A born musical story-teller, songwriter Stan Rogers was a man big in stature with an authoritative, warm baritone voice to match. His original songs, rooted in Canadian history, made him a national hero through the 1970s until his tragic sudden death in 1983.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario in November 1949, Stan Rogers absorbed the sounds of traditional music while spending summers in his mother’s hometown of Canso, Nova Scotia. He got his first guitar at age five — a handmade miniature instrument that an uncle gave him for Christmas. In his teens he performed in Ontario coffeehouses and folk clubs. In 1969 he turned professional, appearing at festivals through Ontario and the Maritime provinces.
Rogers gained national prominence playing his own folk-roots compositions for CBC Radio and on “Celtic Godfather” John Allan Cameron’s popular TV show. In the 1970s he appeared (often with his brother Garnet) at such prestigious events as the Mariposa and Winnipeg Folk Festivals, winning over audiences nation-wide with his authentic celebrations of Canadian culture and experience.
He released his first album, “Fogarty’s Cove,” in 1976, produced by the legendary Daniel Lanois. Introducing such Rogers classics as the love song Forty-Five Years and the bravely a capella sea shanty Barrett’s Privateers, the album forever identified Rogers with the Maritimes.
In 1978 Stan Rogers made his first US appearances, which quickly led to comparisons to such folk icons as Burl Ives and Bob Dylan. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary declared him “an extraordinary talent,” and the influential Tom Paxton called him “Canada’s Woody Guthrie.”
During his short life, Stan Rogers wrote many dozens of memorable songs, often ship- or history-related, from The Nancy, about a Great Lakes naval battle during the War of 1812, to the more contemporary Make and Break Harbour. There was also his Bluenose – symbol of his beloved Nova Scotia – and The Wreck of the Athens Queen. But his songs also explored the West (Field behind the Plow), the North (Northwest Passage) and Ontario (White Squall), making him a truly national folk bard. His songs left no one in doubt where Stan Rogers’s heart lay.
His songs, many of them now standards, have been covered by such prominent folk and Celtic artists as Peter Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, John Allan Cameron, the Rankin Family, Mary O’Hara, Makem and Clancy, Raffi, Tom Courtney, the Irish Descendants, Coyote Run, The Real McKenzies, The Corries, and Alestorm. Rogers’s brother Garnet and son Nathan have also recorded his compositions.
“Northwest Passage” (1981) was Rogers’s last studio album. The title song – sung in traditional style, about Sir John Franklin’s attempt to crack the northern sailing route – has been voted a national favourite. It’s easy to see why, with lines like “to find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea” capturing Rogers’s great ability as a lyricist.
Rogers released only a handful of albums before his life was cut prematurely short. He died at age 33 on June 2, 1983 in an electrical fire aboard a doomed Air Canada flight, as he returned home from performing at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. Since his death several albums of earlier material have been released, allowing his immense talent to live on.
A leading figure in the development of the Canadian folk roots and East-Coast music genres, and influential on a generation of contemporary artists, Rogers was also one of the earliest indie artists to establish his own record label, Fogarty’s Cove and Cole Harbour Music.
Tribute albums have been recorded, and Canso hosts the annual Stan Rogers Folk Festival, continuing the legacy of this great and unparalleled songwriter.