01 Feb

The Clipper Ship Dreadnaught (revisited)

The Clipper Ship Dreadnaught_Gordon_Miller.musx

We have a flash packet, she’s a packet of fame,
She belongs to New York and the Dreadnaught’s her name;
She is bound for the ocean where the stormy winds blow,
Bound away on the “Dreadnaught” to the Westward we’ll go.

The “Dreadnaught” is lying at Liverpool dock.
Where the boys and the girls on the pier-heads do flock,
And they give us three cheers as their tears down do flow,
Bound away on the “Dreadnaught” to the Westward we’ll go.

And now we are howling on the wild Irish sea,
Where the sailors and passengers together agree,
For the sailors are perched on the yard arms, you know,
Bound away on the “Dreadnaught” to the Westward we’ll go.

Now we are sailing on the ocean so wide,
Where the great open billows dash against her black side,
And the sailors off watch are sleeping below,
Bound away on the “Dreadnaught” to the Westward we’ll go.

And now we are howling off the banks of New Foundland,
Where the waters are deep and the bottom is sand,
Where the fish of the ocean they swim to and fro,
Bound away on the “Dreadnaught” to the Westward we’ll go.

And now we are safe in New York Harbor once more,
I will go and see Nancy, she’s the girl I adore,
To the parson’s I’ll take her, my bride for to be,
And bid adieu to the “Dreadnaught” and the deep stormy sea.


This is the first song I am featuring as part of The Lost Forty Project I announced last month. The video is of The Lost Forty (Randy Gosa and I) performing our brand new arrangement of the above song. For the next eleven songs printed in Northwoods Songs, Randy and I will arrange the song and post a video on the first of the month. We are excited to be working with Cliff Dahlberg of Twelve Plus Media who is shooting the videos. You can access these videos and an archive of all previous Northwoods Songs columns and videos here or via my Youtube Channel.

“The Clipper Ship Dreadnaught” was already the focus of a Northwoods Songs post in November 2014. I return to it this month because it was the first song Randy and I chose to arrange for The Lost Forty Project. We based our arrangement on the 1924 field recording of Minnesota singer Michael Dean. The Dean recording will be part of the Minnesota Folksong Collection website I am building.

A central goal of The Lost Forty Project is to inspire others to learn and sing these songs themselves. This could mean singing the song unaccompanied, the way Dean and other woods singers of his generation would have done, or it could also mean creating an accompanied arrangement as Randy and I have done for “The Dreadnaught.” It is my opinion that both are musically satisfying and valuable approaches.

I learned and sang this song unaccompanied first. From that, I found my voice likes pitching it in B (it’s transcribed in D above). For our arrangement, I started by making up a guitar part using an unusual tuning associated with English guitarist/singer Nic Jones: BF#BF#BC#. Randy then created a harmonizing mandola part in CGDG tuning capoed at the 4th fret. I often use a combination of sheet music and the handy voice memo app on my phone to remember bits of my part as I make them up. Randy tends to work more by ear and memory. It is often a labor-intensive (but fun) process to come up with two complementary parts that we both like. Along the way, I decided to drop two verses from Dean’s version and change a few words here and there. I have transcribed it above more or less how I now sing it.

Next month, I will return to giving historical notes in my discussion of another song from the project: “The Crafty Miss.” For those interested in learning how to arrange songs in a style similar to Randy and me, when I launch my Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign this month one incentive I will be offering is a set of guitar and bouzouki/mandola part transcriptions for all twelve songs in the project.

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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.

20 Jan

A New Name and a New Project for 2016

Brian Miller and Randy Gosa will now perform under the name The Lost Forty. We have a new site as well: www.thelostforty.com.

This site, www.evergreentrad.com, will continue to be the home of this blog (Northwoods Songs) along with other information and updates about my research, performing and teaching work.

Also, this month marks the launch of an exciting northwoods folksong revival project that will run throughout 2016: The Lost Forty Project. The Lost Forty Project will celebrate and make accessible forgotten field recordings of Minnesotan traditional singers recorded almost a century ago.

A bit about the name(s):

In November of 1882, a surveying crew in the north woods of Minnesota accidentally plotted Coddington Lake a half-mile further north than it was actually located. Today, the happy result is the Lost 40 Scientific and Nature Area—a rare and wonderful stand of old growth pine, some trees now over 300 years old, that was overlooked by logging companies due to the error. It is a breathtaking time capsule from Minnesota’s past.

Much of Minnesota’s early folksong traditions (including some songs as old as those trees) have been similarly overlooked. For almost ten years now, I have sought out the forgotten songs of farmers, Great Lakes sailors, lumbermen and saloon-keepers that carried Old World ballads to the North Star State back in the 1800s. These songs are what Randy and I perform as The Lost Forty… and a very special group of these songs is the focus of The Lost Forty Project.

In September 1924, pioneering folksong collector Robert Winslow Gordon traveled from Berkeley, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts with his Edison wax cylinder recording machine in tow. A month after arriving in Cambridge, Gordon wrote a letter in which he gave a brief account of his trip:

I made a very leisurely trip east with many stop-overs and side trips collecting material. I got some immensely good stuff up in northern Minnesota, lumber-jack material…[1]

The “good stuff” Gordon recorded on this September 1924 trip was overlooked for decades—much like the pine trees north of Coddington Lake. Gordon’s 1924 recordings of singers from northern Minnesota, documenting 47 songs, were preserved by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress but not cataloged as having anything to do with Minnesota. Gordon did extensive recording in North Carolina, Georgia and California and must not have kept notes on his brief adventure “up north.”

Through my research, I was able to track down and identify Gordon’s forgotten “Minnesota” recordings. This spring I will be creating The Minnesota Folksong Collection—an online digital library for the songs Gordon recorded from Michael Cassius Dean of Virginia, Minnesota and Reuben Waitstell Phillips of Akeley, Minnesota. The recordings will be free to listen to for anyone with an internet connection. These are some of the only existing recordings of traditional folksong from Minnesota and some of the earliest from anywhere in the Great Lakes region. The 47 songs include regionally-composed songs about woods work, Irish come-all-ye’s, songs about sailing the Great Lakes, railroading songs, deer hunting songs and old British ballads dating as far back as the 1680s—a similar age to those trees up by Coddington Lake! In addition to the recordings and background on Dean and Phillips, song texts and transcriptions will be provided to encourage people to learn these songs and make them their own.

As part of the project, Randy Gosa and I (The Lost Forty) will perform and teach our arrangements of songs from the collection at concerts and workshops throughout the state. We will also post online monthly videos of us performing our arrangements. The first video will be posted here on February 1st! In addition, an online “song forum” connected to The Minnesota Folksong Collection will invite others to post their own videos of themselves doing songs learned from the collection.

This project has been a dream of mine since July 2012 when, late at night while scouring a set of digitized newspapers for information about singer Michael Dean, I found an article implying the existence of these recordings. Seventy-five percent of the funding for this project is coming from a Folk and Traditional Arts Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. In February, I will be launching a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to help make up the rest of the funding needed to make this dream a reality.

Please check back for more information on the launch of the Minnesota Folksong Collection site, the Kickstarter and to see the first song video when it posts on February 1st!


[1] Gordon, Robert W. Robert W. Gordon to C. L. Canon, October 31, 1924. Letter. From American Folklife Center, Gordon Manuscript Collections, Gordon Mss, #769.

27 Dec

The Brown Girl (Laws O2)

The Brown Girl

When first to this country I came as a stranger,
I placed my affection on a maid that was young,
She being young and tender, her waist small and slender,
Kind nature had formed her for my overthrow.

On the bank of a river where first I beheld her,
She seemed like fair Venus or some other queen,
Her eyes shone like diamonds or stars brightly beaming,
Her cheeks like two roses or blood upon snow,

It was her cruel parents that first caused my ruin,
Because they were rich and above my degree,
But I will do my endeavor, my fair one, to gain her,
Although she belongs to a high family.

She says, “Lovely Johnny, don’t be melancholy,
If you will be loyal, I’ll surely prove true,
There is no other inferior that will e’er gain my favor,
On the banks of a river I’ll wander with you.”

Now since I have gained her I am contented forever,
I’ll put rings on her fingers and gold in her hair,
With diamonds and pearls I will deck my Brown Girl,
And in all kinds of splendor I’ll style you, “My Dear.”

We return this month to the repertoire of Michael Cassius Dean whose version of “The Brown Girl,” shown above, was transcribed by collector Franz Rickaby when he visited Dean’s home of Virginia, Minnesota in 1923. Much less gory than the older English ballad of the same name, Dean’s “Brown Girl” is a 19th century broadside ballad also found in tradition in the Canadian Maritimes and Ireland. As I have familiarized myself with Dean’s repertoire (more than 160 songs) over the past several years of research I find myself drawn to his songs that evoke something of his life here in Minnesota. I love this text for the image of “blood upon snow”—a striking description of rosy cheeks that fits with Dean’s snowy home.

There is a lot more of Dean to come in 2016! Next month marks the launch of the “Lost Forty Project”—my year-long effort publicize and revive forty forgotten field recordings made of Minnesota-based traditional singers in 1924 by Robert Winslow Gordon. Thirty of the recordings are of Dean and they will all soon be made freely available on a website I will be creating! Stay tuned for more!

You can see digitized versions of some of the mid-1800s broadside printings of this ballad courtesy of the Bodleian Library’s amazing broadside ballad collection

For list of print publications containing versions of this song and more info, see its Traditional Ballad Index page