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May18

Meaningful Song - Northwest Passage

by Various Writers

It was a weekend afternoon, and I was in the kitchen baking, hands covered in flour, so I suspect it was a Sunday in November or December, the season when I tend to bake on weekends, but the CBC website isn’t interested in reminding me precisely when in 1982 Stan Rogers appeared on “The Entertainers.” The website won’t even remind me who hosted that show on what we then called CBC-AM. Or maybe it was on CBC-FM? But I’m pretty sure it was a Sunday afternoon, and I know I was listening to “The Entertainers” while I creamed the butter and sugar and whipped the eggs.

Then suddenly, I ceased creaming and mixing, because the music coming from my kitchen radio had hijacked me body and soul. Stan Rogers and his band, the entertainers being interviewed that afternoon, were singing a studio version of their a cappella anthem “Northwest Passage,” the title song from Stan’s newly-released album.

I had never heard of Stan Rogers before, but now I stood at the kitchen sink, immobilized, shaken by the compelling harmonies and the stirring words that I was hearing. By the time the song was over, I felt transformed.

I knew I had to hear that song again and again, and to hear more of Stan Rogers. In those days of vinyl, that meant making the rounds of the record stores in Montreal. (Folk music has always been a marginal commodity.) But I was a little slow getting into the hunt. Work and family life kept me pretty busy.

And then, a few months later, in June 1983, came the terrible news: Stan Rogers had died in a fire aboard an Air Canada flight. He was returning from a folk festival in Texas. Someone had smoked in the bathroom on board. When the plane landed in Cincinnati, the opening doors caused a flash fire. Stan Rogers escaped safely, but he returned to the blazing plane twice to rescue others. On his third return to the inferno, he succumbed to smoke inhalation and died.

I bought “Northwest Passage” and all his other albums, and the succession of posthumous albums, and then I bought them all over again as CDs, and I listened to them constantly.

Years later, I would play “Northwest Passage” and “The Jeannie C,” as well as Garnet Rogers tribute songs to his brother, “Golden Fields” and “Night Drive,” to my students when introducing them to ballads and poetry in a first-term college English course, and some of those kids, sixteen or seventeen years old in the 1990s and 2000s, asked me how they too could get the CD.

About twelve years after I first heard “Northwest Passage,” camping in Cape Breton with another family, we had to drive everyone a mile uphill to a trailhead to begin a hike. All the kids piled into our car with my husband, while the other mother and I drove that mile together in peace in her car. “Northwest Passage” was in the CD player, and Stan was singing “Lies.” Five minutes later two middle-aged mums were still sitting in that car, listening to the end of the song, grabbing the Kleenex, sobbing. Stan could still do that to us.

Dr. Elaine Bander is a retired faculty member of the English department at Dawson College in Montreal. She continues to research and publish about 18th century fiction