Fresh Water: The Legacy of Stan Rogers

I’m still reeling that so few people knew about Sandy Denny, but it inspired an idea: every month or so this blog will feature a tribute to an artist who’s no longer performing on this moral coil. Who better to launch this than the late, considerably great Stan Rogers (1949-83) of Ontario?

There are baritones and then there are baritones—Stan’s voice was so robust and rich that he could quiet a wind ripping across the Canadian prairie. But he was no Michael Bolton—when Stan wailed it was because the song demanded it. And he could also wrench more emotion from that deep voice than a shelf-full of weepies. Don’t believe me? Give a listen to “Lock-Keeper” or “First Christmas” and get back to me. (I cry every time I hear "Lock-Keeper.")

Stan Rogers hailed from the Hamilton area and, like so many artists, made a local splash, and cut a few (largely forgettable) singles before recording his first album, the Maritimes-flavored Fogerty’s Cove, in 1976. That one got some money from the Canadian government—yeah, there are still governments that support the arts—and became the first in an ongoing effort to capture the essence of Canada’s regions in song. He did a pretty good job of it before his life was cut short by an airplane accident in 1983. Between 1976 and 1983, Stan recorded five albums and left behind enough material for four posthumous recordings. My personal favorites are the 1979 live album Between the Breaks and From Fresh Water (1984), but you can’t go wrong with any of them. Stan’s repertoire was laced with Canadian folk, Celtic, and sea song influences, though most of what he sang was original material written in traditional styles. And what a writer he was! Feeling blue? “Mary Ellen Carter” sure has plucked me from the doldrums a few times. Want to sing like a pirate? “Barrett’s Privateers” will fit the bill and give you a cautionary tale at the same time. Want some salt in your face? His tribute to the “Bluenose” will answer. Feel like honoring the land? “The Field Behind the Plow” is one of Stan’s many songs that paid tribute to common folks. Fancy a good local tragedy? “Harris and the Mare” will break your heart. And talk about saving your best for last—his final song before his death was "House of Orange," as good a song as ever written on the insanity of Irish religious strife. He also fronted an amazing band that included his brother Garnet—well worth catching when he comes to your area—and standouts such as Grit Laskin and Curly Boy Stubbs.

Stan Rogers was one of twenty-three people who perished on the flight that rewrote aviation laws. He was aboard Air Canada Flight 797 when it was forced to make an emergency landing in Cincinnati because an idiot smoker set the plane on fire. (Why must we always endure such tragedies before we do logical things such as banning smoking on flying hunks of metal loaded with thousands of gallons of fuel?) There are two stories about Stan’s death—one that he died while trying to rescue others, and the second that we was too drunk to get out of his seat. I prefer the first story, but it’s a friggin’ tragedy no matter how you slice it. I had tickets in hand to see Stan just three days after the accident and still hold never having caught him live as among my life regrets. Luckily he left behind a body of work that’s as fresh now as it was three decades ago.

1 comment:

nevjay said...

Fantastic Blog. Thankyou. , too, am a Stan Rogers devotee. I have never heard such emotion expressed so clearly, about so many differing peoples - and sung so bloody well.

I can understand the great regret of not seeing Stan live. I came to know of his music 7 or so years after his death -I spent two summers in Nova Scotia and only heard Fogarty's Cove (really only Barratt's Privateers at parties). 2 decades later, I started exploring the rest of his music. What a waste of 20 years - although, I mightn't've appreciated all of his music when I was younger.

Some of my favourites: Guysborough Train;Mary Ellen Carter, 45 Years (is there a more emotive love song?); White Squall, Down the Road; First Christmas; White Collar Holler - and many, many more.