How Legends Are Made: Stan Rogers, “The Flowers of Bermuda,” and Air Canada Flight 797

Stan Rogers plays aboard the tall ship Gazela Primeiro.

Stan Rogers plays aboard the tall ship Gazela Primeiro. Gazela is a Barquentine, like the ship he seems to have written about in “The Flowers of Bermuda.” From the Stan Rogers website.

Written in the spring of 1978 by the Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers, “The Flowers of Bermuda” is a disaster ballad on a small scale, telling the story of a ship that founders with nineteen people aboard. We’ve looked at shipwreck songs before at Murder Ballad Monday, especially in this post from 2015. And we’ve talked about Stan Rogers, as well as his brother and sideman Garnet Rogers, in posts about Harris and the Mare and Three Fishers.”

This time, we’ll talk about the legend of Stan himself, and its relation to his songwriting. But first we’ll examine the song.

The Curlew and the Nightingale:
Real Shipwrecks and the Making of “The Flowers of Bermuda”

“The Flowers of Bermuda” concerns the Nightingale, a coal-carrying sailing vessel (or collier, as she is called in the song), which strikes the North Rock reef off Bermuda and begins to sink. All her boats but one are smashed in the collision, and the crew finds the remaining boat just big enough to carry all the men to safety … except for one. The captain doesn’t hesitate: he bravely remains on board, sending the crew to shore with instructions that some of them return for him. The crew makes it safely to shore, and 18 men are saved. But the song finishes on a sadder note: when the boat returns, the captain has drowned, much to the dismay of the sailor who narrates the song. Let’s hear the song:

 

(Read the full lyrics here.)

Stan Rogers described the genesis of “The Flowers of Bermuda” in the liner notes to his album Between the Breaks … Live!

“I took my first trip to Bermuda in May, 1978 and loved it. While I was there, I discovered that the whole area around Bermuda is a kind of ship graveyard. I found a map showing the location of most of the known wrecks and discovered that a coal carrier called the Nightingale sank off the North Rock in the early 1880s. The rest of the details are pure invention, except for the fact that Bermuda is lovely.”

The general contours of this story are corroborated in a post at the Mudcat Café by Pete Sumner, who organized the Bermuda Folk Club at that time, and who produced Stan’s concert there:

“‘Flowers of Bermuda’ came about when we took him to the old Dockyard … The artifacts in there stirred Stan’s interest as did the pictures of maritime scenes. There was a map of shipwreck sites on the wall … there was the Nightingale and the North Rock, that had claimed so many vessels … and the song was born.”

I believe both Rogers and Sumner are telling the truth as they remember it. However, I think Rogers misremembered a few details and Sumner repeated them. Specifically, I don’t think the ship Rogers saw on the map was called the Nightingale, and I don’t think ALL the other details are pure invention.

I reached the first conclusion simply because I’ve looked at a lot of those “Bermuda shipwreck maps” and consulted a few books about Bermuda shipwrecks too, and I can’t find any mention of a Nightingale. I reached the second because there’s a wreck in just the right place, whose story parallels Stan’s song in a way that seems much more than mere coincidence. That wreck is named for a different bird; it’s called the Curlew.

The <em>Curlew</em> was a barquentine-rigged steamer that sank off Bermuda in 1856. Its story seems to be the basis for Stan Rogers's "The Flowers of Bermuda." She was featured on this postage stamp in 1986.

The Curlew was a barquentine-rigged steamer that sank off Bermuda in 1856. Its story seems to be the basis for Stan Rogers’s “The Flowers of Bermuda.” She was featured on this postage stamp in 1986.

According to Daniel and Denise Berg’s book Bermuda Shipwrecks, the Curlew is a 182-foot, iron-hulled, three-masted sailing vessel, barquentine-rigged but also equipped with a steam engine, whose wreck lies about a mile east of the North Rock reef. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1856, while working the Halifax-Bermuda-St. Thomas route, she struck the reef and quickly began sinking. According to the Bergs:

“Two of her life boats were smashed while attempting to launch them, and a third drifted away. The fourth boat was successfully launched, and it was decided that the officers would stay aboard the steamer while the others would row the lifeboat to shore and then send help. Two Navy ships quickly went to the sinking vessel’s assistance. They saved not only the men, who by this time had been forced into the rigging, but also seven of the nine mail bags she had carried.”

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About Stephen Winick

Stephen D. Winick is a folklorist and writer who works at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress as the writer and editor. Among his responsibilities have been the editorship of the magazine Folklife Center News (2005-2011) and the blog Folklife Today (2013-present). In over twenty years as a music journalist for such publications as Dirty Linen, Sing Out!, All-Music Guide and Music Hound, he interviewed and profiled some of the top names in folk and world music, including The Chieftains, Alan Stivell, Steeleye Span, La Bottine Souriante, Martin Carthy, Great Big Sea, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Le Vent du Nord, and many, many others. For the last few years, Steve has written articles and reviews on folklore and folk music for the Huffington Post. Steve has M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the longtime convener (currently senior co-convener) of the Music and Song Section of the American Folklore Society. As a folklorist, he has written definitive articles on several songs, including "Reynardine," "The Leaving of Liverpool," and "Kumbaya." He is also an expert on verbal folklore, and has published articles on legends, riddles, folktales, and especially proverbs.

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