Stan Rogers,
From Fresh Water
(Fogarty's Cove, 1984; CD 1993)

Was he Canada's greatest folksinger? Perhaps not, but surely he would have been, had he lived. We forget that Stan Rogers was only 33 when he died.

Produced shortly after Rogers's 1983 death, From Fresh Water was his strongest album from both a thematic and a songwriting perspective since his classic debut, Fogarty's Cove. Yet it is often forgotten. Rogers fortunately just had time to lay down the vocal tracks but had no say in the arrangements, overlain with strings and guitars -- some say heavy-handedly.

This album shows the strength and power of Rogers' writing and his uncanny ability to write a folk song from any perspective: we forget that (like Mozart) we never got to see the music Rogers would write as a middle-aged man. This is the closest we can come.

There is no blockbuster here -- no "Barrett's Privateers," "Northwest Passage" or "Mary Ellen Carter" -- yet in tracks like "Last Watch on the Midland" or "Lock Keeper," his writing is as mature as ever. As the lock keeper says to those on board ship: "Your anchor chain's a fetter and with it you are tethered to the foam/and I would not trade your whole life for one hour of home."

"White Squall" is perhaps the catchiest and most haunting tune; the story of the Wiarton boy swept off the deck of a laker. Another standout is "MacDonnell on the Heights," a tale from the war of 1812 which, in a sense, is Rogers's own story, a Canadian hero who died too young and "fell just short of fame/ and now not one in ten thousand knows your name."

The weakest tracks are "Half of a Heart" and "Flying," where Rogers strays from ships and history, his writing forte. Yet both songs have their place within his body of work. Finer writing can be found in his political song "House of Orange" and in "Tiny Fish for Japan," one of my favorites: "What kind of fisherman can't eat his catch/or call what he's taken his own?"

Rogers' fans sometimes neglect this album, with its now-dated arrangements, but its seven or eight strongest tracks stand with his best work, well worth hearing.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 16 April 2005

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