The story behind “The Mary Ellen Carter”

I’ve always liked the song “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers, but I didn’t realize until today that Rogers wrote this song as a sort of gospel hymn for atheists. According to a posting by Charlie Baum on the Mudcat folk music Web site, this is why Rogers wrote the song:

I saw Stan Rogers give a concert at the Sounding Board in West Hartford, Connecticut, [writes Baum], and I still remember his introduction to “Mary Ellen Carter.” When he was young, he saw the Grand Ole Opry (or some such show) and remembers at the end of the show, Tennessee Ernie Ford looking up and staring into the blinding spotlights and singing with earnestness and large voice, a gospel hymn of great inspiration, of triumphing over all odds with the help of the Almighty. He decided then and there that he wanted to write a hymn of great inspiration, except without god in it.

Now I know there are plenty of you out there who still have a traditional God to lean on, but please don’t criticize this song because it doesn’t have God in it. You folks already have lots of good songs, but those of us who don’t lean on your God can have our own good songs. Anyway, you might like this song too, because it’s a song that literally saved someone’s life. When the ship “Marine Electric” went down in the Atlantic on the stormy night of February 13, 1983, her chief mate, Robert Cusick, kept himself alive by singing “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Here’s how he tells the story on a documentary film:

I was on a ship that,– we were carrying coal from Norfolk Virginia to a place near Fall River, Massachusetts [Somerset], and we got caught in a very bad storm. It was an old ship, and we didn’t have very much warning — about two o’clock in the morning we saw the ship was starting to get into trouble and go down by the head. And we called the Coast Guard and they were on their way out as quick as they could. And the ship cracked up and rolled over at four fifteen a.m.

The water was very cold, it was thirty-nine degrees. I had heard enough stories about a vortex and whirlpools sucking people down when a ship sunk, so I started trying to swim away as fast as I could. So it was prob’ly the best part of an hour that I’d been doing this, that I ran across a swamped life boat, and I managed to get into it. As the night wore on, and the seas kept smashing down on top of me, and I fin’lly got the feeling that I just couldn’t make it any more. And I was just about ready to give up, when all of a sudden the words came into my mind, “Rise again, rise again. No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend, like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.”

And I just kept saying that over, and the water cleared away, and I’d shout it out, and sing it out. Then another sea would come down on top of me. And I firmly believe that if it wasn’t for that happening to me, I just was in a position where I couldn’t have come through. And that song made the difference, and me living through that night. There isn’t any question in my mind whatsoever about it.

You can watch Cusick tell the story on YouTube, in his comforting southeastern New England accent. After Cusick tells his story, there’s concert footage of Rogers singing the song.

So what’s the song you’d sing if you were in Cusick’s position? What song would carry you through such adversity?

2 thoughts on “The story behind “The Mary Ellen Carter”

  1. mskitty

    I didn’t know the story behind the Mary Ellen Carter, but it has got to be one of my favorite songs. Thanks for telling us of Robert Cusick’s finding inspiration in it, Daniel.

  2. Vance Bass

    I hadn’t thought about Stan Rogers or “The Mary Ellen Carter” in years, but it’s going into my repertoire right now. Thanks for sharing these stories with us, and for bringing this song back for me!

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