Repeat readers of The Starry Messenger will know the ways in which I tend to be critical of most traditional “Canadian Icons” – and Canadian culture in general for that matter, though there are still some that intrigue me greatly. One of these exceptions is Stan Rogers (1949-1983), the east coast musician whose “Barret’s Privateers” became a folk song in his own lifetime (including, as it did, a forgetting of its original author and lyrics!) While employing much of the rural nostalgia endemic to most east coast music, Stan Rogers seemed aware of the limitations of this approach, and brought much that was fresh and reflective to his work. In most of his music he strove to document the loss of a way of life that he had never directly experienced, while at the same time acknowledge that he had never directly experienced it.
I have tried, and failed, to fully justify my interest in Stan Rogers on intellectual grounds. At first glance his songs, such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Watching the Apples Grow, do indeed seem fueled by a sense of ressentiment towards the modern world. (Though I confess to a certain ressentiment of my own in the enjoyment I take in the line: “Ontario, y’know I’ve seen a place I’d rather be / Your scummy lakes and the City of Toronto don’t do a damn thing for me / I’d rather live by the sea.” In that song Stan Rogers was, in fact singing about the place were I grew up.) Few things, it seems, more readily instill a sense of where one is from, with all that is comforting and deeply problematic about it, than being force to leave that place, particularly when it is coupled by the growing suspicion that one will never be able to live there again.
So much of the Novia Scotian sense of cultural identity revolves around the idea of ships and sailing. Despite this, the present experience is only one of economic diaspora, as those with the education head out to larger cities such as Toronto or Montreal seeking greater opportunities, while those without the education often go out west at the ambiguous promise of sharing in the wealth of the the oil fields. Aside from this, most Nova Scotians live a very sedentary lifestyle, and have for the past 40 years or so, out of touch with the motifs and themes that they continue to celebrate. While nostalgia is something I can certainly understand, it seldom travels in the company of reflection, and self-questioning. And that, perhaps, now that I have taken the time to write it out, is one of the more valuable things about Stand Rogers’ music: Its awareness of what it is, which is a refreshing aspect of any project really.
Stan Rogers died aboard Air Canada Flight 797, reportedly helping others get off the plane before being caught in a flash fire.
For More Information:
An interesting psychological analysis of the symbols in this song: