13 May

The Broken Shovel

Good Christians all ah come lend an ear,
Unto my ditty and the truth you’ll hear,
It’s of Barney Gallagher so bold and true,
Yarrah that broke me shovel,
Yarrah that broke me shovel,
Yarrah that broke me fine brand-new shovel in two.

When the whistle blew and the shovel was broke,
Old Neddy Kearn was the first man spoke,
Saying “Barney Gallagher come tell me true,
What for you broke me shovel,
What for you broke me shovel,
What for you broke me fine brand-new shovel in two?”

Oh Barney Gallagher in a stuttering way,
“I’ll c-crack your jaw if I hang that day,
To ins-s-sult a m-m-man ah so b-b-bold and true,
About your b-b-bloody shovel,
About your b-b-bloody shovel,
About your bloody shovel that was broke in two.”

Barney and McGlynn, they both pitch in,
Like Corbett and Mitchell they form a ring,
The crowd around began to roar,
When who the devil entered,
When who the devil entered but the Pretta-Mor.

“Hold on,” says the Pretta, “we must have fair play.
He’s a Rosses man, we will win the day,
But if you touch him, then I’ll touch you.”
That was all about the shovel,
That was all about the shovel that was broke in two.

This fascinating song originated in the coal mining community of Hazelton, Pennsylvania around 1890 where many men from the Rosses of Donegal labored and where to break another miner’s shovel was no small offense. There are several intriguing aspects of this song including the use of the nickname “Pretta-Mor”—no doubt a corruption of prátaí mór (big potatoes) and evidence of Irish language in the mines. Famed Donegal fiddle player Néillidh Boyle (grandfather of Kathleen Boyle, piano player with Cherish the Ladies) was born in 1889 down the road from Hazelton in Easton, Pennsylvania where his father Patrick worked as locktender on the Lehigh Canal before returning to Donegal in 1898. Boyles, Gallaghers, McGlynns and others came in droves from Donegal to Pennsylvania in the late 1800s in search of canal and mine work.

The above is my transcription of a recording made by folklorist George Korson of singer Daniel Brennan in 1946. Many thanks to my friend Steve Stanislaw in Pennsylvania (a wonderful singer who interprets songs like this perfectly) for introducing me to this amazing song.

13 May

Roll Her to the Wall

As I rode out one evening down by a shady lane,
I overheard Jim Johnson, a keeper of the game,
He says unto his servant maid “If it wasn’t for the law,
I’d take you by the slender waist and roll you to the wall.”

“Hold your tongue you young man and do not bother me,
Before you lie one night with me you must get me dishes three,
Three dishes you must get for me; suppose I eat them all,
Before you’ll lie one night with me at either stock or wall.

“For my breakfast you must have a fish without a bone,
And for my dinner you must have a cherry without a stone,
And for my supper you must have a bird without a gall,
Before you lie one night with me at either stock or wall.”

“When the fish it is all in its spawn I’m sure it has no bone,
When the cherry is in blossom I’m sure it has no stone,
The dove it is a gentle bird, it flies without a gall,
So you I in one bed lie, and you lie next the wall.”

“Hold your tongue you young man and do not me perplex,
Before you lie one night with me you must answer questions six,
Six questions you must answer me if I should ask them all,
Before you lie one night with me at either stock or wall.

“What is rounder than a ring? What’s higher than a tree?
Or what is worse than womankind and deeper than the sea?
What bird flies first? What flower blooms first? Or where does the dew first fall?
Before you lie one night with me at either stock or wall.”

“The earth is rounder than a ring, heaven’s higher than a tree,
The devil is worse than womankind, hell’s deeper than the sea,
The thrush flies first, the lily blooms first and the dew on the leaves first falls,
If those questions true I’ve answered you, now you lie next the wall.”

This couple they got married and happy now do dwell,
It’s every night when they go to bed into his arms she’ll crawl,
[use melody of 4th line:] He’ll take her by the slender waist and roll her to the wall.

The collection of “English and Scottish Popular Ballads” compiled by Harvard English professor Francis James Child in the late 1800s was so comprehensive and influential that the designation “Child ballad” continues to be used today, often complete with the ballad’s “Child number.” Professor Child endeavored to limit his collection to “traditional” (i.e. older) ballads and to discard more modern creations including “come-all-ye”-type story songs. In the pine woods of the Great Lakes region, it was precisely these come-all-ye ballads, along with even newer popular forms, that made up the bulk of singers’ repertoires. Child ballads turn up in Great Lakes collections, but they are far outnumbered by these other types.

This month we have the first Child ballad that has appeared in this column. The above “Roll Her to the Wall” is my composite of two Michigan versions of Child 46: “Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship.” My primary source was Alan Lomax’s 1938 recording of Beaver Island singer Dominic Gallagher. To help the riddles make a little more sense, I borrowed some words from verses in another version collected by Gardner and Chickering from Eliza Youngs of Greenville, Michigan in 1939. As with all recordings of Gallagher (in my opinion) his plaintive and subtly ornamented singing is beautiful and worth a listen via the Library of Congress’ online archive!

20 Mar

Highland Mary

Ye banks and braes and streams around the castles of Montgomery,
Green be your woods and fair your flowers, your waters never drumlie,
There summer first unfolds her robes, and there I langest tarry,
For there I took the last farewell, of my sweet Highland Mary.

How sweetly bloomed the gay green birk, how rich the hawthorn’s blossom,
As underneath their fragrant shade, I clasped her to my bosom,
The golden hours, on angel’s wings, flew o’er me and my dearie,
For dear to me as light and life, was my sweet Highland Mary.

Wi’ many a vow and locked embrace, our parting was so tender,
And pledging oft to meet again, we tore ourselves asunder,
But oh! Fell death’s untimely froth that nipped my flower so early,
Now green’s the sod and cold’s the clay that wraps my Highland Mary.

O pale, pale now those rosy lips I oft have kissed so fondly,
And closed for aye the sparkling glance that dwelt on me so kindly,
And mouldering now in silent death that heart that lowed me dearly,
But still within my bosom’s core shall live my Highland Mary.

In honor of Burns Night coming up on January 25th we have a song found in both Ireland and the north woods that began as a poem penned by Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. The above version comes from the wonderful singing of Beaver Island, Michigan-born woodsman and singer Dominic Gallagher (1867-1954). Dominic’s father “Big Dominic” Gallagher, like most Beaver Islanders of his generation, emigrated from the island of Arranmore, Co. Donegal. After singing the above for collector Ivan Walton in 1940, Dominick said (with characteristic humility) “The first time I heard that I was only about six years of age at a party home. A fellow by the name of Paddy Hamey[?] sang it two weeks after he was married—a very fine singer—could sing it a good deal better than I sang it now.”

Twelve years after Dominic Gallagher was recorded on Beaver Island, famed Co. Fermanagh singer Paddy Tunney assisted collector Peter Kennedy in recording Paddy’s mother Brigid Tunney singing a similar version of “Highland Mary” at her home in Fermanagh. Interestingly, Brigid, like Dominic’s father, was born in Donegal and her maiden name was also Gallagher.