23 Dec

The Fellow That Looks Like Me


In sad despair I wander my heart is filled with woe,
Though in my grief I ponder what to do I do not know,
For cruel fate does on me frown and the trouble seems to be,
That there’s a fellow in this town and he just looks like me.

Chorus:
Oh wouldn’t I like to catch him, whoever he may be,
Wouldn’t I give him particular fits, that fellow that looks like me.

One evening I sat speaking to a girl as dear as life,
When a lady who had just dropped in says “Brown how is your wife?”
In vain I said “I’m a single man, ’tis married I wish to be,”
She called me a swindler and kicked me out for the fellow that looks like me.

With a lady fair I started to the Central Park to go,
But was stopped in the street by a man who said “Pay the bill you owe.”
In vain I said “I know you not,” He would not let me free,
’Til a crowd came ’round and the bill I paid for the fellow that looks like me.

Then to a ball one night I went, and was just enjoying the sport,
When a policeman caught me by the arm saying “you’re wanted down in court,
You escaped us twice but this here time we’ll take care you don’t get free,”
They dragged me off and locked me up for the fellow that looks like me.

I was tried next day, found guilty too, was about to be taken down,
When a second policeman then brought in the right criminal Mr. Brown,
They locked him up and set me free wasn’t he a sight to see,
For the ugliest wretch that ever you saw was the fella that looked like me!

This month I chose a light-hearted song that I have been meaning to learn for a while. I came across it via the rich digital archive of MacEdward Leach’s field recordings from Newfoundland made available by that province’s Memorial University. Leach recorded a wonderful, lilty version from Trepassey singer Cyril O’Brien in 1951. “The Fellow That Looked Like Me” was also sung in logging communities in Pennsylvania and Michigan as well as in Appalachia where it eventually made its way into the old time country repertoire by way of recordings by Al Hopkins and his Buckle Busters and others.

The song had its start in the 1860s during the early days of vaudeville in New York where it was written by Dublin-born John F. Poole and performed by the “Father of Vaudeville” Tony Pastor around 1867. Irish composers, melodies and themes were a central part of vaudeville in those years. Poole and Pastor also teamed up on the famous song lamenting anti-Irish job discrimination, “No Irish Need Apply,” as well as the original “Tim Finigan’s Wake” (yes that “Finnegan’s Wake!”).

Of all the versions I’ve found from folk sources, Newfoundlander Cyril O’Brien’s is my favorite and it’s also the closest to Poole’s original composition. The above melodic transcription is from O’Brien and the text is my own blend of O’Brien’s text and the original text published by Poole. Poole’s original is available online here.

28 Nov

Sweet Recale

I am a rich merchant’s only son, my age is twenty-two,
I fell in love with a handsome girl, the truth I will tell you,
And because that I had riches great and she was of a low degree,
Which caused my parents for to frown and prove my destiny.

They sent me to Americay, my fortune for to seek,
I was shipwrecked on the Austria, that now lies in the deep,
But Providence to me proved kind, a plank brought me to shore,
I’m in hopes to see my handsome girl at Sweet Recale once more.

It was on the morning of the fourth just by the break of day,
This handsome girl stepped up to me and this to me did say,
“Where are you from, my nice young man, come quickly tell to me,
Or are you from the heavens above, where is your country?”

“Oh I am a stranger in this place, the truth to you I’ll tell,
For loving of a pretty fair maiden in the town of sweet Recale.
And because that I had riches great and she was of a low degree,
Which caused my parents for to frown which proved my destiny.”

“Oh come tell me are you married to that girl you left behind?”
“No, but I’m already promised and a promise that’s good and kind,
I am already promised to that girl in sweet Recale,
And except her no other fair maids will ever my favor gain.”

And this fair maid fell a-weeping tears rolled down her rosy cheeks,
“Oh here is twenty guineas in gold for to bear you o’er the sea,
For love is better, I do find, than gold or earthly store,
May heavens above return you love, to sweet Recale once more.”

In 1934, Minnesota music teacher Bessie Stanchfield put out a call for old St. Croix Valley lumbermen to send in songs for publication in the Stillwater Post-Messenger. A man living in North Dakota who said he had been a lumberjack on the St. Croix Valley fifty years before wrote saying “I spent two winters working in one of Isaac Staples’ camps on the Apple River [WI]. The foreman was Andy McGrath. Every Saturday night we had a dance. Every Sunday night we sang. Tom Harrington, the camp blacksmith, was a fiddler, and the singers included Hendy Lane, James Riley, and young Jim McGrath.” The letter writer referred to one old song once popular in the area and remarked “Jim McGrath sang it fine.”

This Jim McGrath may likely have been James E. McGrath, son of John McGrath from Wicklow, Ireland and a successful (for a time) lumber company operator for whom the town of McGrath, MN is named. In any case, singer Jim McGrath was still in the Stillwater area in 1934 and in Stanchfield’s unpublished papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, she writes that, though he was a reluctant singer, “after one old-timer, then another, dropped into the office to tell of [McGrath’s] clear tenor and his great memory for the old songs” McGrath finally relented and began recalling for her “those pleasant evenings in the bunk house” and the songs that went with them.

The Stanchfield papers include part of McGrath’s text for “Sweet Recale.” I have mixed the McGrath text with melody and text again recorded by Alan Lomax in 1938 from Beaver Island, Michigan singer John W. Green (you can listen to Green’s version online via the Library of Congress) and a few lines nabbed from a third version collected in 1935 in Alger, Michigan by Gardner and Chickering.

I have found three 19th century broadside versions of this ballad from Ireland where the place name is either Belfast, Derry or Limerick instead of Recale. Lomax spells it Raquale and Gardner spells it Recail. I assumed it was a Great Lakes place name until another version recently turned up on the Irish Traditional Music Archive from Inishowen Penninsula singer Denis McDaid who sings Rycale. I’m at a loss as to the location of this mysterious place name!

15 Sep

The Farmer’s Boy


Oh the sun it sank behind a hill across the dreary moor,
Poor and lame there came a boy up to a farmer’s door,
Saying, “Please, will you tell me a man about here that would me employ,
To plough, to sow, to reap and to mow, to be a farmer’s boy?”

“My father’s dead, my mother lives with her five children small,
And what is the worst for mother dear, I’m the eldest of them all,
Although I am small, I fear no work if you’ll only me employ,
To plough, to sow, to reap, and to mow, to be a farmer’s boy.”

“Oh well,” says the farmer, “we’ll try the lad, no longer have him seek,”
“Yes, dear Papa,” his daughter cried, as the tears rolled down her cheek,
“For a man that can work, it’s hard for him to want, and to wander for employ,
Don’t send him away, but let him stay, and be your laboring boy.”

Well the years went by, the boy grew up and the good old farmer died,
He willed to the lad the farm that he had, and his daughter for a bride,
Now the lad that was once; he’s a farmer now. He often thinks with joy,
On the happy, happy day he came that way, to be a farmer’s boy.
—————–

This month’s song comes from Edith Fowke’s 1957 recording of Ottawa Valley singer Oliver John (O.J.) Abbott (1872-1962). Abbott was born in Enfield, England and came to Ontario as a 12-year-old with his brother but without their parents. As a young man in the Ottawa area, he boarded with and worked for two Irish families, the Whalens and the O’Malleys. He learned many songs from Mrs. Whalen and Mrs. O’Malley and more from his winter work in lumber camps. After being “discovered” by Fowke in his mid 80s, Abbott went on to appear alongside Pete Seeger at multiple folk festivals as a representative of the rich tradition of “woods” singing found in the Ottawa Valley region (here he is being interviewed by Ewan MacColl). “The Farmer’s Boy” must have resonated strongly with Abbott as someone who, himself, was taken as a “farmer’s boy” as a vulnerable young man.

Versions of this song were collected all over the US including in Wisconsin where it was sung by Crandon singer Warde Ford (I substituted Ford’s opening line for Abbott’s above). It has also been found throughout England where it likely originated as a mid-19th century broadside. The song must also be known in Ireland for, after singing it once in Chicago, Sligo-born flute legend Kevin Henry remarked “Where did you get ‘The Farmer’s Boy?’ I haven’t heard that since I was a boy!”