On the road back home again

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My excuse from ever joining in sing-a-longs and choruses was often amusing and usually convincing. Friends and family know I play a wind instrument, and at sessions there was hardly any need to explain myself.

Others would compliment my voice - only to question and complain about my neglect of it. So what did I tell them?

''Let the guitarists do the singing, I can't play and sing as well.'' Or, ''How can a piper ever learn words?''

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I have always liked singers and imagined myself singing with the best of them. My favorite fantasy is the result of the Vancouver Folk Festival of 1980, where I first saw and heard Canada's premier folk singer/composer, Stan Rogers. Ever since, I have pictured myself alongside his fiddle-player and brother, Garnet, harmonizing on every chorus.

Stan Rogers was a baritone boomer whose stage presence was unsurpassable for so many qualities: boldness, tenderness, power, compassion, celebration. His best-known compositions pack an emotional wallop, yet all of his albums include simple, heartfelt tunes and offer a diversity that enabled Rogers to bridge many gaps between the folk community and fans of popular music.

Yes, his range was without bounds. He celebrated life at sea and toil on the farm. He recorded domestic human drama as faithfully as he recorded 18th-century North American history. He was as comic with a spoof on the computer age as he was tragic in a lament about Northern Ireland. He pleaded with ''that kid one hundred times not to take the lakes for granted,'' and then he was just ''watching the apples grow away from Ontario.'' And he would always ''want to see your smiling face 45 years from now.''

The hosts in Vancouver compared Rogers's compositions to furniture made in the 19th century: ''good design, skill developed over many years of practice, a lot of care, precision, and hard work.''

This makes me wonder if the very chair and table Rogers used when he composed were of a quality that somehow contributed to his knowing reflections on life's problems and challenges, misfortunes, and victories - furniture that, like Rogers's ballads, can be called classic.

How can contemporary music be called classic? Because we take it to heart. For example: When a collier sank off the coast of Maryland in February 1983, one of the three survivors stayed afloat - kept himself alive - by screaming the refrain of Rogers's ''The Mary Ellen Carter'' into the frigid, predawn blackness:

''Rise again! Rise again! Let her name not be lost to the knowledge of men/ Those who loved her best and who were with her to the end/ Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again!''

Stan Rogers's music will rise again and again, though he perished in a plane crash last year. He could have left the plane, according to reports, but he stayed aboard to assist others caught in the smoke behind him.

He was like one of his own memorable characters, the captain of the Nightingale who went down with the ship to ensure the safety of all his crew.

By that time I had already learned the words to Rogers's best-known ballads, and I continue to sing them freely while working, as I do, with mentally retarded adolescents. And how they insist on them! And how they assist with them!

There is Billy, who puts the brakes on my low moods by calling, ''Rise again!'' And there is Bobby, who accelerates my exuberant moods with the line: ''Ah, the year was seventeen-seventy-eight....''

When it comes to singing, I am like the narrator of ''Northwest Passage,'' the ''tardiest explorer.'' But if my 33rd year seems too late for a new career, at least in singing Stan Rogers's songs, I find ''a road back home again.''

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