29 Jun

Lovely Minnesoty

I’ve taken some liberties with text and melody in the above performance! 

Come all ye noble emigrants that feel inclined to roam,
Into this western country, to seek a pleasant home,
Just take a pioneer’s advice, he’ll point you out the best,
Go to lovely Minnesoty, that Lily of the West.

In eighteen hundred and fifty four, I left my native shore,
My worthy friends and native home never to see them more,
Besides, my aged parents I left among the rest,
And sailed for Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

When I viewed this pleasant country, it filled me with surprise,
To see those spreading prairies, and fields of grain likewise,
You call into a cabin, you are always a welcome guest,
That’s the fashion of Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

I viewed those jolly farmers, a-toiling at their ploughs,
Likewise the pretty fair maid, a-milking of the cows,
I viewed those lovely house-wives with tempers of the best,
They’re the darlings of Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

Our lands they yield spontaneously potatoes, corn, and grain,
The climate’s also healthy, with cooling showers of rain,
There is plenty of fish in every stream, and game in the forest,
We have pleasures in Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

Our pleasant burgs and villages they decorate the soil,
The architect, mechanic most manfully doth toil,
We have churches here of every sect, and schooling of the best,
We’ve industry in Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

We have a flowing commerce upon our inland seas,
Where lofty ships and steamboats do sail continually,
We have mariners here both stout and bold, and masters of the best,
We have all things in Minnesota, the Lily of the West.

O, Michigan is not the place, nor Illinois the same,
The soil and climate can’t compare in raising of the grain,
A land of milk and honey, and temperature of the best,
And they call it Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.
____________

Again this month we have one of the very few songs I’ve found that mentions my beloved home state. In this case, it’s a song of praise, advertising the wonders of pioneer-era Minnesota to prospective “emigrants.” Bessie M. Stanchfield collected a version of the song, titled “The Beauty of the West,” from Mrs. Elma Snyder McDowell of St. Cloud in 1936. Stanchfield went on to gather three other Minnesota-sourced versions and all four texts were published in her article “‘The Beauty of the West’ A Minnesota Ballad” in the September 1946 issue of Minnesota History. The Snyder McDowell version was the only one collected by Stanchfield that came complete with a melody.

The above melody comes from the singing of Ezra “Fuzzy” Barhight who was recorded by song collector Ellen Stekert at his home in Cohocton, New York in the 50s. The text is primarily one of the texts published by Stanchfield that she found in the Saint Peter Courier of June 26, 1857. It is quite different than the other three published by Stanchfield but similar to Barhight’s fragment. I mixed in some lines from Barhight and the other Stanchfield texts to create the version above.

In her Minnesota History article, Stanchfield wrote that “this song, and others collected later, made me realize the fallacy of the belief that there is no Minnesota folk music.”

17 May

Cole Younger


I am a noble-minded man, Cole Younger is my name,
Of my many a depredation my friends I brought to shame,
For robbing of the Northfield bank and the same I will never deny,
And it leaves me a life’s prisoner in Stillwater jail to die.

The first of my many robberies I mean to let you know,
Was a poor Californian a miner lad and for the same I rue,
We took from him his money my boys and we bade him go his way,
For which I will be sorry until my dying day.

Then after getting his money my brother Bob did say,
“It is now we’ll buy fast horses and from home we’ll ride away,”
——-[no text for third line of melody, Green skips to fourth line]——
And we’ll chase the mountain guerrillas until our dying day.

Then we started out to Texas to that good old Lone Star state,
And on the Nebraska prairie the James boys we did meet,
With knives and revolvers we there sat down to play,
A-drinking lots of good old brandy for to drive the blues away.

And the Union Pacific Railroad was the next we did surprise,
And robbing with our bloody hands would take tears on to your eyes,
A-robbing with our bloody hands would take tears on to your eyes,
And on the Nebraska prairie their mouldering body lies.

And then we left that pretty place and northward we did go,
To that God-forsaken country called Minnesot-i-o,
Our mind was fixed on Mankatah [Mankato] bank but brother Bob did say
“Oh if you undertake that job I fear you’ll rue the day.”

Then we stationed out our pickets and up to the bank did go
And there behind the counter, I struck the deadly blow,
“Oh hand me out your money boys and make no long delay,
For we’re the noted Younger boys who gives no time to pray.”

In ten years of searching through archives and old song books for Irish-influenced songs from the Great Lakes region, I have found only a handful of texts that include Minnesota place names. Of the few I have found, I consider this one the best! It is about one of our state’s most notorious historical events: the raid by the James Gang and the Younger Brothers on the Northfield Bank in September 1876. Cole Younger survived the shots fired by citizens of Northfield that day and then 25 years in the Stillwater prison before being released. His celebrity as a real outlaw helped him make a living after release and he attempted to cash in with his own “wild west show” and a published memoir. Today, there are many resources online and in print that tell the fascinating stories of the James Gang, Cole Younger and the Northfield raid-gone-wrong.

I came across the ballad “Cole Younger” in a few books but fell in love with it when I heard it sung by Beaver Island, Michigan singer John W. Green. Versions of the ballad were collected all over the US but Green’s is by far the most Irish-sounding treatment I have found. Green was a prolific traditional singer and the focus of Alan Lomax’s field recordings during his visit to Beaver Island in 1938. You can hear Green singing the song online thanks to the Library of Congress’s recent digitization of Lomax’s Michigan recordings. It is impossible in a transcription (such as mine above) to do justice to the lovely variations and ornamentations that Green puts into each verse as he sings. He was an older man at the time of the recordings and not always in command of his voice but his singing includes many flourishes that hint at the masterful singing community, full of first generation immigrants from Donegal, that Green grew up in on the island in the late 1800s.

17 May

The Croppy Boy


It was early, early all in the spring,
The small birds whistling did sweetly sing,
Changing their notes from tree to tree,
And the song they sang was “Old Ireland’s free.”*

It was early, early last Tuesday night,
The Yeoman Cavalry gave me a fright;
The Yeoman Cavalry was my downfall,
When I was taken before Lord Cornwall.

It was in his guard house I did lay,
And in his parlor they swore my life away;
My sentence passed and with courage low,
Unto Dungannon I was forced to go.

And when I was marching through Wexford street,
My cousin Nancy I chanced to meet;
My own first cousin did me betray,
And for one guinea swore my life away.

When I was passing my father’s door,
My brother William stood on the floor;
My aged father stood at the door,
And my tender mother her gray hair she tore.

My sister Mary in great distress,
She rushed down stairs in her mourning dress;
Five thousand guineas she would lay down
For to see me liberated in Wexford town.

And when we were marching up Wexford hill,
Who would blame me were I to cry my fill;
With a guard behind and a guard before,
But my tender mother I’ll see no more.

And when I was standing on the gallows high,
My aged father was standing nigh;
My aged father did me deny,
And the name he gave me was the Croppy Boy.

I chose the dark and I chose the blue,
I chose the pink and the orange, too;
I forsook them all and did them deny,
I wore the green and for it I’ll die.

It was in Dungannon this young man died,
And in Dungannon his body lies;
And all good people that this way pass by,
Say, “May the Lord have mercy on the Croppy Boy!”

_______________
In late 18th century Europe, to wear one’s hair cropped short could be seen as a show of support for the anti-aristocrat (anti-powdered wig) French revolutionaries of that period. In Ireland, “Croppy” became the term for Irish rebels who allied themselves with revolutionary France and launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in hopes of winning independence from Britain. “The Croppy Boy” is a well-travelled ballad of that period that references key places and people important to the history of the 1798 Rising.
The above text was sung and printed by Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean in the 1920s. We don’t know what melody Dean used as he does not seem to have sung it for either of the song collectors who visited him.

To mark the opening of the new Eoin McKiernan Library at the Celtic Junction Arts Center on April 22nd, I sourced the above “Croppy Boy” melody from one of the rare and wonderful books that is part of the new library’s collection: Old Irish Folk Music and Songs by Patrick Weston Joyce (published 1909). P. W. Joyce (1827-1914), along with his contemporary Chief Francis O’Neill, was one of the first Irish music collectors to have actually grown up within a community where traditional music was part of daily life. Joyce hailed from southeast county Limerick and was immersed in Irish traditional music from a young age. His 1909 book is a treasure trove of 842 “Irish Airs and Songs” and a digital copy is available online thanks to the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin.

*Dean’s text reads “Old Ireland’s is Free”—probably a typo.