On May 29, 1950 – 70 years ago – the St. Roch became the first vessel to circumnavigate North America. To celebrate this historic event, we’ve got a treat for you: A ballad about the St. Roch by David Lowe.
As the signature exhibit at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, the St. Roch has its own fanbase. Visitors love to climb aboard, explore the vessel and imagine what life must have been like for Captain Henry Larsen and his crew.
Some of the ship’s biggest fans are the descendants of crew members or other people with connections to the ship. Other fans become entranced by the history of the schooner that accomplished so many historic firsts. In addition to being the first ship to circumnavigate North America, the St. Roch was the first vessel to complete the west-east traverse of the Northwest Passage and the first to complete the journey in both directions. Many visitors become fans of the St. Roch as they walk the deck and wonder at the feats of the ship and its crew who made history amid the hardships offered up by the Arctic.
David Lowe is among this second category of fan. The St. Roch captured his imagination, and he was inspired to write a song chronicling one of the vessel’s journeys.
David grew up in Kent, England, near London. As a teenager, he sang and played guitar in folk clubs. Looking for adventure, David travelled to Toronto in 1971 and, seduced by that era’s westward call, made his way to Vancouver, where he eventually settled permanently. He discovered the Vancouver Folk Song Society, a perfect entrée to the kind of music he enjoys. David has performed solo, in a duo and, in 2000, formed the trio In the Creel.
The song David wrote about the St. Roch is called “North of 75.” The tune and structure of the song is taken from one of the big ballads called “Sheath And Knife.” The lyrics were collated by Francis Child and the music collated by Bertrand Bronson. David liked “Sheath and Knife” a great deal, but the subject matter (incest and murder) meant he didn’t get to perform it.
For years he toyed with the idea of reworking the lyrics so he could perform the tune. Then he met the St. Roch and learned about Larsen and his crew.
“North of 75,” tells the story of the east-west Northwest Passage journey of the St. Roch in 1944. The vessel left Halifax on July 22 and arrived in Vancouver October 16 of the same year. It was the first time that a ship had made it through the NWP in a single season.
An homage to a much-loved old ballad and a much-loved old ship, “North of 75,” will be a favourite around the VMM for years to come.
In 2016, David recorded his CD Following the Sun and is currently working on his second CD of original songs, tentatively titled, DIY, because the Covid 19 pandemic dictates that he record at home by himself. David’s music is available through most streaming services.
David has kindly allowed us to post this song here for your listening pleasure.