02 Dec

Shanty Man’s Life

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A shanty man’s life is a wearisome one,
Although some say it’s free from care,
It’s the swinging of an axe from morning till night,
In the forest wild and drear,

Or sleeping in the shanties dreary
When the winter winds do blow,
But as soon as the morning star does appear,
To the wild woods we must go.

At four o’clock in the morning our old greasy cook calls out,
“Hurrah, boys, for it’s day,”
And from broken slumber we are aroused,
For to pass away the long winter’s day.

Transported as we are from the maiden so fair,
To the banks of some lonely stream,
Where the wolf, bear and owl with their terrifying howl,
Disturb our nightly dreams.

Transported from the glass and the smiling little lass,
Our life is long and drear;
No friend in sorrow high for to check the rising sigh,
Or to wipe away the briny tear.

Had we ale, wine or beer our spirits for to cheer,
While we’re in those woods so wild,
Or a glass of whiskey shone while we are in the woods alone,
For to pass away our long exile.

When spring it does come in double hardship then begins,
For the water is piercing cold;
Dripping wet will be our clothes and our limbs they are half froze,
And our pike poles we scarce can hold.

O’er rocks, shoals and sands give employment to old hands,
And our well bended raft we do steer,
Oh, the rapids that we run, they seem to us but fun,
We’re the boys of all slavish care.

Shantying I’ll give o’er when I’m landed safe on shore,
And I’ll lead a different life,
No longer will I roam, but contented stay at home,
With a pretty little smiling wife.

_________________

A note on an early broadside printing of this song about the hardships of winter logging work says it was composed by George W. Stace of “La Crosse Valley, Wis[consin].” In addition to the version above, from Minnesota singer Michael Dean, Franz Rickaby also collected a version from Albert Hannah of my hometown of Bemidji. Rickaby noted that “shanty boy” was a more common term than “lumberjack” among old time loggers who worked in the live-in winter camps where the bunkhouse was referred to as the “shanty.”
The song depicts the trials of enduring a winter without access to liquor (or female companionship). In his Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, William M. Doerflinger writes that “after about 1860 liquor fell under ban in almost all camps. Loggers put up with this hardship, sometimes making quick trips downriver to ‘see the dentist.’” In an oral history interview with Wirt Mineau (b. 1878) who logged on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix Valley, Mineau said “No, there wasn’t any liquor allowed in the camps, but sometimes they had some.”

The melody used by Dean (and Hannah) is related to that of the Irish song “The Boyne Water.” Versions of the old ballad “Sir Neil and Glengyle” also use a similar air.

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Dean’s grave in Pine City (his birth year was actually probably 1858 or 1857)

The Lost Forty arranged Dean’s version of “Shanty Man’s Life” and shot our monthly video at the North West Company Fur Post in Pine City just a few miles from where Michael Dean is buried. The above transcription is my attempt to capture Dean’s singing of the song which you can hear for yourself at the Minnesota Folksong Collection website. Dean varies the melody in the second verse. Randy and I made some changes to the text and melody for our version.

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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 Nov

The Hunter’s Death


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Ye hunters brave and bold I pray attend
To this relation hear what I have seen
’Twas of a hunter bold
’Twill make your blood run cold
To hear the story told
How he suffered there.

To hunt when he was young was his delight
And when to manhood grown his favorite
To hunt the fallow deer
The roe buck and the bear
The turkey coon and hair
With smaller game.

As people settled round on hill and dale
No ven’son to be found his hunting failed
He went in forty nine
Towards the northern line
It was his hull design
To hunt the grove.

And now comes on the day that was his last
Old Boris [Boreas?] blew away an awful blast
It both rain hale and snow
The stormy winds did blow
They chilled his nature so
Poor man was lost.

All in the drifting snow laid himself down
No further could he go there he was found
His powder so complete
Was strewed from head to feet
That the vermin might not eat
His body there.

You’d wish to know his name and where he’s from
And of what stock he came and where he’s born
He’s of as noble a race
As any in the place
His name ’twas John Lomace
Born in Westfield.

—————

We stay on the hunting theme this month with a wonderfully obscure and fascinating song from the repertoire of Reuben W. Phillips of Akeley, Minnesota. “The Hunter’s Death” was one of 22 handwritten song texts Phillips sent to collector Robert W. Gordon in March 1924. Upon receiving the songs from Phillips, Gordon was drawn to “The Hunter’s Death” in particular for its “peculiar stanza form.” He published the song’s text in the August 20, 1924 edition of his pulp magazine column “Old Songs That Men Have Sung” calling it “a curious little song, particularly in its use of the short but effective line without rime at the end of each stanza.” Soon after, Gordon hauled his Edison cylinder recording machine from Berkeley, California to Akeley to record Phillips singing the song himself. Gordon remembered the song several years later when fellow song-catcher Joanna Colcord sent him another song collected in Vermont called “The Damsel’s Tragedy” with much the same form:

Indulgent parents dear I pray attend
To this relation hear which I have penned
A deeper tragedy
You never knew, for why?
A mother’s cruelty
Ruined her son.

Given that both songs can be traced to Vermont, “The Damsel’s Tragedy” may have been the template for “The Hunter’s Death.”

Phillips told Gordon that “The Hunter’s Death” was composed in northern New York around 1849 in the vicinity of Hopkinton where Phillips himself was born. It was based on an actual man, John Lomace, who lived in the area. Westfield, Vermont is about 100 miles east of Hopkinton on the other side of Lake Champlain. Both towns are quite near the “northern line” where one crosses into Canada.

Last month, I launched the Minnesota Folksong Challenge. This is your chance to get involved in reviving the folksong heritage of Minnesota! Learn a song from the Minnesota Folksong Collection and post a video on Youtube of yourself singing it. Send me the link and I’ll add you to the growing collection of videos here! St. Paul singer John Wenstrom took the Challenge and learned “The Hunter’s Death.” You can see John’s video at the Minnesota Folksong Collection site along with the new video of the Lost Forty doing our version of this song.

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.

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03 Oct

Vandiemens Land (Revisited)

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Come, all you lads of pleasure and rambling boys beware,
Whenever you go hunting with your hounds, your gun and snare,
Whenever you go a-hunting with the valleys at your command,
Think of the tedious journey, boys, going to Vandiemens Land.

There was Joe Brown from Nottingham, Jack Williams and Jack Jones,
They were three as jolly fellows, so well their country knows;
They were taken one night near the bay, all with their gun in hand,
And for fourteen years transported unto Vandiemens Land.

There was a girl from Nottingham, Sally Simons was her name,
For seven years transported for carrying on the game;
Our Captain bought her freedom and he married her off hand,
She gave us good usage going to Vandiemens Land.

The landing port we went to was on a foreign shore,
The planters they surrounded us, full a score or more,
They yoked us up like horses and sold us out off hand,
And they hitched us to the plow, me boys, to plow Vandiemens Land.

The houses that they built for us was made of sods and clay,
The beds we had to sleep on were made of rotten hay;
Oh, rotten hay for beds, me boys, and slumber if you can,
Oh, they gave us the very worst usage while on Vandiemens Land,

Last night as I lay down to sleep I had a pleasant dream,
I dreamt I was back in Ireland, down by a purling stream,
With my Irish girl beside me and her at my command,
But when I awoke my heart was broke, off on Vandiemens Land.

————–
We return this month to another song from the repertoire of Irish-Minnesotan singer Michael C. Dean that I wrote about first in July 2013. You can now hear the 1924 field recording of Dean singing “Vandiemens Land” at the Minnesota Folksong Collection site.

It is fascinating to imagine what this song’s story of convicted poachers deported to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) might have meant to Dean – himself an avid hunter. When Dean’s parents left Ireland around 1840, illegal hunting was still punishable by “transportation.” It was also sometimes a crime of necessity during the frequent food shortages of those years. In Minnesota, 50 years later, Dean enjoyed frequent hunting and fishing excursions much the same way modern Minnesotans do.

Dean lived in Pine County, Minnesota from about 1885 through 1917 and did much hunting and fishing each fall during those years. His excursions were often mentioned in the colorfully-written local section of the Pine County Pioneer:

“Mike Dean and party have returned from their hunting and fishing expedition up to Grindstone Lake. Mike doesn’t tell any big fish stories but says they had an immense time and when asked if they were successful, merely winks.” (Oct. 14, 1887)

“M.C. Dean, J.J. Brennan, A. Anderson and Axel Hanson went on a hunting expedition on Tuesday and expected to bring back some game, but lo! Not even a frog did they get.” (August 30, 1889)

The lure of the wilds caught Mike Dean and he skidooed north over the N. P. [Northern Pacific Railroad] early Wednesday morning. The hunting “yarns” spun by returning sports got on Mike’s nerves. He took along a small arsenal. Had he went south, one would be led to believe that he was heading for Mexico to annihilate Huerta and his ilk [Victoriano Huerta was a major player in the ongoing Mexican Revolution that year]. (Nov. 21, 1913)

Apparently Dean wasn’t much for telling “fish stories” but I expect his singing of “Vandiemens Land” may have been popular with his hunting friends.

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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.