Between 1910s and 1970s, folk song scholars, collectors and singers transcribed or recorded abundant examples of Irish-influenced traditional singing held over in the Great Lakes region from the days of live-in logging camps and fresh water schooners. The presence of instrumental music in old time Great Lakes logging camps is also well documented in photos and first-hand accounts but, sadly, very few transcribers or recorders bothered to capture any of the tunes!
Patrick Bonner was the son of Black John Bonner, believed to be the first Irishman to arrive on Beaver Island after the fall of the island’s Mormon kingdom in 1856. Black John was born on Rutland Island (=Inis Mhic an Doirn), County Donegal not far from Arranmore (the birthplace of most first generation Irish-Beaver Islanders). His song Patrick was born on Beaver Island and lived there his entire life working as a farmer, logger and sailor and entertaining on his fiddle at “dances, picnics, weddings, and house parties.” Patrick Bonner’s playing is an intriguing blend of Irish fiddle style and a looser, simpler, more “American” approach. I highly recommend looking him up online to hear him for yourself!
 Sommers, Laurie Kay, Beaver Island House Party, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1996) 45.
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.
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!
I am sitting on the stile, Mary, where we sat side by side,
On a bright May morning long ago, when first you were my bride;
The corn was springing fresh and green and the lark sang loud on high,
And the red was on your cheeks, Mary, and the love light in your eye.
The place is little changed, Mary, the day is bright as then,
The Lark’s loud song is in my ear and the corn is green again,
But I miss the love glance of your eye, your breath warm on my cheek,
And I still keep listening for the words you never more will speak.
It’s but a step down yonder lane, and the little church stands near,
The church where we were wed, Mary, I see the spire from here;
But the church yard lies between, love, and my feet might break your rest,
For I’ve laid you, darling, down to sleep with your baby on your breast.
I am very lonely now, Mary, for the poor makes no new friends,
But, oh, we love them better far, the few our Father sends;
But you were all I had, Mary, my blessing and my pride,
There is little left to care for now since my poor Mary died.
I am bidding you a long farewell, my Mary, kind and true,
But I’ll not forget you, darling, in the land I am going to;
They say there’s bread and work for all and the sun shines ever there,
But I’ll not forget old Ireland, were it twenty times as fair.
And oft times in those grand old woods I’ll sit and close my eyes,
And my thoughts will travel back again to the grave where Mary lies;
And I’ll think I see the little stile where we sat side by side,
And the springing corn and bright May morn when first you were my bride.
This heart-wrenching ballad of Irish immigration comes from Minnesotan Michael Dean’s Flying Cloud songster and I have married Dean’s text with the melody sung by John W. Green of Beaver Island, Michigan. You can hear Green’s version online via the Library of Congress. The recording, made in 1938 by Alan Lomax, captures Green’s wonderful ability to vary melody and ornamentation as he sings each verse… a characteristic that is hard to capture in a transcription. I tried to “loosen up” the melody a bit in singing the song myself.
A stile is a structure that allows people, but not animals, to pass over a wall or fence, often via steps or a ladder structure. A common feature in 19th century Irish farm country, one can imagine this as an attractive perch for courting.
The last verse of this song text (which appears in some, but not all, British broadside versions as well) is intriguing in that it describes the emigrant’s destination as among the “grand old woods.” This seems to hint at the immigration pattern I so frequently discuss in this column–Irishmen coming to the north woods of North America and, often, working in the woods as lumbermen. Both singers I sourced this song from were born to Irish immigrant fathers who pursued this type of work and settled in small lumber-based communities in the Great Lakes region.
The original text of this ballad was written by Lady Helena Selina Blackwood Dufferin (nee Sheridan) who was born in Ireland in 1807 and died in England in 1867. It was printed as a broadside frequently on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the mid-late 1800s. It appears in Halliday Sparling’s 1887 book Irish Minstrelsy: A Selection of Irish Songs and Ballads. Though a member of English high society her whole life, Sparling writes that Lady Dufferin’s poems “were the genuine outcome of a deep and understanding love of the people.” This poem was clearly inspired by the Great Famine. Halliday prints two verses not sung by Dean:
Yours was the good, brave heart, Mary, that still kept hopin’ on, When the trust in God had left my soul, and my arm’s young strength was gone; There was comfort ever on your lip, and the kind look on your brow— I bless you, Mary, for that same, though you cannot hear me now.
I thank you for the patient smile when your heart was fit to break, When the hunger pain was gnawin’ there, and you hid it for my sake; I bless you for the pleasant word, when your heart was sad and sore— O! I’m thankful you are gone, Mary, where grief can’t reach you more!