I can’t pass by Paine Hall, Harvard’s Music Department building, without thinking of a concert there I didn’t attend.
It was May 1983. Stan Rogers, the rising folk star, was to do a concert at Paine Hall, moving up from Cambridge’s legendary ‘cellars by starlight’. But at that moment, a $12 ticket was out of the question.
Folkies knew well the Canadian’s growing catalogue. Incessant touring made him a familiar favorite in American clubs and festivals. He’d even made the national news.
In February 1983, the coastal collier, the Marine Electric, had gone down off Virginia taking 31 of its crew of 34 with it. Chief Mate Bob Cusick had kept himself alive in the 39 degree water singing the final verses to Rogers’ song about shipmates who salvage their sunken fishing boat, ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’ (you must watch this clip):
For we couldn’t leave her there, you see, to crumble into scale
She’d saved our lives so many times, living through the gale
And the laughing, drunken rats who left her to a sorry grave
They won’t be laughing in another day. . .
And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Rise again, rise again – though your heart it be broken
And life about to end
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend.
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Over the years since 1983, I’ve sung that anthem more than once.
A week or so after the Paine Hall concert, WERS played a recording of it. Even at 8:30 a.m. with a baby to be tended and the morning to get started, it was arresting. From the beginning, the star and his band filled the small hall with an energy the audience added to.
The antic byplay between brothers Stan and Garnett was rich and raucous, as you can hear on Home in Halifax recorded a few weeks before. At this remove, I can’t recall the Paine Hall play list or specific songs. I do recall at the end of the replay the pleasant tiredness I feel walking out of a satisfying concert and a ‘Damn! I wish I’d gone’ regret.
Less than a month later, on June 2, 1983, Rogers was dead in a fire on an Air Canada DC-9. He was 33.
Like ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’, Rogers wrote songs to be sung by others, by everyone. Listening to his concert recordings, ‘Home in Halifax’ and ‘Between the Breaks’, you can hear the audience singing along both when asked and not.
This ‘hardiest explorer’ wrote stirring songs, like ‘Northwest Passage’, about traversing Canada. Indeed, he traced ‘one warm line’ across North America, ‘a land so wide and savage’. On the plains in ‘The Field Behind the Plow’.:
Watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Feel the trickle in your clothes, blow the dusk cake from your nose
And hear the tractor’s steady roar, O you can’t stop now
There’s a quarter section more or less to go
And it figures that the rain takes its own sweet time
You can watch it come for miles, but you guess you’ve got a while
Ease the throttle out a hair, every rod’s a gain
There’s victory in every quarter mile
His songs stick in my head not so much for their mind-grabbing melodies but for their telling lines; ‘There’s victory in every quarter mile’.
A formerly significant other called folk music ‘dead baby songs’. Rogers could write them. I began thinking about this post when my iPod shuffled into ‘First Christmas Away from Home’. Tear jerker; heart breaker. Thirty years on, it wrenches my gut even on a bright June day.
I took back my hand and I showed him the door
No dollar of mine would I part with this day
For fueling the engine of bloody cruel war
In my forefather’s land far away
Now they cry out for money and wail at the door
But Home Rule or Republic ’tis all of it shame
And a curse for us here who want nothing of war
We’re kindred in nothing but name
But no penny of mine will I add to the fray
“Remember the Boyne!” they will cry out in vain
For I’ve given my heart to the place I was born
And forgiven the whole House of Orange
King Billy and the whole House of Orange
No lyrics better capture the modern descendants of the Scots/Scots-Irish/Irish migration from the North — even if you weren’t in Boston during the Troubles when hands came out all too often and too forcefully to ignore.
No question, Rogers is the great lyricist of Canada in my time. The man could flat out write. But he sang of an experience, a heritage shared across North America. Fortunately, I’m not alone in continuing to listen to him.
To his heirs who’ve kept his music available in modern remastered editions and who’ve maintained a very useful website, I offer my thanks.
1. The title of the long-running clubs column in the Boston Phoenix.
2. Over the years, I’ve tried to find a copy of that recording. Neither WERS nor anyone associated with ‘Coffee Shop’ has a copy, and I’ve not heard of anyone who taped it off the air. What a loss!
3. For a wonderfully written recounting of the Marine Electric – ‘Mary Ellen Carter’ story and of Stan Rogers’ death, see Robert Frum, Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death, and Survival in the Merchant Marine (Naval Institute Press, 2007). However, the later of the two inconsistent dates Frum gives for the Paine Hall concert is surely wrong as it was a Sunday (a very uncommon evening for a Cambridge folk concert), and I recall weeks – not four days – passing before Rogers’ death.