Born and raised in Hamilton, Stan Rogers spent childhood summers in Nova Scotia, particularly in his mother’s hometown of Canso. The musical culture of the region, from country artists like Hank Snow and Wilf Carter to traditional fiddle music, left a lasting impression on him. He showed an ear for music at an early age and taught himself to play guitar on a homemade instrument built by his uncle, Lee Bushell. In 1963, at age 14, Rogers made his professional debut at the Ebony Knight coffee house in Hamilton, performing songs by American country star Jimmie Rodgers and earning five dollars.
Rogers began his professional career in 1969, working the Ontario and Maritime folk club and festival circuits. While still at teacher’s college in 1970, he was signed to RCA Canada and released the single, “Here’s to You, Santa Claus.” Uninterested in RCA’s vision of turning him into a novelty act, Canada’s answer to Burl Ives, Rogers moved on. He spent the next years honing his skills and for a short time was part of the folk music collective Cedar Lake, which also included Gord Lowe, Brent Titcomb, David Essig, as well as Rogers’s friend and future producer, Paul Mills. He also had a brief turn playing bass in Tranquillity Bass, a pop group that launched the career of Ian Thomas.
After another failed recording contract, this time with American folk label Vanguard, Rogers all but gave up on mainstream record companies. He did some early recording with CBC Radio in Halifax and for Sylvia Tyson’s radio show, “Touch the Earth.” He also appeared in the mid-1970s on the TV shows of John Allan Cameron, Noel Harrison and Bob Ruzicka. In 1973, Rogers’s brother Garnet (guitar, fiddle, flute) became his principal sideman, and in 1975 they performed at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. There, Rogers made an impression on the festival’s artistic director, Mitch Podolak. Rogers then recorded some demo tracks in the basement studio of a young Daniel Lanois. These songs formed the basis of Rogers’s first album, Fogarty’s Cove (1976), which was released on Podolak’s independent record label Barn Swallow Records. The album reflected Rogers’s early Maritime influences and included signature songs like the barroom singalong “Barrette’s Privateers” and the love song “Forty-Five Years.”
Fogarty’s Cove sold well, mostly at Rogers’s concerts and through a mail order service run by his parents. In 1978, the Rogers brothers established the independent recording company Fogarty’s Cove Music. Managed by their mother, Valerie, the label also released albums by Grit Laskin, Éritage, and The Friends of Fiddler’s Green.
Rogers released three more albums during his life. Turnaround (1977) reflected more contemporary influences, particularly the songs of Joni Mitchell, and included the popular ballad “The Jeannie C.” Between the Breaks... Live (1979) was recorded at the Groaning Board restaurant in Toronto. The live album captured the energy of Rogers’s performances and introduced a new standard to his repertoire: “The Mary Ellen Carter.” His final album, Northwest Passage (1981), saw his songwriting skills mature and his focus expand beyond the Maritime experience. Many of the songs, including “The Idiot” and “Free in the Harbour,” were to become folk festival staples, but it was the title song that eventually captured the public imagination. Widely considered one of the finest songs ever produced in Canada, “Northwest Passage” was ranked the fourth greatest Canadian song of all time on the 2005 CBC Radio One series “50 Tracks: The Canadian Version.” It is often hailed as Canada’s unofficial national anthem.
Touring with his brother Garnet and bass player Jim Morison, Rogers filled large halls on Canada’s East Coast and headlined folk venues across Canada and the US. After gaining increasing popularity in New England, Chicago and Los Angeles, he seemed on the verge of stardom, destined for the kind of crossover success that few folk artists achieve.
On 2 June 1983, Rogers was returning home on Air Canada Flight 797 following a feature performance at the Kerrville Folk Festival near San Antonio, Texas. En route from Dallas to Toronto, an electrical fire broke out on the plane, filling the cabin with smoke and knocking out electrical cables and cockpit instruments. The crew made an emergency landing at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Kentucky. Ninety seconds into the evacuation on the tarmac, fresh oxygen coming through the open exit doors caused a flash fire that quickly engulfed the plane, killing 23 of the 41 passengers, including Rogers. He was 33 years old.
Praise and Testimonials
The folk music world was stunned by the news of Rogers’s death. The tributes came quickly. Peter Yarrow, of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, called Rogers “an extraordinary talent, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Bob Dylan,” while Tom Paxton said that Rogers “was to Canada what Woody Guthrie was to the United States.” Pete Seeger, the father of the American folk music revial, called Rogers one of the “most talented singers and songwriters in North America.”
At home, Rogers finally received the widespread recognition that had eluded him. In 1984, he received his first Juno Award nomination for Male Vocalist of the Year, which he lost to Bryan Adams. That year, Rogers was also granted the Diplomme d’honneur from the Canadian Conference of the Arts, Canada’s highest award for artists.
Within months of Rogers’s death, two previously recorded albums were released. The first was For the Family (1983), an album of traditional folk songs, as well as two tracks written by Stan’s uncle, Lee Bushell. Recorded at Daniel Lanois’s Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton, the album was a commission for the Folk Tradition label. Rogers’s final studio recording, From Fresh Water (1984), is often considered his masterpiece. A collection of songs about Ontario and its inland waters, the album was Rogers’s most ambitious and personal work, offering a perfect blending of the traditional and singer-songwriter styles. “Tiny Fish for Japan,” “Lock-Keeper"” and “White Squall” have been widely covered by other artists.
In the ensuing years, Fogarty’s Cove Music, run by Rogers’s widow, Ariel, released three more albums. Co-produced by the CBC, Home in Halifax (1993) features a live recording of a 1982 concert at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax. Featuring a sampling of Rogers’s best work, as well as the previously unreleased gem, “Sailor’s Rest,” Home in Halifax earned Rogers his second posthumous Juno nomination, this time for Best Roots and Traditional Album.
Poetic Justice (1996) offers two CBC radio plays, one based on Rogers’s song “Harris and the Mare” and the other a maritime fantasy by Silver Donald Cameron called “The Sisters.” Both plays were produced by Rogers’s long-time collaborator Bill Howell and feature songs and score by Rogers. From Coffee House to Concert Hall (1999) is a collection of rare and previously unreleased tracks. Fifteen of the songs were Rogers originals, and a number of them — “Day by Day,” “Your Lakers Back in Town,” and particularly “The Puddler’s Tale” — stand up to his best work. The album’s final track, “Down the Road,” was recorded five days before Rogers’s death.
Rogers left a profound impact on Canadian music and culture. He was an early popularizer of traditional Celtic music, helping to pave the way for widespread acceptance of such artists as Spirit of the West, The Rankins, and Great Big Sea (see also Celtic Music Reels in New Fans). He was also a music industry pioneer whose success as an independent artist inspired others and contributed to the development of Canada’s thriving independent music scene.
Rogers’s greatest impact, though, is as a songwriter. Dozens of artists around the world have recorded his music, while songs like “Barrett’s Privateers,” “The Mary Ellen Carter” and “Northwest Passage” have become modern folk classics. Although Rogers still gets little radio play outside of the Maritimes and the CBC, his work has gradually filtered into the vernacular.
In 1989, the CBC broadcast “One Warm Line: The Legacy of Stan Rogers.” A 1993 biography, An Unfinished Conversation, was a national best-seller, and 10 years later an online petition to get Rogers inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, sponsored by Vancouver cultural magazine Geist, garnered 10,000 signatures in less than four weeks. Rogers was the subject of a poem by Al Purdy — who titled his 1993 autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea after a line in “Northwest Passage” — and the focus of two East Coast tribute albums in the mid-1990s, featuring such popular artists as The Rankins, The Irish Descendants and Matt Minglewood. The Stan Rogers Folk Festival in his mother’s hometown of Canso, Nova Scotia, was founded in his honour in 1997.
Lines from “Northwest Passage” are frequently quoted. Governor General Adrienne Clarkson concluded her first public speech in 1999 with a Rogers quote about tracing “one warm line through a land so wild and savage.” In 2013, a group of New Democrat MPs gathered in front of the Parliament Buildings and sang “The Mary Ellen Carter” to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Rogers’s death.
Analogies to Dylan and Guthrie persist, but Rogers defies all comparison. He was a unique artist, whose art and presence personified an entire country and lifted the abstract notion of “Canadian culture” to the highest levels of art.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
- Diplomme d'honneur, Canadian Conference of the Arts (1984)