Thursday, April 15, 2010

So Screw the Memory of Stan

Every year Canadians get themselves all worked up about what we call the Junos. It's a nice closed little honouring of Canadian musicians. Mind you, our artists are eligible for the biggy of all music awards south of the border, the Grammys. But here they get to play all by themselves in the awards sandbox without fear of sand kicked in the face by innumerable talented Yanks.

Harmless enough, I guess, but much less so is the continuing stubborn failure of the parent body which runs the Junos, CARAS, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to do the right ting when it comes to the long late Stan Rogers. Stan, in case you are very young or very isolated was a literally giant folk singer who grew up in Ontario but with the soul of emigre Maritimer. He loomed irreplaceably into Canadian lives and then legend in the mid 1970s with the stunning array of ballads he mainly composed but which sounded more like genuine songs from Nova Scotia's past then many of the real things. From the boisterous if ultimately tragic acapella shanty "Barrett's Privateers" to the oft-covered love song, "Forty-Five Years", to the celebration of outport life in the title track and the several laments for what Atlantic Canada was losing even before the cod collapse (which one of the songs, "Make and Break Harbour" anticipates), the album alone would have qualified Stan for honours far higher than any posthumous parochial Juno.

And Stan was far from done having limned the shades and contours of his ancestors' lost Nova Scotia home. Later, he would add more of his own sea classics like the Mary Ellen Carter, plus insights into the hard life of the rural Canada whether that be of a farmer struggling against unpredictable prairie weather (Field Behind the Plow), a rancher wife musing on growing old ("Lies"), or a ex-rodeo rider turned cattleman driven to violence by poachers ("Night Guard"). Perhaps most famously, he took the measure of the entire country driving across Canada with the historically resonant, "Northwest Passage" which the online Canadian Encyclopedia notes as often being hailed as Canada's unofficial national anthem - certainly it's a lot more melodic and makes a great deal more sense than shallowly repeating that we stand on guard when actually we don't. In 2005 in CBC's Jian Ghomeshi's widely publicized compilation of Canadians'picks for country's all-time top fifty songs, Northwest Passage ran a close fourth, miles - excuse me, kilometres - ahead of many pieces by individual and group musicians now nicely ensconced in CARAS's dubious hall of fame.

Stan, again as most of you will know, perished in 1983 at the age of 34 in a plane fire coming back from a gig in Texas. American folkie John Gorka penned "That's How Legends are Made" in tribute:

There was a man
Who came from north of here
He could raise his voice
And he could raise a beer
And when he left
The music stayed
And that's how legends are made.

Alas, all this legendary and nationally-beloved creativity has never been enough the collective unintelligence of CARAS. One can excuse a bit of oversight initially, of course, but there has been no shortage, indeed a deluge of outraged calls from all quarters to do the right thing and belatedly install Stan in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. It should have happened no later than the year after his death. But now, it seems, CARAS has if anything got obstinate. These petty little faceless pipsqueaks who can hide behind some opaque decision-making process, refuse year after year, ignoring a groundswell of advocacy from the arts community as well as everyday people who, unlike CARAS can see the obvious.

You can still find an online petition long mounted by the excellent literary magazine, Geist, and it's worth a go to add your voice. But I'd also suggest that we need a boycott - I think it's too late this year - and perhaps some closer scrutiny of whether there is taxpayer money behind the Hall of Fame, CARAS and the Junos. It's way past time that we should be tolerating the foolish and it seems willful disregard for an icon who was in every way so much bigger than CARAS and its little gonad-less zombie trophies.