05 Mar

Johnny Jarmin

He says “Dear honored lady, what makes you so cast down?”
Right modestly she answered, without a tear or frown,
“My true love’s gone and left me, he’s sailing to and fro,
And he left me no true love’s token, whether he would return or no.”

“Perhaps I saw your darling, when I was last at sea,
And if I do describe him, the truth you’ll tell to me,
And if I do describe him, I hope you’ll tell me so,
That you’ll agree and marry me, let him return or no.”

“Your true love’s tall and handsome where ’er he turns his back,
He’s comely in his features, and they call him Handsome Jack,
He’s away on board the Rainbow, he’s sailing to and fro,
Your true love’s Johnny Jarmin. Is he the lad or no?”

“He’s just the very sailor lad that you have mention-ed,
Pray tell to me, kind sir, is he alive or dead?
He was away on board the Rainbow, and sailing to and fro,
Your true love John Jarmin, is dead nine months ago.”

When she heard this doleful news, she fell in deep despair,
To the wringing of her hands and the tearing of her hair,
She fled unto her chamber, all for to make great moan,
It’s expected any moment, that death wil claim it’s own.

He has dressed himself in scarlet red, and is away to her again,
To ease her of her sorrows, and cure her killing pain,
“Cheer up, cheer up, my Mary, for there’s none so blithe as thee,
There’s not two doves in all the world, to equal you and me.”

“The moon exceeds the sun, the sun exceeds the rose,
And upon your bosom, darling, that flower both buds and grows,
There is none shall e’er enjoy me, but you that feels the smart,
And I’ll bid adieu to the Rainbow, since Mary has won my heart.”

The Minnesota Historical Society has an oral history interview made in the 1950s with Mary Orr O’Neill who cooked meals in her father’s lumber camps on Tamarac River, Loon Lake and Sioux Portage, Wisconsin in the 1880s. In it, Orr O’Neill recalls hearing several songs in her father’s camps including “Johnny German.” Versions of this song were once sung across the Great Lakes and in the Canadian Maritimes as well as in Ireland where Sam Henry collected a version. The above text come from an unpublished typescript compiled by New York singer Joseph McGinnis in the 1920s and titled The Songs of the Dogwatch. The melody is adapted from McGinnis as well with some modifications (McGinnis did strange things with key signatures and rhythm that I believe are more a function of his understanding of staff notation than a representation of what he actually sung).

Like the more well-known “Banks of Claudy,” “Johnny Jarmin” is what folklorists term a Riley Ballad—a story in which a man leaves his girlfriend behind, returns years later and tests her faithfulness by pretending to not be who he is. I was first introduced to this plot line as a kid by Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride which I must have watched a thousand times. The trick seemed cruel, confusing and strangely romantic to me then and now. I think McGinnis’ “Johnny Jarmin” deals with the resolution in a very satisfying, poetic way.

22 Nov

Riley and I Were Chums

One day as I went out for a walk, myself and my chum Johnny Riley,
The air it being kind of damp and the weather rather dryly,
Just then the cop caught me by the ear he says, “Young man there’s a warrant here,”
And I took the warrant with the greatest of fear and I handed it over to Riley. -Chorus

One day I picked up a watch and chain going out with my chum Johnny Riley,
Riley always looked for his share, he was so awfully wily,
But as by a lamp we chanced to pass, it’s then I saw by the glimmer of the glass,
That the watch was gold but the chain was brass so the chain went over to Riley. -Chorus

Last Saturday night I married a wife and my best man there was Riley,
I thought she’d be the joy of my life, she looked so very shyly,
But soon I found it was no fun, one day she chased me with a gun,
I said, “Now madam, with you I’ve done” and I handed her over to Riley. -Chorus

After an inspiring week of music at the All Ireland Fleadh this past month, I had the chance to spend a day at the amazing Irish Traditional Music Archive on Merrion Square in Dublin. There, I dove into the ITMA’s incredible collection of field recordings from Newfoundland made in the 1970s by Aidan O’Hara. The ITMA recently launched a digital exhibition of O’Hara’s Newfoundland material on its website that I highly recommend checking out. This month’s song is one that you can listen to directly from their website—easier (though less fun) than a trip to Dublin!

I was delighted to come upon O’Hara’s recording of Newfoundlander Frankie Nash giving a spirited rendition of this comic song! I encountered it first several years ago as performed by Crandon, Wisconsin traditional singer Robert Walker who was recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1937. Walker’s version (available here) is nice but to me it is Nash really brings “Riley” to life. Digging around online, I was also happy to discover that the New York Public Library has unearthed and digitized an 1892 song sheet version titled “I Handed it Over to Riley” which you can also access online. In Newfoundland, the song is attributed to local songsmith Johnny Burke. NYPL’s song sheet, and the style of the song itself, would seem to suggest that it most likely originated on the stage (the composers are listed as Albert Hall and Felix McGlennon) and was then, like many stage songs, adapted into tradition by others.

Interestingly, the Newfoundland, Wisconsin and song sheet versions of this song all have rather distinct melodies from one another. The above transcription is based on the Newfoundland melody though I drew on all three versions to fill out the text.

22 Nov

The Gallant Brigantine

As I rode ashore last Sunday from my gallant brigantine,
In the island of Jamaica where I have lately been,
And carelessly I wandered, not caring where I went,
And toward a rich plantation my steps I slowly bent.

And the orange trees decorate the field with green and yellow buds,
And occasionally my mind is filled with melancholy thoughts,
That when I get tired of rambling I would sit me down and rest,
And I was thinking of the little ones at home, the land that I love best

Now my parents live in harmony, they are laboring at their ease,
But I am doing my foolishness to plough the raging seas,
And I am doing my foolishness to ramble night and day,
Now I’ll sing a song of old Ireland for to drive dull care away.

And when my song was at an end, I was a-feeling at my ease
I arose to pick some oranges that grew upon the trees,
And there a female form I spied that filled me with delight,
She wore the robes of innocence, her dress was snowy white.

Her dress was snowy white, my boys, bound round and trimmed with green,
And a silken scarf around her neck her shoulders for to screen,
Her hair hung o’er her shoulders as black as any sloes,
And her rolling eye attracted me, her cheeks were like the rose.

I modestly saluted her saying, “Good morning, my pretty fair maid,”
And with a kind reception, “Good morning sir,” she said,
I told her I was a sailor that lately came from sea,
And that I belonged to that brigantine that laid anchored in the Bay.

And we both got down together and we chatted for a while,
And I told her many a hard old yarn which caused her for to smile,
But when I arose to leave her, she gave me this address,
“You call in and see my husband, he will treat you to the best.”

Then I was kindly introduced to a noble-looking man,
Who kindly saluted me and took me by the hand,
And the wine was on the table and the dinner was served up soon,
And we all sat down together, spent a jovial afternoon.

The “Old Songs That Men Have Sung” column that ran in the October 20, 1922 issue of the pulp magazine Adventure (pictured) included the following request sent in by one of the column’s many avid readers:

Michael Dean (the same Irish-Minnesotan featured often in this column) was one of hundreds of American and Canadian readers of “Old Songs” who sang and pursued traditional folksongs with the help of the far-flung community of singers and amateur collectors brought together by the column and its enthusiastic editors. Dean corresponded by letter with “Old Songs” editors Robert Frothingham and Robert Winslow Gordon as well as other “Old Songs” readers and contributors (the column ran song texts sent in by readers responding to published requests). In addition to published requests and contributions, Dean swapped songs with these people directly by mail. It was this correspondence that ultimately led to Gordon travelling by train with his wax cylinder recording machine to record Dean’s singing in 1924.

We do not know if Dean ever tracked down a complete version of “The Gallant Brigantine” (he did manage to get a version of “Paul Jones, the Privateer” and sing it for collector Franz Rickaby the following summer). The version above is transcribed primarily from Alan Lomax’s 1938 recording of Beaver Island, Michigan singer Johnny W. Green with a few tweaks inspired by other versions found in the Canadian Maritimes. It is a peculiar song with an almost punchline-like ending. Not the typical conclusion to a story like this!