Stan Rogers is a true folk musician

When I first heard Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers back in high school, I could tell it was a special song. I love the stirring chorus with the bedrock bass & belting tenor line, and Stan’s voice holds the stage alone so well in the verses.

The lyrics connect the narrator’s own journey across Canada with the historic expeditions of explorers in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. There’s a great shift of focus back and forth from the historical significance of the search to the narrator’s own experience.

How then am I so different from the first men through this way?
Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men
To find there but the road back home again

I love how this device expresses something both personal and so much greater than one person. The same yearning & striving for greatness that drove these historic explorers is being identified with the lived experience of the narrator, creating the kind of connection & story that help one situate oneself within a culture.

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When we talk about folk music, especially contemporary folk music, we think of it as a genre among other genres. But to me, the defining characteristic of folk music isn’t stylistic, but its purpose. The special purpose I consider folk music to serve is to help tell the story of a specific group of people, to help them make sense of themselves as a group.

In Stan Rogers’ case, the group is Canadians, especially Maritimers and the people of the prairie. Many of his songs tell stories of shipworkers or farmers, and the challenges, struggles, and victories that gave their lives meaning.

By telling their stories, Rogers gives us a vantage point from which to understand what it means to be Canadian. At the same time, the stories transcend their specifics and touch on universal human experiences, allowing those of other cultures to identify themselves in the songs as well. Great folk music like Rogers’ can span all three scopes of the personal, the cultural, and the universal.

For another great example of what I mean, listen to The Mary Ellen Carter. The song speaks for itself, so I don’t really have too much to add, except that this song literally saved someone’s life, shortly before Rogers himself died.

Have you heard Stan Rogers’ music? Do you know of another folk musician whose music tells the story of a group of people? Let me know your thoughts at my Ctrl-C email: gome ​@ ​