03 Oct

Vandiemens Land (Revisited)


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.

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.

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.


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.


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.