty years. It’s a strange thing to think that he has been dead longer than he was alive. He always seemed to be older than he was. Yes, it was his baldness, for Rogers wore that horseshoe hairdo we associate with wrinkly old men, which made him seem older; yes, I suppose it was his beautiful baritone voice, old by nature, which sang of a life fast slipping away by the 1980s, which made him seem older. Ultimately, though, there is something in folk music which requires an older soul to belt it out. The voice which could write and sing with such passion pieces like Northwest Passage, Lock-Keeper, and The Idiot was one such. And the spirit which runs throughout Stan Roger’s music ensures its play as long as there are men on this earth.

John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideasand is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut. Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at its website.