P. Z. Myers was feeling a tad puny, though he’s in Minnesota where that Texas phrase might not win understanding. In any case, he queued up Nathan Rogers singing his late father’s most famous tune, “The Mary Ellen Carter.”
That was Stanfest, an annual music festival dedicated to Stan Rogers, who died tragically trying to put out an airplane fire, in 1983. (Stanfest is July 5, 6 and 7 in 2013. Actually, Ricky Skaggs kicks it off this year on July 4, a day early.)
“The Mary Ellen Carter” is a bit of an odd song, probably best performed where a bunch of people can join in, obviously fueled by a few pints to the guitar players, and seemingly not correct if not done with at least one twelve-string in the band. More, it’s a song with a story that you may not get the first time through, but you should get. Stan Rogers’s poetry is not simple. He tells complex stories.
It’s a song about a group of men who were aboard the Mary Ellen Carter when that ship scuttled. The song describes their work to patch her up, to raise her from the depths and make her “rise again.” But we never learn whether the ship was refloated. That’s not the point of the song. It’s a song about getting back up when you’ve been scuttled, when you’ve got holes punched in your side, and you’re under water.
That doesn’t get lost on fans of Stan Rogers, nor others who listened to the song over the years.
The song has become a classic of the genre and many artists covered it even before Rogers’ death, including Jim Post who began performing it in the 1980s, as did Makem and Clancy, and the English a cappella trio, Artisan, who went on to popularise their harmony version of it in UK folk circles throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and Portland, Maine-based folk group Schooner Fare. Ian Robb recorded it with the other members of Finest Kind on his album From Different Angels. It was also recorded by the seven piece Newfoundland band The Irish Descendants as part of the tribute album Remembering Stan Rogers: An East Coast Tribute performed by a large number of acts at Rogers’ favorite venue in Halifax, Dalhousie University; the album is out of print though occasionally available from online sellers; the track does not appear on any of the band’s own albums.
It was also recorded by Williamsburg, Virginia-based Celtic rock band Coyote Run as part of their self-titled Coyote Run album. According to liner notes with their 10 Years and Running retrospective album, Coyote Run‘s recording of the song was done with the same 12-string guitar that Stan Rogers himself had used when recording the song.
As a tribute to Stan Rogers, “The Mary Ellen Carter” has been sung to close the annual Winnipeg Folk Festival every year since his death.
Surely you’ve heard it, no?
According to the lore, the song actually saved a sailor’s life once, in 1983, with the sinking of the Marine Electric. The pedestrian version of the story:
So inspiring is the song that it is credited with saving at least one life. On February 12, 1983 the ship Marine Electric was carrying a load of coal from Norfolk, Virginia to a power station in Somerset, Massachusetts. The worst storm in forty years blew up that night and the ship sank at about four o’clock in the morning on the 13th. The ship’s Chief Mate, fifty-nine-year-old Robert M. (“Bob”) Cusick, was trapped under the deckhouse as the ship went down. His snorkeling experience helped him avoid panic and swim to the surface, but he had to spend the night alone, up to his neck in water, clinging to a partially deflated lifeboat, and in water barely above freezing and air much colder. Huge waves washed over him, and each time he was not sure that he would ever reach the surface again to breathe. Battling hypothermia, he became tempted to allow himself to fall unconscious and let go of the lifeboat. Just then he remembered the words to the song “The Mary Ellen Carter”.
And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Rise again, rise again—though your heart it be broken
Or life about to end.
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
He started to sing it and soon was alternately shouting out “Rise again, rise again” and holding his breath as the waves washed over him. At seven o’clock that morning a Coast Guard helicopter spotted him and pulled him to safety. Only two men of the other thirty-three that had been aboard survived the wreck. After his ordeal, Cusick wrote a letter to Stan Rogers telling him what had happened and how the song helped save his life. In response, Cusick was invited to attend what turned out the be the second-to-last concert Rogers ever performed. Cusick told his story in the documentary about Stan Rogers, One Warm Line.
Truth is stranger and better than fiction once again. You couldn’t convince me that story was plausible, if it were fiction.
Cusick’s story has a coda, though, and it’s an important one. From the survivors come not only tales of the trials, but information that, if listened to, can prevent future tragedies.
In a 2008 story in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot, Bob Cusick related just how close and hard death breathed on him that night:
Bob Cusick is “still kicking.” That’s no small feat for any man about to turn 85. It’s especially notable when you are one of only three sailors to survive what was among the nation’s worst maritime disasters.
Tuesday will mark the 25th anniversary of the sinking of the coal ship Marine Electric in a blizzard off Chincoteague. Thirty-one sailors died.
Cusick was the ship’s chief mate. He still has nightmares about how the rusted relic of World War II rolled before the crew could launch its lifeboats. He can still feel the water swallowing him and hear the men screaming for help in the darkness.
But the nightmares aren’t as frequent now.
“It’s really been a long time,” he said from his home in New Hampshire. “And evidently, a lot of good came from that ship’s sinking.”
Most of it because of Cusick and the other two survivors’ testimonies.
Before we hear the good, let’s get the facts:
The Marine Electric was what mariners call a rust bucket. Its huge cargo hatches were warped, wasted away and patched cosmetically with putty and duct tape. The deck was cracked, and the hull even had a hole punched through by a bulldozer.
Still, inspectors cleared it to sail, and it routinely hauled pulverized coal from Norfolk to a power plant near Boston.
Its last trip was into the teeth of a violent nor’easter. The aging ship was no match for the weather. For more than 24 hours, the Marine Electric was battered by swells that stretched 40 feet from trough to crest.
For part of the trip, the ship had been diverted to escort a trawler into Chincoteague.
Not long after resuming its course, the Marine Electric started taking on water.
Seas crashing over those corroded decks rushed inside the hatches, mixing with the powdered coal to create an unstable slurry.
The water couldn’t be pumped out, because the ship’s owners had welded covers over the drain holes.
Cusick was lucky. He had just come off watch and was wearing an insulated coat his wife had insisted he buy and a raw wool cap she had knitted for him. They would eventually make the difference between life and death.
Cusick swam for an hour in the tempest before finding a swamped lifeboat. He climbed inside and wedged himself beneath the seats, slipping under the 37-degree water, to escape the howling winds. He gasped for breaths between waves.
Cusick found strength in a song about the shipwreck of the Mary Ellen Carter, and folksinger Stan Rogers’ refrain to “rise again, rise again.”
Cusick would spend 2 hours and 45 minutes in the frigid water, nearly double what Navy survival charts claimed was possible.
It was after dawn when a Coast Guard helicopter from Elizabeth City, N.C., running on fumes, dropped a basket into his lifeboat and Cusick was hoisted to safety.
Rogers’s song, and Cusick’s story, were put to great use.
As a result of this accident, and the detailed records of neglect Cusick kept, the Coast Guard launched its renowned rescue swimmers program. Ships sailing in cold waters are required to provide survival suits to their crews; safety inspections are more rigorous; lifeboats must have better launching systems; and rafts must have boarding platforms to allow freezing sailors to climb inside.
We lived on the Potomac when the Marine Electric went down. We had the daily, sometimes hourly updates, and the growing sense of tragedy. I well recall my amazement that anyone survived in the cold water. In the 30 years since, I had never heard the full story.
This is why we study history. This is why we write history. This is why we revel in history, even faux history, being turned into art by the poets and troubadors.
Knowing history, and knowing the art, we can stand up to demand that money to inspect ships for safety be restored to the federal budget, that money to build safe air transport be revived, that politicians stop blocking the doors to the hospitals and clinics (Rick Perry, Greg Abbott), and that justice be done on a thousand other scores where cynics and highway robbers tell us it cannot be done or it’s too expensive.
And then we all may, as the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Marine Electric sank on February 12, 1983; Stan Rogers died less than four months later, on June 2, 1983, returning home from performing at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. Listen to Mr. Cusick’s story, and listen to Mr. Rogers’s telling of his:
More, and resources:
- “Cold Comfort,” Bob Cusick’s story in more detail
- Read the history of the Rescue Swimmers Program; once again, truth trumps fiction
- Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1984 (P.L. 98-557; 98 Stat. 2860)
- To the best of my knowledge, there never was a real ship Mary Ellen Carter.
- Marine Electric was an old Liberty Ship, about 35 years past its expected lifespan; the story of how its owners tried to blame Bob Cusick, and how their story unraveled in court, is subject of Until the Sea Shall Free Them, by Robert Frump