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.

17 Feb

The Apprentice Boy

Near Linster [Leinster] I was born, not of a high degree,
My parents they adored me, they had no child but me;
I roved around for pleasure where’er my fancy lay,
Until I was bound apprentice, then all joys passed away.

My master and my mistress they did not use me well,
I formed a resolution not long with them to dwell;
So, unknown to friends and kindred, I slyly stole away,
And steered my course to Dublin, to me a woeful day.

I had not been in Dublin a day but only three
When an estated lady proposed to hire me;
She offered great inducement her waiting man to be,
If I would go with her to London, which proved my destiny.

Her offer I accepted, my fortune being low,
In hopes of grand promotion if along with her I’d go;
And as we sailed over-bound for that British shore,
It is little I thought I ne’er would see my native country more.

When we arrived in London to view that fine city,
My evil-minded mistress grew very fond of me;
She offered me ten thousand pounds to be paid down in hand,
If I’d agree to marry her it would be at my command.

“Oh, mistress, honored mistress, you must excuse me now,
For I am already promised upon a solemn vow;
Yes, I am already promised, and solemn vow I’ve made,
To wed with none but Jennie, your handsome waiting maid.”

In wrath and indignation my evil mistress said,
“Just see how I am slighted all for a servant maid;
Since you disdain my person and the offer that I make,
It’s of you I will have revenge though my life lay as a stake.”

“Oh, mistress, to offend thee I would be very loath,
But I can do nothing that’s contrary to my oath;
Contrary to my oath, madam, but supposing my vows were clear,
I would not part with my jewel for ten thousand pounds a year.”

One evening in the garden, a-taking in the air,
My mistress followed after me, plucking the flowers there;
Her gold repeating watch she took at the passing of me by,
And conveyed it to my pocket, for which I now must die.

I then was apprehended, to New Gate I was sent,
Where I was left in bondage, my sorrows to lament;
Where I was left in bondage until my trial day,
My mistress thought it was no harm to swear my life away.

And now I am on the gallows and I must suffer here,
Because I would not break the vows I made unto my dear;
Though far from home and kindred, I bid the world adieu,
My charming, lovely, Jennie, I die for love of you.
___________________________

Of the 47 songs documented by collector Robert Winslow Gordon from Minnesotan singers in 1924, this was the only one that was sung by both Michael Dean and Reuben Phillips. The above transcribed version is Dean’s (based on Gordon’s recording and Dean’s text published in his Flying Cloud songster). The song, dating to the late 1700s, was once popular throughout the US and Canada.

The ballad originated in England as “The Sheffield Apprentice” but in Dean’s version the place names have been changed to relocate the story to Ireland with the “evil-minded mistress” dwelling in London (other versions have her in Holland). Dean’s parents were from County Mayo and the vast majority of his repertoire was Irish or Irish-American. In contrast, Phillips’ repertoire was more closely tied to England and Scotland and in his version we find Sheffield and Holland.

St. Paul singer and bouzouki player Buddy Ferrari took the “Minnesota Folksong Challenge” and created his own version of “The Apprentice Boy” which he performs in the video posted above. You can access the archival recordings of both Dean and Phillips as well as Buddy’s video and videos of others who have taken the “Challenge” at www.minnesotafolksongcollection.com

02 Dec

Shanty Man’s Life

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A shanty man’s life is a wearisome one,
Although some say it’s free from care,
It’s the swinging of an axe from morning till night,
In the forest wild and drear,

Or sleeping in the shanties dreary
When the winter winds do blow,
But as soon as the morning star does appear,
To the wild woods we must go.

At four o’clock in the morning our old greasy cook calls out,
“Hurrah, boys, for it’s day,”
And from broken slumber we are aroused,
For to pass away the long winter’s day.

Transported as we are from the maiden so fair,
To the banks of some lonely stream,
Where the wolf, bear and owl with their terrifying howl,
Disturb our nightly dreams.

Transported from the glass and the smiling little lass,
Our life is long and drear;
No friend in sorrow high for to check the rising sigh,
Or to wipe away the briny tear.

Had we ale, wine or beer our spirits for to cheer,
While we’re in those woods so wild,
Or a glass of whiskey shone while we are in the woods alone,
For to pass away our long exile.

When spring it does come in double hardship then begins,
For the water is piercing cold;
Dripping wet will be our clothes and our limbs they are half froze,
And our pike poles we scarce can hold.

O’er rocks, shoals and sands give employment to old hands,
And our well bended raft we do steer,
Oh, the rapids that we run, they seem to us but fun,
We’re the boys of all slavish care.

Shantying I’ll give o’er when I’m landed safe on shore,
And I’ll lead a different life,
No longer will I roam, but contented stay at home,
With a pretty little smiling wife.

_________________

A note on an early broadside printing of this song about the hardships of winter logging work says it was composed by George W. Stace of “La Crosse Valley, Wis[consin].” In addition to the version above, from Minnesota singer Michael Dean, Franz Rickaby also collected a version from Albert Hannah of my hometown of Bemidji. Rickaby noted that “shanty boy” was a more common term than “lumberjack” among old time loggers who worked in the live-in winter camps where the bunkhouse was referred to as the “shanty.”
The song depicts the trials of enduring a winter without access to liquor (or female companionship). In his Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, William M. Doerflinger writes that “after about 1860 liquor fell under ban in almost all camps. Loggers put up with this hardship, sometimes making quick trips downriver to ‘see the dentist.’” In an oral history interview with Wirt Mineau (b. 1878) who logged on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix Valley, Mineau said “No, there wasn’t any liquor allowed in the camps, but sometimes they had some.”

The melody used by Dean (and Hannah) is related to that of the Irish song “The Boyne Water.” Versions of the old ballad “Sir Neil and Glengyle” also use a similar air.

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Dean’s grave in Pine City (his birth year was actually probably 1858 or 1857)

The Lost Forty arranged Dean’s version of “Shanty Man’s Life” and shot our monthly video at the North West Company Fur Post in Pine City just a few miles from where Michael Dean is buried. The above transcription is my attempt to capture Dean’s singing of the song which you can hear for yourself at the Minnesota Folksong Collection website. Dean varies the melody in the second verse. Randy and I made some changes to the text and melody for our version.

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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.