A few weeks ago I wrote about the tragic love story behind the classic 1860s ballad “When You and I were Young, Maggie” that was written by Glanford schoolmaster George W. Johnson.
It was a poem to the love of his life, Maggie Clark, and it would go on to be sung the world over after being put to music. The ballad imagined the young couple living a long life together and reminiscing about it when they got older. But it never happened because Maggie died at 23 from tuberculosis.
Remarkably, and sadly, there is another story from that part of the world that rose up in song and was connected to tragedy.
Thirty-seven years ago, on June 2 1983, the great folk singer-songwriter Stan Rogers died in a plane fire on an Air Canada flight. He grew up on Woodburn Road, with his parents and brother, Garnet, in a house a 10-minute drive from the Twenty Mile Creek scenery described in Johnson’s lyrics. The brothers went to Tapleytown elementary school and Saltfleet High School.
It’s a part of Rogers’ life that tends to be overlooked because he is mostly known for his east coast compositions. Canso, Nova Scotia was where his parents came from and where he spent summers. And at the time of his death, he lived in Dundas with his wife, Ariel, and family.
Researching the story of “When You and I Were Young, Maggie”— and travelling through Binbrook, Glanford and Mount Hope to get a feel for the landscape — I couldn’t help but think about the Rogers’ former homestead a little further east.
Many years ago, I visited Rogers’ mother, Valerie, at the home in Hannon and spent a wonderful afternoon hearing family stories and Maritime memories for an article I was writing about Stan for The Spectator.
He was only 33 when he died, but the six-foot-six, grizzly-of-a-man left behind an astounding body of Canadiana that still resonates. Songs such as Barrett’s Privateers, the Mary Ellen Carter and Northwest Passage have become classics. The rich baritone voice was silenced but the songs took on lives of their own.
I’ve been in pubs in Ireland and Scotland in recent years when someone suddenly piped up one of Rogers’ songs and the entire bar joined in with the chorus, glasses banging on tables to carry the rhythm. I’ve walked along Halifax’s waterfront and heard his songs echo from one tavern after another.
I hosted song evenings of Stan Rogers’ music in The Spec auditorium in 2016 and Fieldcote in Ancaster in 2018 that drew amazing numbers of people who needed no encouragement to sing along.
Online, you will find all kinds of amateur performers posting charming, and sometimes shaky, versions of his songs. They are not easy to perform. The music has challenging twists of phrase, melody and chords that require a lot more dexterity than something like “Red River Valley.”
Rogers often employed a descriptive narrative technique that Johnson also used with “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.”
McMaster University English Professor Jeffery Donaldson says the approach is sometimes known as “Prospect Poetry,” a sub genre of literature from the 1600s to the 1800s in which the writer looks down from a high place, describing the scenery and then drifts into a discussion about social or political ideas.
Songs such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Rawdon Hills, Fogarty’s Cove, Make and Break Harbour, 45 Years and The Field Behind the Plow are reminiscent of the style with beautifully crafted descriptive writing that lead into multilayered narratives and reflections about everyday people in Canada.
Rogers had a knack for creating songs that rang true in both style and substance. Many sounded so authentic it was like they fell from the sky or rolled down a mountain. Just like Johnson’s Maggie. Although Ariel tells me that Stan never played the song as far as she knows.
There is a famous story at an impromptu gathering at the Northern Lights Folk Festival in Sudbury. Everyone was singing sea shanties — a cappella songs that sailors sang in olden times while working on tall ships. But Rogers didn’t know any, so he drifted off to write his classic Barrett’s Privateers in a matter of minutes.
He came back to bellow out his new composition, calling for the others to join in with the chorus. People have been singing it ever since, sometimes thinking the song is an actual sea shanty from long ago.
But my favourite story takes his music to an even more legendary place. His inspirational Mary Ellen Carter, about raising a sunken ship and standing up to adversity, actually helped save someone’s life.
In February 1983, Bob Cusick was a 59-year-old chief mate aboard the SS Marine Electric carrying coal on the Atlantic Ocean, 50 kilometres off the coast of Virginia. Out of nowhere, a horrific storm kicked up and took down the ship.
Cusick kept himself alive by belting out the song’s “Rise Again, Rise Again …” chorus over and over again in the frigid waters while clinging onto debris. He was one of only three survivors from a crew of 34.
Get the latest in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from The Spectator, including up-to-date coronavirus coverage, with our email newsletters.
Sign Up Now
Back in the 1980s, I corresponded with Cusick, who died in 2013, about the story and recently came upon a letter he sent me. I can find no better words to finish, so I will relay the ones from him:
“Stan Rogers — his inspirational music helped me so, in my terrible hour of need — with his poetry and insight of the human spirit. To all Canadians: He is a national treasure of yours. God love him and keep him always.”