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Northwest Passage -- Stan Rogers

Guest poem sent in by Divya Sampath

So you're running a Canadian Theme? May I suggest Stan Rogers? His music was
beautifully representative of Canadian folk traditions, and his original
compositions always sounded like authentic, old songs. [I agree with Divya -
I have only heard a few of Rogers' songs, but this was the aspect that most
struck me. His songs do indeed sound traditional; a hard trick to pull off,
but Rogers does it beautifully. - m.] Two of my favourites are "Northwest
Passage" and "Barrett's Privateers". I first heard the former on the last
episode of the TV series 'Due South'; it was an incredible a capella version
that has to be heard to be truly appreciated.
(Poem #783) 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 wild 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.

 Unpublished additional verse:

 And if should be I come again to loved ones left at home,
 Put the journals on the mantle, shake the frost out of my bones,
 Making memories of the passage, only memories after all,
 And hardships there the hardest to recall.
-- Stan Rogers
** Notes:

I first heard this song on the last episode of 'Due South', which also
mentioned Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated expedition to find the
Northwest Passage. It made me curious enough to look up the history behind
it. For an excellent online resource, check out:

Notice how, after the fashion of most legends, Franklin appears to be alive
in this song: his hand is still 'reaching for the Beaufort Sea'. The song
evokes the compelling drive to seek that 'one warm line', i.e., the
Northwest Passage, through the miles of Arctic waste separating North
America from the Asian land mass.

One memorable evening, I listened to this song in a car driving through a
lonely highway in the Pacific Northwest between Portland and Seattle;  it
called up irresistible mental images of following the trail of the early
pioneers, who sought 'gold and 'glory', but left behind only 'weathered,
broken bones.'

The rhythms and vocabulary are remarkably informed by Stan Rogers extensive
knowledge of traditonal sea shanties and folk songs. The result is a sort of
"faux authenticity" that has many listeners confusing this with a genuinely
antique trad number.

** History (condensed from various sources, including

The list of legendary ocean routes includes the so-called "Northwest
Passage", linking the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean by  way of the Arctic
Ocean in northern Canada.  One of the most famous men to try, and the
subject of legends and folklore, was Sir John Franklin, a British rear
admiral. There is no evidence that he himself completed the Passage -- a
letter left by his crew stated that he had died 70 miles from the end;
nonetheless, he is still cited as the first man to cross the Northwest
Passage.  The trip had cost him his crew, his ships, and his life.  His
adventure was to complete the work of earlier failed explorers.

Two sailing ships, the Erebus and the Terror, left England on May 19, 1845
with the dangerous goal to finish the voyage across the Northwest Passage
that had yet to be completely traversed by explorers.  The supply ship
Baretto Junior accompanied them across the Atlantic.  With 128 men and two
ships, Franklin entered the icy Davis Strait in July 1845.  He and his men
were last seen by whalers on July 28 entering Lancaster Sound, between Devon
Island and Baffin Island.  Baffin Island is a large land mass bordering
Hudson Bay to the north. This route would take them above the Arctic Circle,
where for much of the year the waters were covered with ice.  The were
attempting to sail between the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Canadian
Archipelago, across 300 miles of uncharted seas.  The trip all together from
England to the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and out to Asia was expected to
last only three years.  To that date, the expedition was the best
provisioned to attempt the journey.  Franklin died on June 11, 1847, and was
buried on King William Island.  No one is sure why he died, but nine
officers and fifteen crewmen joined him on that final journey.

England had no idea what was going on in the three years that they waited
for Franklin's return.  In 1848, three years after the Erebus and the Terror
were last spotted in Lancaster Sound, search parties were organized to find
the missing sailors.  Over forty rescue missions were planned and executed
in 6 years.  Much of the previously undiscovered land was charted during the
rescue missions, but few leads were found.  The final rescue party was lead
by Franklin's wife, Lady Jane, and Captain Leopold McLintock in 1857.
Search parties uncovered the remains of a few crewmen and a boat.  Their
bodies lay on the last stretch of the uncharted lands; their final journey
completed the map of the Great North.  They had made the Northwest Passage!

Sir John Franklin's remains were never found, and he slipped into legend...

** Stan Rogers Bio (from

 b. 1949, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, d. 2 June 1983.

Singer-songwriter Rogers began as a bass player in a rock band before
becoming a well-respected artist within the folk arena. In 1969, he turned
professional and, the following year, released two singles for RCA Records.
There followed a period of playing the coffee house circuit, with Nigel
Russell (guitar), until Stan's brother, Garnet Rogers (violin/flute/vocals/
guitar), joined them. Garnet worked with Stan for nearly 10 years. Stan
Rogers' low-register voice exuded a warm sensitive sound, the perfect
complement to his sensitive lyrics. Remembered for songs such as "Northwest
Passage" and "The Lock-keeper", he is probably best known for "The Mary
Ellen Carter". Writing for films and television, and having toured a number
of countries, Rogers was poised for international success but was killed in
an aeroplane fire in 1983.

There's a great site dedicated to Stan Rogers at
[broken link]

For background on how Stan Rogers came to write this song, see:
[broken link]


39 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Kathryn Tietze said...

Thank you so much! I've long enjoyed listening to "Northwest Passage" when
it's played on pulic radio, but I've never known all the words. Stan Rogers
is a real favorite of mine.

Ken Brown said...

Thanks for Northwest Passage - I've not seen it before. In fact I've
never heard of Stan Rogers.

I can't quite agree that it "sounds traditional" though. The language
is strangely poised sometime between the late 19th and late 20th
century: "Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage To
find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;" reminds the
reader of Masefield and Kipling and "Seeking gold and glory, leaving
weathered, broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones." could hardly have been
written before the Great War.

Good stuff though. It would be good to hear it sung.

It obviously reminds one of the old ballad of Lord Franklin, and I
suspect it is meant to. I found a version on-line, though the first two
lines are different from t he ones I'm used to - and which I can't

I was homeward bound one night on the deep,
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep,
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.

I dreamed we neared the English shore,
I heard a lady weep and deplore,
She wept aloud and she seemed to say:
Alas, that my husband is so long away.

With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May,
To seek the passage around the Pole,
Where we poor seamen do sometimes roll.

Through cruel hardships they vainly strove,
Their ship on mountains of ice was drove,
Where the Eskimo in his skin canoe
Was the only ones that ever came through.

Now my sad burden it gives me pain,
For my long-lost Franklin I'd cross the main.
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To say on earth that my Franklin do live.

In Baffin's Bay where the whalefish blow,
The fate of Franklin no man may know,
The tale of Franklin no tongue can tell,
Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell.

Ken Brown

Martin Gleeson said...

Just looking at your site and I note an inaccuracy by Divya when she says
that Franklin died on June 11th. 1847 and was buried on King William Island.
I was always of the opinion that his date of death was unknown and that his
body was never actually recovered. Please clarify.
Martin Gleeson.

Frank and Salomae said...

I met Stan at the 1980 Winnipeg Folk Festival. As a guest of David Amram, I was being
introduced around and certainly, Stan's songs -- especially Northwest Passage and
45 Years From Now -- struck me then and still stick with me now. When it came to be
my turn, there was a look in his eye that said we'll meet again. So, three years later I
was able to help facilitate a local motor home rental for David an his family and there was
this session with a number of us jammed in and jammin' the night before Stan left Kerrville.

Thanks for your site. This is the first time I've been able to write anything about that last


Bill Stewart said...

It's an odd thing but there are a few Canadians who still haven't
heard of Stan Rogers. I've found that, while reenacting 18th century
events in the US, I only have to sing the first line of one of Stan's
songs and the Americans all join in! (Barrett's Privateers is a
particular favourite, probably because you can sing "God Damn Them
all!" at the top of your voice!)
The song "Lord Franklin" which Ken Brown refers to can be found on an
old Pentangle album called 'Cruel Sister'.
As for Franklin himself, documentary evidence shows that he died
aboard his ship during the first winter they were frozen in and was
buried at sea by cutting a hole in the ice. His bones are now at the
bottom of Victoria Strait off the west coast of King William Island
in Nunavut. His ships never made the passage, they were crushed in
the ice and abandoned. No survivors were ever found although there
are persistent stories, among the Inuit, of survivors living amongst
them for years afterwards.
Franklin is not credited as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage.

Bruce Randolph said...


For a great rendition of this song, find it done by The Corsairs. They are a
vocal group from North Texas who sing sea chanties and Pirate songs. They do
a nice version of this one.

Their motto is: "If it sank, we'll sing about it".

Bruce Randolph

Fort Worth, Texas

jiri said...

Accidentelly I came across this poem/song on your website . 20 years ago I performed in a Vaudville Show at the Palace Grand in Dawson City where we used to sing this great song . It got always exceptional reaction from the audience . My solo verse had been "westward from the Davis Strait....." Thank you for this nostalgig memory. Kent Thomas alias Yuri

Cornell Roger said...

Question for Ken Brown, are you the same Ken Brown who plays in a duo
with Mary Anderson?

Roger Cornell
Business Analyst

jguthrie16 said...

I've learned of Stan Rogers through Ian Bruce, Scots singer & writer extraordinaire! He sings this song on Ian Bruce The Naked Truth Vol. 2, causing me to search for the words & history of the song. I've never heard another sing it, as I'm firming stuck on Ian's voice & song writing.

Joe Zasada said...

There is an excellent rendition on the Canadian Navy's Centennial CD, Sailors & Songs - Performed by Ken Lavigne and the Naden Band of Maritime Forces Pacific

Valerie said...

Stan Rogers, I really love the two songs you mentioned, especially the "Northwest Passage". A timeless piece, it is.


Anonymous said...

Is this a song or a poem? Anyway, it is really good, even if it doesn't rhyme at the end (then again, not all poems rhyme).

Anonymous said...

I pressed Submit before I could ask where to get a copy of this song / piece. It really is nice.

Robert - Solar Pool Covers

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ediddy said...

Surely it was Barrett's Privateers that was sung on Due South??

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RealNataliaT said...

This song acquires even more historical relevance today when Canadians found one of the sunk ships!!!

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