Friday, July 3, 2015

Friday Tunes: The Idiot

This week’s installment of labour themes in popular culture is Stan Roger’s The Idiot. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of folk music, but Roger’s is something of troubadour of the common Canadian (wo)man. This song examines the inter-provincial migration that has characterized the working lives of many Canadians.

Rogers writes from the perspective of a migrant who has come west to take a job in the oil patch but whose heart remains in the east. Rogers taps into notions of pride, with the worker moving rather than accepting unemployment insurance benefits. While questioning this decision, Rogers notes the pride the worker feels in earning is living (“There's self-respect and a steady cheque in this refinery”), which is a refreshing change from the usual “workers are malingers” narrative of corporate Canada.

Rogers also talks about the difficult working conditions (“But work I must so I eat this dust and breathe refinery”) and the difficult living conditions (“Oh, the streets aren't clean, and there's nothing green, and the hills are dirty brown”) and missing home (“Oh I miss the green and the woods and streams and I don't like cowboy clothes”). But, ultimately, there is self-respect to be found in working (“But the government Dole will rot your soul back there in your home town”).

I often take these night shift walks when the foreman's not around.
I turn my back on the cooling stacks and make for open ground.
Far out beyond the tank farm fence where the gas flare makes no sound,
I forget the stink and I always think back to that Eastern town.

I remember back six years ago, this Western life I chose.
And every day, the news would say some factory's going to close.
Well, I could have stayed to take the Dole, but I'm not one of those.
I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose.

So I bid farewell to the Eastern town I never more will see;
But work I must so I eat this dust and breathe refinery.
Oh I miss the green and the woods and streams and I don't like cowboy clothes;
But I like being free and that makes me an idiot I suppose.

So come all you fine young fellows who've been beaten to the ground.
This western life's no paaradise, but it's better than lying down.
Oh, the streets aren't clean, and there's nothing green, and the hills are dirty brown,
But the government Dole will rot your soul back there in your home town.

So bid farewell to the Eastern town you never more will see.
There's self-respect and a steady cheque in this refinery.
You will miss the green and the woods and streams and the dust will fill your nose.
But you'll be free, and just like me, an idiot, I suppose.

-- Bob Barnetson


  1. To me, this song speaks more about life on the east coast and the Maritimes than it does about Alberta. As a teenager, the unemployment rate in my fishing town was somewhere around 20%, and there were hard choices to make - would you say goodbye to forest, hills, and oceans, and uproot hundreds of years of family history to move 5000 km across the country to find employment. Or would you swallow that pride, and accept unemployment/welfare money, and live with the shame.

    I had to make a similar choice 8 years ago - the availability of jobs was virtually non-existent in the east, and as I continued to widen my search, I eventually found myself looking for work in Alberta. To travel home now to visit my family costs more than a trip to Europe.

    Eastern Canada was founded under the ideology that natural resources (fish, beaver, forests) would last forever ( We mismanaged these resources for about 400 years, but never believing your raw resources will run out is, unfortunately, deeply ingrained in the Canadian psyche. Had a plan been made, these resources might have been maintained for much longer.

    Then again, even with a renewable resource, I don't believe an economy is sustainable if you harvest raw materials, ship them out of your country for refinement, and buy back finished products at a higher cost.

  2. I'm late to comment on this, but many of Stan Rogers' tunes were labour-centric.

    Many of his better-known pieces are specific to the East Coast, with Make and Break Harbour and Free in the Harbour addressing a similar theme to The Idiot (the exodus of young workers from small fishing towns), and the Mary Ellen Carter discussing a workplace with "smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go" (which I'm sure could be transferable to many other unhealthy work environments, though not the university, of course).

    Some of Rogers' tunes are more general, like Workin' Joe, which talks about working so hard to pay the many mounting bills that you're left "falling into bed too wiped to even kiss the wife good night."

    In relation to you research on farm workers, however, you should check out Field Behind the Plow: "And Emmett Pierce, the other day took a heart attack and died at 42 / You could see it comin’ on, ‘cuz he worked as hard as you." You can check it out at