Guysborough County, located along the coast of Nova Scotia is a fascinating place.
Home to the Mi’kmaq people for centuries, then to Black Loyalists who fled the United States during the Revolutionary War.
you will find miners, forestry workers, farmers, fishers and a blend of cultures that make it unique. A boy from Ontario visited every summer and without him knowing it Guysborough County left a stamp on him and influenced his life in a way that it helped him to become one of Canada’s most celebrated and beloved folk musicians, whose life and career were cut far too short.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Hamilton, Ontario, wraps around the westernmost curve of Lake Ontario
Known as the Waterfall Capital of the World by some, it is the heart of the steel production in Canada as roughly two-thirds of all steel in the country comes from Hamilton.
It is also rich in musical tradition and history.
David Byrne, the singer-songwriter of The Talking Heads, Neil Peart, the drummer for RUSH, and Ian Astbury, the lead singer of The Cult, all called the city home before they found fame.
Stanley Allison Rogers would follow in this tradition, he was born on Nov. 29, 1949, and raised in nearby Binbrook.
Although he was born 1,500 kilometres from Nova Scotia, the Maritimes were literally in his blood.
His parents relocated from the Maritimes in search of work shortly after their marriage in July 1948 but every summer, the family visited Guysborough County, Nova Scotia.
When he was five, his uncle Lee Bushell gave him his first guitar, hand-built and fit for young Rogers to be able to play… which he did when he taught himself to play.
That was Rogers on CBC’s Canada After Dark in 1978 playing that same guitar.
Rogers said his family’s musical traditions seeped into him from an early age.
“Mom’s brothers, most of them, anyway, played or sang, or both and I guess it naturally followed that one of my earliest memories would be my uncles sitting around my grandparent’s kitchen, half shot, playing guitars and singing old tearjerkers by Wilf Carter, Hank Snow and Hank Williams.”
With 39 aunts and uncles in Nova Scotia, most with musical talent and a grandfather who had been a telegraph operator but wrote poems that were kept in a binder which the family often read or sang from Rogers came from a musical pedigree.
And his grandfather became one of his main musical influences.
Andrew MacLean, host of the Backyard History podcast, which focuses on the forgotten stories of The Maritimes, says Rogers early life
Throughout his youth, Rogers was exposed to a wide variety of music, but country and western drew him in.
That’s the genre because that’s what his family sang during their summer get-togethers.
He also listened to the Grand Ole Opry, the legendary country music show broadcast out of Nashville on the radio.
As he got older his musical tastes broadened to include The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan.
He also had a keen eye for observing the world around him.
He saw the miners and fishermen in Nova Scotia, and factory workers in Hamilton, and watched them labour. Whether he knew it or not, he was honing his ability to become a voice for the people.
He said later,
“I try to put myself in the shoes of somebody who lost a boat, or worked a farm, or worked in a mine, or worked in a refinery. Try to put all that together into something that people outside that experience can relate to.”
The land, the people, and the music he grew up with blended together to define his sound later in life.
And so would his heart.
Because as a boy, he was bullied by others, which developed a temperament sensitive to injustice and quick to anger.
But that bullying made him turn to music as a way to make friends and be cool.
And he got his first chance to impress at 14, when he made his musical debut at the Ebony Knight Coffee House in Hamilton.
He performed the music of country star Jimmie Rodgers and earned $5 in the process.
During those early teen years, he was also the opening act at a Hamilton folk club for a woman named Roberta Joan Anderson, but you may know her better as Joni Mitchell.
When he wasn’t playing shows, he was a student at Saltfleet High School in Stoney Creek, Ontario, where he met other youths interested in music and began to play in bands.
While folk music eventually became his signature sound, Rogers played in garage rock bands with names such as Stanley and the Living Stones and The Hobbits.
After graduation he briefly attended McMaster University and Trent University, while honing his sound as he ventured closer to folk, and farther from rock and roll.
He said this is when his brother Garnet joined him, for what he thought was a brief time but turned into over a decade of collaboration.
“Most important is my brother Garnet Rogers, who in a weak moment right after high school agreed to try playing with me for a while. It has been nearly ten years now, and no other person can claim to be so much of an influence on my music, or so indispensable to what I do.”
Around this time Rogers met Paul Mills, who owned The Hub coffee house in London, Ontario.
In 1973, Mills landed a producer’s job at CBC Radio, and started a folk program called Touch the Sky, hosted by singer-songwriter Sylvia Tyson.
Rogers was a frequent guest and was able to reach a wide Canadian audience. He was already known in the Ontario and Maritime folk music circuits because he had been playing them since 1969 and was had been signed to RCA since 1970
He recorded the single Here’s To You, Santa Claus, a novelty song that did reasonably well but Rogers was unhappy with the push by the record label to turn him into a novelty act.
“I never wanted to be some kind of plastic star.”
This is why those CBC radio spots were so important, they helped Rogers foster the folk sound and audience after he left RCA.
He said he took inspiration from Stompin’ Tom Connors and focused on blending music with history.
“I hit upon the idea of taking my music in a kind of historical context, looking at the history of my country and its relationship to the rest of the world and I started to write songs that reflected of Canadian spirit.”
With Gord Lowe, Brent Titcomb and David Essig, he formed the folk music collective Cedar Lake.
While the band didn’t do much, both Titcomb and Essig left and achieved success as folk musicians in their own right decades later.
Meanwhile Rogers signed to the American folk label Vanguard, where he said he found little.
“I was with Vanguard for a while, and they were the big folk label. But it turned out that they wanted to get out of the folk music business. They wanted me to be a pop star. I didn’t want to be a pop star, I wanted to be a folk singer, so I gave up on them.”
Rogers continued to play the folk circuit and in 1975, played the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which caught the attention of the artistic director Mitch Podolak, who had Rogers record some demos in a local studio.
A year later, Roger’s life would change forever.
He was playing the Northern Lights Festival in Sudbury in 1976, also on the bill were the Friends of Fiddlers Green, a group of folk singers with a chorus style.
During a get-together one night in the hotel after the festival, Rogers left the room for a while and came back a few hours later.
As he walked back in, he said,
“Suck this back you limey bastards.” and began playing his new song Barrett’s Privateers.
Podcast host Andrew Maclean said it became one of Rogers signature songs.
Around this time, Rogers’ Aunt June told him to write more songs about the people and places of Guysborough County and he spent from 1973 to 1976 working on songs which formed the basis of his first true album Fogarty’s Cove.
Released by the independent label Barn Swallow Records in 1976, the album sold well, thanks to sales at Rogers’ concerts and a mail order service running out of his parents’ house.
In 1977, Rogers married his wife Ariel, who was a skilled singer-songwriter in her own right.
She was the inspiration for his only love song, Forty-Five Years, which is honestly a beautiful song I encourage you to listen to.
(how does it make you feel Craig? what pictures does it paint in your mind?)
But his love affair wasn’t just with Ariel, it was with his audience too. and the feeling was mutual.
After each show, he sold records and spoke with people to find out about their lives and the history of an area, which often inspired a song.
His wife Ariel said,
“He loved talking and listening to people because he was interested in what they did and wanted to tell their story. He had an incredible gift for taking that life experience and turning it almost like a prism, so you saw the essence of the person rather than just a reflection.”
On stage, Rogers was an imposing figure who stood six-foot-four and typically dwarfed the other people on stage with him due to his size.
Danny Lanois, a Grammy winning producer who had produced albums for Neil Young, Bob Dylan and US, including The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, said of him,
“He just had that big voice. People loved big voices. He got the gift from God. It was the big He-Man voice and that’ll get you in the door. He was a great singer.”
That superhuman voice and his passion for history combined to answer a question on CBC’s Canada After Dark in 1978, detailing Canso, Nova Scotia’s past
Who knows, maybe if he was alive today, he would have a Canadian history podcast and I would have competition… honestly, I would be honoured because in many ways Rogers was ahead of his time.
Garnet Rogers, s, said in his book, Night Drive: Travels With My Brother,
“If you presented yourself as a songwriter, you were met with puzzled silence. You watched and you waited. You played where you could, and you tried to make it count.”
Despite people like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan making it big for Rogers it was about being on the road.
Those trips along the highways, playing shows, gave his bandmates, including his brother, a glimpse at Roger’s duality.
He was a man who would stop to help a stranded motorist or help a kitten get off the road AND get into fights with his bandmates, even firing them on a whim.
In one case, he left his bass player on the side of the road after an argument.
He eventually returned to get him when he cooled down.
Once, when he found out the Vancouver Folk Festival was not allowing a reporter into the wrap party, he jumped down the stairs and confronted the bouncer, saying everyone would walk out if they didn’t let the reporter in.
Scottish folk artist Archie Fisher said that Rogers did not suffer fools.
He was a fair man who spoke straight from the heart and was honest and direct with a kind sense of humour.
With his growing success, Rogers released his second album, Turnaround, in 1977, which showed his continued progression as a songwriter. This album featured many of his most beloved songs including Bluenose and the title track itself.
A year later in 1978, with his brothers, Rogers formed the record label Fogarty’s Cove Music, which was managed by his mother.
That same year, he made his first appearances in the United States on the folk music circuit and was quickly compared to Bob Dylan.
Tom Paxton, an influential folk musician, called him Canada’s Woody Guthrie, referencing the famous folk musician of The Great Depression in the United States who was also a major influence on Bob Dylan.
Many were often surprised when they met Rogers to find a suburban man in his late 20s or early 30s and not a grizzled, careworn fisherman.
His music was just that convincing.
And with two albums under his belt that music was spreading around Canada’s folk scene like wildfire.
To put that into perspective, he visited the Calgary Folk Club in 1978 and no one knew his songs.
He returned six months later, and the audience sang every lyric back to him to the point he had to ask them to quiet down because they were out-singing him.
In 1979, he released a live album called The Jeannie C., recorded at the Groaning Board restaurant in Toronto.
The live album was popular, as it captured the energy of Rogers’ live performances, and it included the popular song The Mary Ellen Carter which tells the story of the heroic effort to salvage a sunken ship.
In 1982, a fisherman off the coast of Nova Scotia found himself in a swamped lifeboat after a storm hit his ship. He struggled to keep himself alive, and he kept calm by singing the Mary Ellen Carter as loud as he could.
Its lyrics of rising again and getting through adversity helped keep him going.
After he was rescued, he wrote to Rogers to tell him that his song had saved his life.
Rogers kept that letter with him always, for the rest of his life.
While his popularity was growing, Rogers wasn’t exactly rich and he had to rely on touring to take care of his family, which had expanded to include four children.
He thought he had maybe a decade of touring left by the time the 1980s arrived. He said,
“I’m not in this for fame or fortune. I’m in this strictly for the enjoyment I get out of the music myself. I’m extremely lucky in that a lot of people seem to like what I do, at least enough to pay me money to do it.”
Ariel said It was important to Rogers to ensure his music was good and true.
Podcast host, Andrew Maclean agrees, he said that while writing a song Rogers would spend a day on Lake Erie on a fishing trawler to watch the men working, even though it made him violently seasick, or visit a ranch and spend a day on a horse as he watched the ranchers.
Because writing music was based on authentic experiences, his records often took a long time to write, produce and release.
Which is how the scheduled 1980, release of Northwest Passage, took an extra year before it hit record stores.
And it was worth it…. because it defined his music and made him a legend.
Rogers’ career reached its pinnacle with the release of Northwest Passage.
This album’s mature songwriting included some of Roger’s best songs including The Idiot and Free in the Harbour.
The title track of the album became his signature song, and today Northwest Passage is regarded as one of the finest songs ever produced in Canada.
Paul Mills, who produced many folk albums including those by Stan Rogers, said of hearing the song,
“I was having breakfast and Stan came down from upstairs where the studio was, and he said Well I’ve been up all night and I finished a song. I said “Great, let’s hear it. And he sang Northwest Passage. I still get a lump in my throat telling you. After he finished that song, I had tears in my eyes. It was so amazing.”
This album focused more on life on the prairies, in the farms and factories, of Western Canada.
Rogers’ star was on the rise, performing at large concert halls and folk venues, often as the headlining act, across Canada and the United States.
He appeared regularly on CBC Radio, and he made appearances on Celtic Grandfather, the popular John Allan Cameron television show that helped bring new music to Canadians years before MuchMusic existed.
He was on the cusp of going mainstream as he became popular in major US cities like Chicago and Los Angeles
Rogers was ready to break through as a major star. He said,
“I figure if my health holds out, I’ve got another 50 years of writing in me.”
But, as is often the case, fate had other plans.[PAUSE]
In June 1983, Rogers attended a Canadian Workshop put on by organizers of the Kerrville Folk Festival which included, Al Simmons, Connie Kaldor, and two other folk musicians.
When it became clear that the American audience knew little about Canada, Roger’s love for history sprang into action as he told of our early history from the earliest settlers to the War of 1812. On June 2, 1983, Rogers was flying back to Canada from that festival when they smelled something from the back of the plane.
At that same time, a circuit breaker for the toilet pump tripped in the cockpit but did not reset.
A passenger soon alerted a flight attendant that smoke was coming out from under the door of the rear washroom.
Inside the walls of the plane, a fire began to smoulder, and the CO2 extinguisher wasn’t able to put it out.
The first officer of the plane, Claude Ouimet, went into the back to investigate and just as he left the cockpit, the power for the left side of the plane failed.
When Ouimet touched the handle for the washroom door, it was hot to the touch.
He immediately suggested to Captain Donald Cameron that they make an emergency landing.
The plane quickly descended to land at Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, the cabin filled with thick, black smoke. The passengers moved to the front of the plane where wet towels were handed out to mask the smoke.
For 13 minutes, the passengers were at the front of the plane, waiting for the aircraft to land.
As each minute passed, another passenger fell unconscious due to smoke inhalation.
The plane landed at 7:20 p.m. EST, the loss of electrical power prevented the brake antiskid from working and four tires blew out.
The cabin was engulfed in smoke and people lay unconscious overcome by the fumes.
When the doors to the plane opened, five crew and 18 passengers got out before oxygen rushed in, giving the fire fuel and causing an explosion inside the cabin.
In total, 23 passengers were killed Rogers was seated near the front of the plane but did not make it out alive.
His body was found facing in the opposite direction of the nearest door.
According to some witnesses, as smoke filled the cabin, a large man guided passengers out the door.
One woman said she was pushed out the plane’s emergency exit by a giant, bald man.
As time went on, the story grew, with two women pushed out, then three women.
Podcaster Andrew MacLean says the legend grew from there and sometimes it was a near-unconscious woman carried to the emergency exit who wakes up at the bottom of the evacuation slide and looks back to see a man returning into the plane to rescue more people.
Are the stories true?
It doesn’t matter. Stan Rogers was a man taken far too soon.[TRANSITION]
After his death, Rogers was cremated, and his ashes were scattered off the coast of Nova Scotia as tributes came in from across Canada.
Several albums have been released posthumously, which include his last studio recordings and live performances.
In 1984, Fresh Water was released, the lyrics focused on the Great Lakes. While Northwest Passage gets most of the recognition in his discography, some folk music aficionados consider Fresh Water to be Rogers finest work.
The final song he ever wrote, The House of Orange, was a ballad about the conflicts in Northern Island, and a reactionary tale of extremism in Canada.
In 1984, he was nominated for his first Juno Award for Best Male Artist, but he lost to Bryan Adams.
He received another Juno nomination in 1993 for Home In Halifax.
His music has been featured in movies and television extensively.
His song, Northwest Passage, was chosen in a CBC poll as Canada’s alternative national anthem.
In 2005, CBC Radio One named it as the fourth greatest Canadian song ever.
When Adrienne Clarkson was sworn in as Governor General of Canada in 1999, she quoted Rogers in her investiture address.
“I pray that with God’s help, we, as Canadians, will trace with our own lives what Stan Rogers called “one warm line through this land, so wild and savage.””
And he’s remembered through live music across Canada too. The Stan Rogers Folk Festival is held every year in Canso, Nova Scotia, and the Stan Rogers Memorial Canopy is the main stage of Owen Sound’s annual folk festival, Summerfolk.
In Canmore, Alberta, the Stan Rogers Memorial Stage is the main venue for the Canmore Folk Festival.
Every year, the Winnipeg Folk Festival closes out the festivities with the singing of The Mary Ellen Carter, as a tribute to Rogers.
In 2019, he was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is not a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, despite an online petition for his inclusion in 2003 gaining 10,000 signatures in only a month.
In July 2021, Canada Post issued a stamp in his honour.
In one of his last interviews, Rogers said,
“I want to reflect my times and to leave something behind the world can look at 100 years from now.”
I would say mission accomplished.[OUTRO]
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, The Independent, Active History, Wikipedia, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, CBC, Canada Post, Edmonton Journal, Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Province, Calgary Herald, Winnipeg Sun,