I suspect every Canadian of a certain age has heard this, probably on CBC or maybe sitting up late of a hazy evening. It’s a sad boisterous story of ruin at sea, men’s music written for men’s voices, and you’ll never forget it once you’ve heard it even once.

While Barrett’s Privateers initially sounds like an old folk tune, it’s nothing like that; it was written in 1976 by Stan Rogers, whose music I loved, and it really hurt when he died at age 33, yet another touring musician who went down with an airplane. It’s got some bars in 5/4 time, hardly a folk standard, and it’s sort of historically bogus. Yes, there were privateers out of Halifax during the American Revolution, but they went after unarmed merchantmen and there’s no record of any ever being sunk.

Between the Breaks by Stan Rogers

God damn them all!
I was told
we’d cruise the seas for American gold
fire no guns, shed no tears.
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
the last of Barrett’s privateers.

Rogers recorded the song at least twice, but I only have the version from Between The Breaks… Live!, which is a recording I just can’t recommend enough. On top of being loaded with fine soulful songs, it’s got this totally great you-are-there-in-the-bar sound, a thing I put on when I’m trying to impress people with what the big speakers can do. You really need to play it loud; this is five big strong Canadian Maritimer baritone men roaring out a sea-shanty, so anything less than thunderous is just not truthful.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links · Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. The only live video that’s close is this one from a TV documentary, only OK sound and bad 70s hair. But you really need to turn that live recording off Between the Breaks way up to get the feeling.


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From: John Cowan (Mar 14 2018, at 06:58)

This Yank loves the song too, most especially for its even-handed mockery of both Canada and the U.S., the one for its hapless and noble-hearted attempt to make something of itself, the other for its ignorant, smug, and self-satisfied bullying: where did the gold come from? Not anywhere in British North America in 1778, that's for sure. Or was there really any gold, as opposed to slaves, rum, sugar, tobacco, or cotton?

Which leads to the refrain line "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now", which apparently represents one of Stan's few slip-ups. In 1778, John Coape Sherbrooke was only fourteen and living in Nottinghamshire, and there was nothing named after him in the New World until 1815 or so. So whether Sherbrooke, N.S. (intrinsically the most probable), or Sherbrooke, P.Q., or the Sir John Sherbrooke (a privateer in the War of 1812), or New Ross, N.S. (formerly called Sherbrooke) was intended, none of them fit the historical facts.


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