01 Sep

Lost on the Lady Elgin (revisited)

MCD_A026 Lost on the Lady Elgin

Up from the poor man’s cottage, forth from the mansion door,
Sweeping across the water and echoing along the shore,
Caught by the morning breezes, borne on the evening gale,
Came at the dawn of morning a sad and solemn wail.

Refrain—
Lost on the Lady Elgin, sleeping to wake no more,
Numbering in death five hundred that failed to reach the shore.

Sad was the wail of children, weeping for parents gone,
Children that slept at evening, orphans woke at morn;
Sisters for brothers weeping, husbands for missing wives,
These were the ties that were severed by those five hundred lives.

Staunch was the noble steamer, precious the freight she bore,
Gaily they loosed their cables a few short hours before,
Proudly she swept our harbor, joyfully rang the bell,
Little they thought ere morning it would peal so sad a knell.

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We return this month to the song “Lost on the Lady Elgin” from the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael Dean. The song depicts the outpouring of grief that followed the tragic sinking of the side-wheel passenger steamer Lady Elgin in Lake Michigan 156 years ago in September 1860. The ship’s loss struck a particularly painful blow to the Irish community of Milwaukee’s Third Ward as many of the doomed passengers hailed from that area. The Lost Forty was in Milwaukee ourselves last month for their annual Irish Fest and we videotaped our version of the song in the historic Third Ward on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Michael Dean’s older brother James came to Milwaukee around 1865 and lived in the Seventh Ward—just north of the Third. James Dean served a long career as conductor for the Milwaukee Railroad. It is possible that Michael learned the song during a trip to visit his brother though the song also travelled all around the US and Canada and was popular throughout the Great Lakes region especially.

Since I began singing “The Lady Elgin” I have met people who have stories about family members singing the song and, in the case of one audience member I met at the Minnesota Irish Fair last year, an ancestor who was lost in the wreck itself.

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.