20 Nov

The Dublin Lasses Reel

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!

I decided to take a month off from the songs and share an interesting version of an Irish reel (usually called “The Five Mile Chase”) from Beaver Island, Michigan fiddler Patrick Bonner (1882-1973). Bonner’s fascinating fiddle playing was recorded. Alan Lomax recorded a dozen or so tunes from him in 1938 and Ivan Walton a dozen more in 1940. Bonner’s setting of “The Dublin Lasses” was one of some 80 or more tunes recorded between 1950 and the mid-60s by Edward “Edgar” O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s (low fi) recordings of Bonner are available online here.

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.”[1] 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!

[1] Sommers, Laurie Kay, Beaver Island House Party, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1996) 45.

01 Sep

Lost on the Lady Elgin (revisited)

MCD_A026 Lost on the Lady Elgin

Up from the poor man’s cottage, forth from the mansion door,
Sweeping across the water and echoing along the shore,
Caught by the morning breezes, borne on the evening gale,
Came at the dawn of morning a sad and solemn wail.

Refrain—
Lost on the Lady Elgin, sleeping to wake no more,
Numbering in death five hundred that failed to reach the shore.

Sad was the wail of children, weeping for parents gone,
Children that slept at evening, orphans woke at morn;
Sisters for brothers weeping, husbands for missing wives,
These were the ties that were severed by those five hundred lives.

Staunch was the noble steamer, precious the freight she bore,
Gaily they loosed their cables a few short hours before,
Proudly she swept our harbor, joyfully rang the bell,
Little they thought ere morning it would peal so sad a knell.

——————————-

We return this month to the song “Lost on the Lady Elgin” from the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael Dean. The song depicts the outpouring of grief that followed the tragic sinking of the side-wheel passenger steamer Lady Elgin in Lake Michigan 156 years ago in September 1860. The ship’s loss struck a particularly painful blow to the Irish community of Milwaukee’s Third Ward as many of the doomed passengers hailed from that area. The Lost Forty was in Milwaukee ourselves last month for their annual Irish Fest and we videotaped our version of the song in the historic Third Ward on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Michael Dean’s older brother James came to Milwaukee around 1865 and lived in the Seventh Ward—just north of the Third. James Dean served a long career as conductor for the Milwaukee Railroad. It is possible that Michael learned the song during a trip to visit his brother though the song also travelled all around the US and Canada and was popular throughout the Great Lakes region especially.

Since I began singing “The Lady Elgin” I have met people who have stories about family members singing the song and, in the case of one audience member I met at the Minnesota Irish Fair last year, an ancestor who was lost in the wreck itself.

01 Sep

The Bold Privateer

Bold Privateer

Farewell lovely Ellen, it is now we must part,
Must I leave you behind me, the love of my heart,
I must leave you behind me, and all that I hold dear,
Once more to go a-roving, in the Bold Privateer.

The foe they are treacherous, right very well you know,
Did they not kill their own poor king, not so very long ago,
You had better stay at home, with the girl that loves you dear,
Then to roam the wild ocean, in the Bold Privateer.

Our boat lies on the strand, and our ship lies in the bay,
Farewell my dearest jewel, for I can no longer stay,
Our ship she lies awaiting, so fare you well my dear,
I must now go on board of the Bold Privateer.

There is no one can tell, what hazards you may run,
So many have been slain, since this cruel war’s begun,
You had better not go, and leave your Ellen here,
For I dread to see you leaving, in the Bold Privateer.

Fear naught lovely Ellen, I fain would with thee stay,
But gold I must gather, for our wedding day,
We will soon beat down the pride, of the lofty Mounseer,
And will soon let them know, she’s the Bold Privateer.

Then since you are a-going, Good Luck attend to thee,
May kind Heaven protect you, on land or at sea,
May kind Heaven protect you, wherever you may steer,
And send you safe back, in the Bold Privateer.

Now the prizes we have taken, are from France and from Spain,
And my true love at home, she shall share the gain,
And when the war’s are over, I’ll return unto my dear,
And go no more a-roving, in the Bold Privateer.

_____________

 

On Februray 20th, 1927, the New York Times “Queries and Answers” section ran a request from one Joseph F. McGinnis for a full text of the above ballad to which McGinnis knew the melody but only the first two verses. McGinnis (featured in last month’s Northwoods Songs) was born in Kingston, Ontario and learned songs as a sailor on the Great Lakes before settling in New York City. McGinnis’s New York Times request was answered by none other than renowned Derry song collector Sam Henry. Henry supplied McGinnis with the missing verses and went on to correspond with McGinnis over the next few years. Henry even printed two songs contributed by McGinnis (“The Deserter” and “The ‘Crummy’ Cow”) in his “Songs of the People” column that has since been published in book form and is regarded as one of the finest collections of Irish traditional song in the English language.

McGinnis, who traded songs by mail with Minnesota singer Michael Cassius Dean, also sent Henry a copy of Dean’s songster The Flying Cloud. Irish song scholar John Moulden theorizes that Dean’s songster had a significant influence on Henry’s subsequent “Songs of the People” columns! (see this 2007 talk by Moulden)

The above text comes from a typescript prepared by McGinnis for “Songs of the Dogwatch”—his own collection of songs which was never published. The above melody is also based on the transcription that appears in the McGinnis typescript but I have taken liberties with rhythm and key signature to conform the air to what I believe is more probable.