02 Aug

Persian’s Crew (Revisited)

MCD_A036 Persian's Crew

Sad and dismal is the story that I will tell to you,
About the schooner Persia, her officers and crew;
They sank beneath the waters deep in life to rise no more,
Where wind and desolation sweeps Lake Huron’s rock bound shore.

They left Chicago on their lee, their songs they did resound,
Their hearts were filled with joy and glee, for they were homeward bound;
They little thought the sword of death would meet them on their way
And they so full of joy and life would in Lake Huron lay.

In mystery o’er their fate was sealed, they did collide, some say,
And that is all that will be revealed until the judgment day;
But when the angels take their stand to sweep these waters blue,
They will summon forth at Heaven’s command the Persian’s luckless crew.

No mother’s hand was there to soothe the brow’s distracted pain,
No gentle wife for to caress those cold lips once again;
No sister nor a lover dear or little ones to moan,
But in the deep alone they sleep, far from their friends and home.

Now around Presque Isle the sea birds scream their mournful notes along,
In chanting to the sad requiem, the mournful funeral song,
They skim along the waters blue and then aloft they soar,
O’er the bodies of the Persian’s crew that lie along the shore.

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We turn to the Great Lakes this month with a shipwreck song that was recorded from Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean in 1924 (click to hear the field recording!). It commemorates the 1868 wreck of the schooner Persian in Lake Huron just east of the Straits of Mackinac. I wrote about it in my April 2014 post but return to it here as The Lost Forty just posted the above video of us doing our arrangement of it. For our arrangement, Randy and I pared down Michael Dean’s version to five verses. We filmed the song in Grand Marais, Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior.

It is likely that Michael Dean himself had some experience sailing on Great Lakes ships. In a letter to folksong collector Robert Frothingham, Dean wrote that he learned some of his songs during his “wandering around on the Lakes” and collector Franz Rickaby, who met Dean in 1923, referred to him as a “sailor.” Great Lakes shipping operations provided a summer job for men who did winter logging work in the 1870s when Dean was rambling around Michigan and other Great Lakes states. In fact, he could have just as easily learned the song in a logging camp as the same repertoire passed around among men working both types of seasonal jobs.

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 This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

02 Jul

Heenan and Sayers


MCD_A035 Heenan and Sayers

It was in merry England, the home of Johnnie Bull,
Where Britons fill their glasses, they fill them brimming full,
And of the toast they drank it was to Briton’s brave,
And it is long may our champion bring victories o’er the wave.

Then up jumps Uncle Sammy, and he looks across the main,
Saying, “Is that your English bully I hear bellowing again?
Oh, has he not forgotten, the giant o’er the pond,
Who used to juggle cannon balls when his day’s work was done?

“Remember, Uncle Johnnie, the giant stronger grows,
He is always on his muscle and ready for his foes;
When but a boy at Yorktown I caused you for to sigh,
So when e’er you boast of fighting, Johnnie Bull, mind your eye.”

It was in merry England, all in the blooming spring,
When this burly English champion he stripped off in the ring,
He stripped to fight young Heenan, our gallant son of Troy,
And to try his English muscle on our bold Benicia boy.

There were two brilliant flags, my boys, a-floating o’er the ring,
The British were a lion all ready for a spring,
The Yankee was an eagle, and an awful bird she was,
For she carried a bunch of thunderbolts well fastened in her claws.

The coppers they were tossed, me boys, the fighting did begin,
It was two to one on Sayers the bets came rolling in;
They fought like loyal heroes, until one received a blow,
And the red crimson torrent from our Yankee’s nose did flow.

“First blood, first blood, my Tommy boy,” the English cried with joy,
The English cheer their hero while the bold Benicia boy,
The tiger rose within him, like lightning flared his eye,
Spying, “Mark away, old England, but Tommie, mind your eye.”

The last grand round of all, my boys, this world has ne’er seen beat,
When the son of Uncle Sammy raised the Champion from his feet,
His followers did smile while he held him in the air,
And from his grasp he flung him, which caused the English men to stare.

Come, all you sporting Americans, wherever you have strayed,
Look on this glorious eagle and never be afraid;
May our Union last forever and our Flag the world defy,
So whenever you boast of fighting, Johnnie Bull, mind your eye.

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The 1860 bare knuckle bout between Irish-American boxer John Heenan (1834-1873) and the British champion Tom Sayers in the small town of Farnborough in southern England is regarded as the first world boxing championship. Heenan was born in West Troy, New York to parents who hailed from County Tipperary. He earned the nickname “Benicia Boy” and a reputation as a fighter while working among the rough and tumble Forty-Niners in Benicia, California in his twenties. The fight with Sayers ended in a chaotic draw after 42 rounds with police intervening and spectators rushing into the ring. As the song implies, Heenan’s challenge to the famed Englishman was viewed through the lens of American nationalistic pride.

Heenan’s Irish background no doubt made the fight an especially compelling point of pride among Irish-Americans like Michael Cassius Dean. Dean printed “Heenan and Sayers” in his 1922 songster The Flying Cloud and subsequently sang it for collector Robert Winslow Gordon in 1924. CLICK HERE to hear Gordon’s wax cylinder recording on the Minnesota Folksong Collection site.

The Lost Forty arranged Dean’s version of “Heenan and Sayers” and this month’s video shows us performing it in the Stone Saloon building in St. Paul—a building that housed a lager beer saloon in 1860 that may well have been the site of some post bout analysis.

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This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

02 Jun

Lovel (revisited)


RWP_A008 Lovel

As Lovel was a-walking a-walking one morning
He espied two peddlers two peddlers a-coming
He boldly stepped up to them and called them his honey
Saying “Stand and deliver boys for all I want’s your money.”
Lol te de a de um, Lol te de a dum.

“O we are two peddlers two peddlers are we sir
And you are Mr. Lovel we take you to be sir
O we are two peddlers that have lately come from Dublin
And all that we have in our box is our beddin’ and our clothing.” Lol te de…

As Lovel was walking up Kinsberry mountain
He espied two rich misers their guineas they were counting
First he cocked his blunderbuss and then he drew his rapier
Saying “Stand and deliver boys for I’m a money taker.” Lol te de…

“O Lovel, O Lovel my poor heart’s a-breaking
For little did I think my love you ever would been taken
And if I had’ve known that the enemy was a-coming
I’d have fought like a hero although I’m but a woman.” Lol te de…

“O Polly, O Polly my poor heart’s a-breaking
If it had not been for you my love I never would been taken
For while I was a-sleeping not thinking of the matter
You discharged my pistols and loaded them with water.” Lol te de…

As Lovel was walking all up the gallows ladder
He called to the sheriff for his Irish cap and feather
Saying “I have robbed money but never killed any
I think it hard that I must die just for grabbing money.” Lol te de…

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We return this month to this wonderfully obscure and fun-to-sing variant of “Whiskey in the Jar” recorded in 1924 from Akeley, Minnesota singer Reuben W. Phillips (see N.S. Sep. 2014).  The Lost Forty recently arranged Phillips’ version of Lovel and the video above shows us performing it at the beautiful Stone Saloon building in St. Paul.

I am thrilled to announce that the original field recording of Phillips singing Lovel, along with many others, is now online on the new Minnesota Folksong Collection site! Visitors to www.minnesotafolksongcollection.org can access (for free) over 40 field recordings of Minnesota singers recorded in 1924. Many of the songs featured in Northwoods Songs over the past four years appear in the collection. The site is currently relatively bare-bones but over the next few months I will be adding features to help encourage visitors to learn songs from the collection and to learn more about the Minnesota-based source singers. The site does feature sheet music transcriptions of the song melodies (a labor-intensive feature for me to create but, hopefully, something that helps users decipher the very low fi recordings).

When folklorist Robert W. Gordon recorded Minnesotans Reuben W. Phillips and Michael C. Dean, he typically only captured one or two verses of each song—rationing out the valuable space on his wax cylinders. Luckily, both Phillips and Dean supplied Gordon with complete written texts for most of the songs they sang. I have combined their texts with the field recordings on the Minnesota Folksong Collection site just as I have done above and in previous Northwoods Songs.

Phillips’ handwritten manuscript of song texts is full of many nonstandard spellings of words which I have altered to more standard spellings above and on the website to help users access the texts more easily. I have also opted to shift some of the transcriptions into keys I feel are more suitable for sight reading.

I would love to hear some feedback from Northwoods Songs readers regarding the functionality of the new site! Please check it out at www.minnesotafolksongcollection.org and drop me a line to let me know what you think.

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This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.