Northwest Passage (song)

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"Northwest Passage"
a cappella by Stan Rogers from the album Northwest Passage
Released 1981
Recorded 1981
Genre Folk
Language English
Length 04:45
Label Fogarty's Cove Music
Writer Stan Rogers
Cover versions
Coyote Run, Chor Leoni, The Water Boys
Northwest Passage track listing
"Northwest Passage"
(1)
The Field Behind the Plow
(2)

"Northwest Passage" is one of the best-known songs by Canadian musician Stan Rogers. An a cappella song, it features Rogers alone singing the verses, with several guest vocalists harmonizing with him in the chorus. It is not to be confused with the big band tune of the same name by Ralph Burns.

While it recalls the history of early explorers who were trying to discover a route across Canada to the Pacific Ocean (especially Sir John Franklin, who lost his life in the quest for the Northwest Passage), its central theme is a comparison between the journeys of these past explorers and the singer's own journey to and through the same region. The singer ultimately reflects that, just as the quest for a northwest passage might be considered a fruitless one (in that a viable and navigable northwest passage was never found in the days of Franklin and his kind), a modern-day journeyer along similar paths might meet the same end. The song also references the geography of Canada, including the Fraser River ("to race the roaring Fraser to the sea") on the western coast and the Davis Strait to the east. He is driving across the Prairies, allowing him to view cities behind him fall and cities ahead rise.

The song appears on an album of the same name released by Rogers in 1981, and is considered one of the classic songs in Canadian music history. In the 2005 CBC Radio One series 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version, "Northwest Passage" ranked fourth, behind only Neil Young's "Heart of Gold", Barenaked Ladies' "If I Had $1,000,000" and Ian and Sylvia's "Four Strong Winds". It has been referred to as one of Canada's unofficial anthems by Prime Minister Stephen Harper,[1] and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson quoted the song both in her first official address[2] and in her speech at the dedication of the new Canadian embassy in Berlin.[3]

The song also appeared in the final episode of the television series, Due South and has been covered in acoustic form by the British duo Show of Hands on their album Cold Frontier. Show of Hands do not perform the song a capella but use guitar and violin to provide musical backing. It also appeared on an episode of the PBS series NOVA about the discovery of gravesites belonging to members of the Franklin Expedition. The exhumation and study of the bodies revealed that the crew of the Franklin Expedition suffered from lead poisoning, possibly contributing to the catastrophic failure of the men to survive.

The song was used on October 9, 2007 by the BBC World Service's World Today programme during a story about the expansion of Canada's efforts to confirm its sovereignty over the arctic region through which the Northwest Passage runs.

Artist Matt James used the lyrics to accompany his illustrations for a children’s book that received a 2013 Governor General’s Literary award.[4]

Lyrics[edit]

The chorus of the song is:[5]

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.

Other verses include:[5]

Chorus
Westward from the Davis Strait 'tis there 'twas said to lie,
A 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.
Chorus
Three centuries thereafter, I take passage over land,
In the footsteps of brave Kelsey, where his "sea of flowers" began,
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again,
This tardiest explorer driving hard across the plain.
Chorus
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.
Chorus
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 a road back home again.
Chorus
At it will be I'll come again to loved ones left at home,
Place the journals on the mantel, bake the frost out of my bones,
Leaving memories far behind me, only memories after all,
And hardships then, the hardest to recall.
Chorus

The narrator states that he is taking "passage overland in the footsteps of brave Kelso" three centuries after. This refers to Henry Kelsey, an English explorer of what is now northern Canada, who had explored the area 290 years prior. Whether the name "Kelso" is in itself an error or a diminutive nickname is unclear. The lines "To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea" and "seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered broken bones/and a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones" commemorate the Franklin expedition. Stan Rogers indicated that he was unsure of details in writing the song, and worked from memory.[6]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to end by leaving you with a line from Stan Rogers’ unofficial Canadian anthem – Northwest Passage." Address by the Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 17 August 2006 in Yellowknife.
  2. ^ Canadian Encyclopedia
  3. ^ "Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson: Speech on the Occasion of the Official Opening of the Canadian Embassy"
  4. ^ "Matt James is Governor General's Award Winner for Children's Illustration!". London Public Library. Retrieved 2014-02-27. 
  5. ^ a b James, M. (2013). Northwest Passage. Groundwood Books. pp. 3–50. 
  6. ^ A Sea of Flowers: Brave Kelso

External links[edit]