The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Honourable Mention Song #4: Northwest Passage/Barrett’s Privateers by Stan Rogers (as Nominated by Me for my lovely wife, Keri) (KTOM)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Honourable Mention Song #4: Northwest Passage/Barrett’s Privateers by Stan Rogers (as Nominated by Me for my lovely wife, Keri).

So, the story goes like this……approximately two months ago I was all set to drive my eldest daughter to work. Just before leaving, my wife called out and asked me if I would please stop off at the Post Office on the way home and get some stamps because we were almost out. Because I love my wife, I readily agreed to her request. So, off my daughter and I went.

Upon entering the Post Office, I approached the counter. The gentlemen on the other side asked how he could help me. I told him I was there for some stamps. I was offered the regular pack of ten or, for the same price, perhaps I wanted a specialty pack. Well now…..I wasn’t planning on getting fancy stamps but, if they were the same price then I’d be a fool not to check them out so I asked the man to show me what he had. First, he showed my a ten-pack of stamps honouring Queen Elizabeth for some milestone of hers. I asked to see what else he had. Next, he showed me a pack of stamps with pictures of wild flowers on them. Next! Then, he placed a pack of stamps on the counter that had on the front, a photo of a man I recognized right away.

“Oh wow! Stan Rogers! I’ll take those!”, I exclaimed in a voice that was little more high-pitched with excitement that the occasion probably warranted but, there it was.

The man raised one eyebrow and asked if I was sure this photo was of Stan Rogers because, prior to me coming in, not one single person that he had shown the stamps to had known who he was.

“What!? Stan Rogers was one of Canada’s greatest folk singers. His music is legendary.” Needless to say, I was in a state of total flabbergastation! So, I grabbed my stamps, paid my bill and got the heck out of that post office who, I told myself, must serve an awfully lowbrow clientele! Then I drove home.

Everyone was busy when I came home so I just tossed the stamps onto the table, next to my wife’s placemat where she would be sure to see them. A short time later, she arrived upstairs and noticed the stamps. She picked them up and then laughed, “Who is this guy? Why did you buy these stamps?”

“What!? What ya mean, who is this guy? That’s Stan Rogers!”

She shook her head as if hearing his name for the very first time. I groaned. But, to be honest, Keri and I don’t share the same musical taste so, being truthful here, it didn’t completely surprise me that she didn’t know the name and the story behind someone who has been awarded the Order of Canada for his contributions to the culture of our country. We may be a happily married couple but, at times, there is a generational divide between us when it comes to our base of general knowledge and life experiences….which isn’t a good nor bad thing but, it is a thing…..and so, I wrote off her lack of awareness of who Stan Rogers was as being just another example of said divide.

A few days later, Keri’s Mom and dad arrived for a visit. In the course of our pleasant conversation, the topic of the new stamps came up. Now, my in-laws are great people and, although older than me, I tend to share more in common with them when it comes to Boomer knowledge than I do with my wife so, when the topic of the stamps came up, I proudly turned to my Father-in-Law, Bruce and asked, “You know who Stan Rogers is, don’t you!?”

He looked at me and replied, “Who?”

“What!? Not you, too!”, I replied with a groan.

Maybe it wasn’t a generational thing after all. Maybe it was an Ontario thing. That would be funny though because Stan Rogers was born in Hamilton, Ontario. He became interested in music; particularly Folk Music, in Ontario. It was while he spent his summers vacationing in Guysborough County in Nova Scotia (which is located not far from where the mainland of NS meets the Island of Cape Breton, where I grew up), that he began writing his famous songs about the sea and about the history of Canada. Many people consider Stan Rogers to be a Maritimer by birth but, truth be told, he is an Honorary Maritimer of the highest order. His songs about sailing and about fishing have made him one of the most famous musical figures in our country. His deep, rich baritone voice is unparalleled.

Stan Rogers has had many hits but is most famous for two…..”The Northwest Passage” and “Barrett’s Privateers”. You are going to get the opportunity to listen to them both. I’ll start with “The Northwest Passage”, first. A decade or so ago, a survey was undertaken as to what were the best songs in all of Canadian music history. “The Northwest Passage” by Stan Rogers finished as Song #4. The only songs rated above it were “Heart pf Gold” by Neil Young, “If I Had a Million Dollars” by The Barenaked Ladies and “Four Strong Winds” by Ian and Sylvia Tyson. Many of those who took part in the poll stated that “The Northwest Passage” could easily be our national anthem, should we ever wish to change our current one, for whatever reason. The song is an homage to those explorers who sought a trade route through the fabled Northwest Passage across the roof of the land that was to become known as Canada, all the way to China on the other side. The song speaks of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, who became lost in the sea ice and who all perished in the aftermath. The song also references places like the Beaufort Sea, The MacKenzie River and the Fraser River, too. Rogers plays narrator of this song and speaks of his own efforts to replicate the journey; of the beauty of the land and of the hardships found along the way, as well. It is a rousing song; one that is unusually patriotic for a country that normally shrugs off its own attempts at myth-making. Rogers sings this song a-capella, with much forcefulness and fervour. He sings the verses alone and shares the chorus with others, which lends the rousing touch to the song. “The Northwest Passage” by Stan Rogers speaks of a history that is woven into the tapestry of our land and, as such, it is one of the most famous and important songs any Canadian has ever produced. If one is unaware of it, that should change today because once you hear Rogers’ powerful rendition of this song, it is difficult to ever not here it in your mind again; especially, each time you see images of our beautiful North.

The song, “Barrett’s Privateers” is a different type of song altogether. It is more of a shanty, to be sung in public places, most often with a cool drink in one hand. The song is based on the coastal legacy of pirates and those who sought to profit from stealing the wares of other ships. This tale speaks of a young man who sought a life of adventure on the sea, only to find himself on the “scummiest ship” of all-time, sailing in search of plunder that is never found. In the end, he remains at sea for many years and finally arrives back on land, in Halifax, a broken man with nothing but a song to sing and a tale to tell. The east coast of Canada is famous for their kitchen parties and rowdy pubs. It is almost a rite of passage to sing aloud Stan Rogers, “Barrett’s Privateers” in a beer-soaked, hotter than Hell, pub, arm-in-arm with dozens and dozens of your very best friends, whose names are all “Buddy” and “Pal”! Once again, Stan Rogers has written a song that captures the essence of a segment of the cultural life of those who grew up out east, as we say. Many people claim that The Tragically Hip were the first to really write songs about Canada but, truth be told, they were as inspired to do so by the work of Stan Rogers as they were by anyone else. Stan Rogers was one of Canada’s original troubadours. He is on a stamp for a reason.

But, the story of Stan Rogers is not one that is confined to his music. He made news in how he died, as well. Stan Rogers had been appearing at a Folk Festival all the way down in Texas. He boarded an Air Canada flight in Dallas and began to fly back to Toronto. Along the way, a fire broke out in one of the lavatories. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Cincinnati, Ohio. By the time the emergency doors were opened and the evacuation chutes deployed, the airplanes’ passenger cabin had filled with toxic smoke; killing 33 people in all, with Stan Rogers being one of them. As a result of this incident, smoking was banned in lavatories on all airplanes. As part of those safety tutorials we all see as an airplane is preparing to depart, they always mention that smoking is not allowed and that all lavatories are equipped with smoke detectors, should someone wish to take a sneaky puff or two in the loo. The installation of smoke detectors in airplane washrooms is a direct legacy of the accident that took Stan Rogers life.

Hopefully, I have done my bit and have introduced Stan Rogers to any of you who, like my wife and her family, may not have known who this great Canadian was. When people speak of a “Canadian identity or culture”, Stan Rogers plays a prominent part in that conversation. His songs speak of the land and of those of us who live in all parts of it. As such, he is somebody every Canadian should know. Hopefully, now you do. Take this newfound knowledge and head directly to your nearest Postal Office. Ask for the Stan Rogers stamps by name. Dazzle the posties there with your profoundly grand base of general knowledge of Canada.

As for the videos you are about to see, I am going to share three. First, Stan Rogers will sing, “Northwest Passage” a-capella. What a tremendously inspiring song this is! The song was filmed in the 1970s so the video is a bit grainy but, the sound quality is excellent. Crank the volume and watch the goosebumps form. The second video is of Rogers and a few friends sitting around a dining room table singing, “Barrett’s Privateers”. Again, the vocals are powerful and the song is fun. But, for my money, the better version of “Barrett’s Privateers” is video three. This is a live performance from a Halifax Pub called The Lower Deck. It features a cast of Maritime musical royalty, along with a rowdy, enthusiastic and inebriated audience. The singers include, Alan Doyle from the band, Great Big Sea, Bruce Guthro, a legendary Cape Breton Celtic singer, Dahmnait Doyle, one of Newfoundland’s favourite daughters, a man named Stuart Cameron, who is an accomplished Celtic singer, as well as, the son of the Godfather of Cape Breton music, John Allan Cameron. There area few others, too but, unfortunately, I don’t know their names. But, this performance will give you all a taste of how important and popular Stan Rogers was and how his music lives on, lo these many years after his death.

So, without further delay, here is Stan Rogers and a cast of hundreds, with “The Northwest Passage” and “Barrett’s Privateers”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “The Northwest Passage” by Stan Rogers, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Barrett’s Privateers” by Stan Rogers, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Barrett’s Privateers”, as sung at The Lower Deck Pub in Halifax, Nova Scotia, can be found here. ***If you can’t feel the culture and the passion in this song then, check your pulse. You might already be dead. I don’t know what else to say.

The link to the official website for Stan Rogers, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

3 thoughts on “The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Honourable Mention Song #4: Northwest Passage/Barrett’s Privateers by Stan Rogers (as Nominated by Me for my lovely wife, Keri) (KTOM)”

  1. Oh my gosh Tom, my husband and I love Stan Rogers. If I had a nickel for every time we’ve sung BARRETTS PRIVATEERS at a party or in a pub, I’d be rich! We’ve even been to Guysborough. One of our daughters first dates with her now husband was in a pub in Kingston where they sang along with a bunch of RMC guys.
    Andy became a convert to Celtic and east coast music thereafter.
    Great choice!

    Liked by 1 person

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