03 Aug

The Lament of the Irish Immigrant

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!

17 May

Cole Younger


I am a noble-minded man, Cole Younger is my name,
Of my many a depredation my friends I brought to shame,
For robbing of the Northfield bank and the same I will never deny,
And it leaves me a life’s prisoner in Stillwater jail to die.

The first of my many robberies I mean to let you know,
Was a poor Californian a miner lad and for the same I rue,
We took from him his money my boys and we bade him go his way,
For which I will be sorry until my dying day.

Then after getting his money my brother Bob did say,
“It is now we’ll buy fast horses and from home we’ll ride away,”
——-[no text for third line of melody, Green skips to fourth line]——
And we’ll chase the mountain guerrillas until our dying day.

Then we started out to Texas to that good old Lone Star state,
And on the Nebraska prairie the James boys we did meet,
With knives and revolvers we there sat down to play,
A-drinking lots of good old brandy for to drive the blues away.

And the Union Pacific Railroad was the next we did surprise,
And robbing with our bloody hands would take tears on to your eyes,
A-robbing with our bloody hands would take tears on to your eyes,
And on the Nebraska prairie their mouldering body lies.

And then we left that pretty place and northward we did go,
To that God-forsaken country called Minnesot-i-o,
Our mind was fixed on Mankatah [Mankato] bank but brother Bob did say
“Oh if you undertake that job I fear you’ll rue the day.”

Then we stationed out our pickets and up to the bank did go
And there behind the counter, I struck the deadly blow,
“Oh hand me out your money boys and make no long delay,
For we’re the noted Younger boys who gives no time to pray.”

In ten years of searching through archives and old song books for Irish-influenced songs from the Great Lakes region, I have found only a handful of texts that include Minnesota place names. Of the few I have found, I consider this one the best! It is about one of our state’s most notorious historical events: the raid by the James Gang and the Younger Brothers on the Northfield Bank in September 1876. Cole Younger survived the shots fired by citizens of Northfield that day and then 25 years in the Stillwater prison before being released. His celebrity as a real outlaw helped him make a living after release and he attempted to cash in with his own “wild west show” and a published memoir. Today, there are many resources online and in print that tell the fascinating stories of the James Gang, Cole Younger and the Northfield raid-gone-wrong.

I came across the ballad “Cole Younger” in a few books but fell in love with it when I heard it sung by Beaver Island, Michigan singer John W. Green. Versions of the ballad were collected all over the US but Green’s is by far the most Irish-sounding treatment I have found. Green was a prolific traditional singer and the focus of Alan Lomax’s field recordings during his visit to Beaver Island in 1938. You can hear Green singing the song online thanks to the Library of Congress’s recent digitization of Lomax’s Michigan recordings. It is impossible in a transcription (such as mine above) to do justice to the lovely variations and ornamentations that Green puts into each verse as he sings. He was an older man at the time of the recordings and not always in command of his voice but his singing includes many flourishes that hint at the masterful singing community, full of first generation immigrants from Donegal, that Green grew up in on the island in the late 1800s.

05 Jul

My Dear Irish Boy

My Dear Irish Boy

My Connor’s cheeks are as [a] ruddy as morning,
The brightest of pearls but mimic his teeth,
And nature with ringlets his mild brow adorning,
And love’s* Cupid’s bow strings, and roses his breath.
Smiling, beguiling, cheering, endearing,
Together oft over the mountain we strayed,
By each other delighted and fondly united,
And I’d listen all day to my dear Irish boy.

Now the war is all over and my love has not returned,
I’m afraid that some envious plot has been laid,
And that some cruel goddess has him captivated,
And left me to mourn a dear Irish maid.
And smiling, beguiling, cheering, endearing,
And together oft over the mountain we strayed,
By each other delighted and fondly united,
I would listen all day to my dear Irish boy.

*most broadside versions have “his hair” instead of “and love’s”—makes a little more sense to me.

This month I chose a Beaver Island, Michigan version of a song that is often played as an air by instrumentalists: “My Dear Irish Boy.” This version comes from the prolific singer Johnny W. Green of Beaver Island who sang it for Alan Lomax in 1938. The Lomax recording was recently digitized and made available online by the American Folklife Center (along with all the other fascinating recordings made by Lomax in Michigan that year). You can listen to Green himself sing it here.

The recordings made by Lomax in Beaver Island include a wealth of rare Irish songs. They also include chat about local singers, travelling to the “main land” for lumbering and other work and family connections to Ireland (mostly Donegal). It is a collection well worth checking out!

There’s a beautiful video of Clare fiddler Joe Ryan playing the air version of this song here. The air has some extra parts to how Green sang it.