A cool fog was just rolling into Canso, N.S., on Friday evening as my friends and I arrived at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival. We had blared The Best of Stan Rogers in the truck on the drive up, and by the time we weaved our way into this picturesque village, I felt a rush of nostalgia for the songs that were the soundtrack of my seven years in Nova Scotia before I moved away from the Maritimes in 2000. A Stan Rogers song fills me with not only fond memories of my most formative years, but also, sometimes, a profound sense of guilt for having to leave this region of the country to seek greener pastures.
Mr. Rogers’s music has that exact impact on so many Maritimers in similar predicaments. We love his music, but it can also stir up pangs of self-reproach for not living in the place where you come from. As my friends and I pitched our tent at our campground site, we had begun referring to the namesake of this festival as “Saint Stan.” It was clear that our neighbours at the camp site – with whom we became fast friends – were also fans of the man’s music that was so shaped by this rocky coastline on the province’s eastern shore.
Each year, StanFest, as it is colloquially referred to, draws thousands of concertgoers to this tiny community of 800 people, and it involves hundreds of volunteers both young and old from Canso and its surrounding environs. This is the first year that the festival, launched in 1997, has run in the last rather than the first weekend in July – so that its preparation no longer conflicts with other local events, such as high-school graduation – but the date change seemed to have had little impact on attendance.
The legend of Stan Rogers was on the lips of even more campground strangers who popped by our site late at night to have a beer, sing songs and share stories. Some have as complicated a relationship with Mr. Rogers’s music as I do. One young man, from Canso originally but now living and working in Victoria, went as far to refer to Mr. Rogers as a “hero.” Everyone agreed that the festival itself is a tremendous boon to the area, which, like many here in Nova Scotia, has struggled economically. Mr. Rogers loved this place, and we couldn’t help but feel as if the festival was a gift he himself had given it after death.
At the main stage event on the first night, I cast my gaze over the thousands gathered for the first evening of performances, which included Garnet Rogers, Stan’s younger brother, and Lennie Gallant, a folk festival mainstay from my home province of Prince Edward Island. Many sang and clapped along as Mr. Gallant strolled through a touching rendition of his best-known song, Peter’s Dream. He even joked that there were various covers of the tune that his fans claim to like better than his original, a sentiment that Stan Rogers probably would have understood.
Indeed, Mr. Rogers’s are among the most-covered tunes in the Maritimes’ bars and pubs. He sang about many regions of this country, but it’s Atlantic Canada that most claims him as its own. This may seem ironic, considering that he was from Ontario (although he spent many a childhood summer vacation here in Canso, hence the festival location), but you only need to listen to a few of his tunes to hear why he is one of the region’s most beloved adopted sons. There is something small-m maritime about that singular, warbling baritone of his.
Over the years, his legacy has become a small part of the broader tourism industrial complex of the region. This, I think, is where my occasional ambivalence toward certain songs comes from. When I left Halifax and my journalism career in 2000 to go to grad school at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, a friend gave me a copy of Mr. Rogers’s live album Home in Halifax, perhaps to rib me a little about not forgetting where I come from. But it was during these first years living somewhere other than PEI or Nova Scotia that I realized how much Mr. Rogers’s music idealized, even fetishized, my home region.
As much as I was enjoying the festival, I would occasionally feel a swell of this ambivalence. During the day, StanFest hosts a series of performances in front of smaller, more intimate audiences in big-top tents around the festival grounds. I checked out several of these, including one with famed Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, who played a range of both subdued and upbeat tunes during a Saturday morning panel performance. My favourite act, however, was another Islander, Catherine MacLellan, daughter of famed PEI singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan. During her Saturday afternoon show, she played a series of covers of her late father’s most famous songs, including Snowbird, The Pages of Time and Put Your Hand in the Hand. It seemed nostalgia was a big part of many of these day-time shows – not for Mr. Rogers’s music specifically, but more for long-ago times when life was simpler.
It’s a sentiment I understand. Hearing this music always stirs up memories in me, stories and tall tales I heard during kitchen parties in nearby L’Ardoise, N.S., where my father’s family comes from and where we visited many summers when I was a kid. These songs, including Mr. Rogers’s, do what all good folk music should: They create the sensation that you’re remembering things that didn’t even happen to you directly, but feel like narratives fused into your very bones. But again, I still get that tiny pang of guilt, that underlying sense that, no, I no longer live here in the Maritimes, and somehow that’s wrong.
As my buddies and I packed up our site on Sunday, we all agreed that the festival exceeded our expectations. Our campground neighbours now felt like life-long friends. We belted out so many Stan Rogers tunes over these three days that our throats were as sore as our hangovers. We thanked Saint Stan for an amazing weekend. Then we packed up our gear and took off for somewhere else.