I’m writing this on a train to the Arctic, travelling across the vast expanses of the Canadian prairies before they make way to boreal forest and tundra. I visited this wonderful converted church venue in 2011 to see the blue grass group Oh My Darling. The West End Cultural Centre in Winnipeg is a non-profit organisation, funded by the community, and the performer Nathan Rogers is also deeply rooted in the Canadian cultural scene. This show was the last in a series of tributes to his father Stan, who died in 1983 in a fire on an Air Canada flight after performing at Kerrville Folk Festival. Stan has had a huge impact on Canadian folk music: his songs are favourites at campfires and his lyrics appear in school books. A folk festival is held in his name in Nova Scotia every year, and the Canmore Festival in Alberta has a stage named as a memorial to him.
Winnipeg is Nathan’s home crowd, and I was in a minority at this sold out show in not knowing the lyrics to the songs. The atmosphere was incredibly warm and friendly: Canadian hospitality is legendary, and it’s typical that the stranger sat next to me ended up giving me a lift back to my hotel. This generous nature is reflected in the music’s glorious melodies and the geniality between Nathan and the double bass player, guitarist and electric fiddle player. Anecdotes were told between songs, ranging from humour at his reaction to playing a love song written to his mother to the moving expression of love for his wife, bringing tears to his eyes. Many of the songs have maritime themes, and Nathan’s reference to the time he was on a cruise ship which ran aground in the North West Territories in 2010 drew laughter from the audience.
Nathan grew up with folk music, and as a boy performed in a choir at boarding school, later studying for a degree in comparative religion. He's an accomplished throat singer, and has released three solo folk albums of his own. He's now committed to the roots trio Dry Bones, from whom two of his band members last night were taken, and their musicianship was almost flawless. He’s said to resemble his father physically, but his voice is said to be thinner, yet I found it a beautifully poised instrument. He opened with the song Canol Road, describing a remote section of the Yukon, which I’m lucky enough to have travelled myself. It’s a wilderness area, and the music is best understood in the context of this landscape and its nature.
The show really came to life in the second half, when some of Stan’s earlier, better known songs were performed. Mary Ellen Carter opened this section, and led to a joyous sing along. In fact, throughout the feeling was incredibly joyful truly a celebration of Stan’s legacy. The applause after each number was rapturous, particularly after a men’s choir joined for the final two numbers of the main set. They sung with vigour before the concert at the entrance to the venue, and afterwards outside, untroubled by the zero degree temperatures.
The choir was most movingly employed in Stan's most loved song, Northwest Passage, which topped a poll to find an alternative Canadian national anthem. It recalls the history of the early explorers and compares this journey with his own travels through the region. It could hardly be a more apt prelude to my own adventures in the north to see polar bears, which I'll be documenting in my other blog. Stan performed it a capella, but the sincerity of the choir and band here was so uplifting. An unexpected diversion to Ottawa en route from Montreal nearly led me to miss this occasion. I’m so glad I made it, since the enthusiasm of the audience was utterly infectious; for this reason my memories of this evening will be enduring.
Free in Harbour
Make and Break
Mary Ellen Carter
Field Behind Plow
Lyrics to Northwest Passage
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a northwest passage to the sea
Westward from the Davis Strait 'tis there 'twas said to lie
The sea route to the Orient for which so many died;
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.
Three centuries thereafter, I take passage overland
In the footsteps of brave Kelso, where his "sea of flowers" began
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again
This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain.
And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west
I think upon Mackenzie, David Thompson and the rest
Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me
To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.
How then am I so different from the first men through this way?
Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away.
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men
To find there but the road back home again.