Northwest Passage (song)

Northwest Passage (song)
"Northwest Passage"
copyright 1981
Written by Stan Rogers
Language English
Original artist Stan Rogers
Recorded by Garnet Rogers, Coyote Run, Chor Leoni

"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 sojourner 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.



The chorus is:

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

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.[4]


The song has also been performed by Show of Hands in the 2001 album Cold Frontier, by Coyote Run in Don't Hold Back, by Clishmaclever in Hearing Double, by the Browne Sisters and George Cavanaugh in Ready for the Storm, and by Chris Ricketts in Port of Escape. It was performed by Modabo on the 1995 tribute album Remembering Stan Rogers. It was performed by Paul Gross in the season finale of Due South. Rogers's own version appeared over the credits.

Published versions

External links


  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. ^ A Sea of Flowers: Brave Kelso

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