This western life's no paradise: "The Idiot" then and now

Stan Rogers wrote “The Idiot” 30 years ago, but listening to it last night I was struck by how a song written about Alberta in the early 1980s applies to North Dakota in the early 2010s.

The Canadian folk singer included “The Idiot” on his 1981 album Northwest Passage, part of a series of concept albums Rogers was doing on different regions of Canada. His earlier work had focused on the maritime life in Atlantic Canada, but Northwest Passage touched on the country’s north and west.

Specifically, “The Idiot” was about a man from eastern Canada who moved to Alberta to work in the oil industry:

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

He’s been driven to this move because of economic collapse elsewhere in the country:

I remember back six years ago, this western life I chose

And every day, the news would say some factory’s going to close

Despite the good pay, the narrator doesn’t particularly like the work:

This western life’s no paradise, 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 he considers it an improvement on living off charity, specifically government welfare, which he says will “rot your soul”:

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

Today, North Dakota is in the midst of an oil boom. It’s attracted thousands of workers, largely young men, to work in dangerous but high-paying jobs. The environment, in particular, is unpleasant, with a severe housing shortage driving workers into makeshift “man camps” and driving up a boom in strip clubs, bars — and crime. But there’s plenty of work to be had, with low unemployment rates and plenty of money to go around to workers, businesses and governments alike.

What would Stan Rogers think, had he not died in a 1983 plane crash?

So bid farewell to the eastern town you never more will see

There’s self-respect and a steady check 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

(Maybe more on Stan Rogers coming soon, as I’ve lately gotten really into his music.)