03 Aug

The Lament of the Irish Emigrant

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

The Croppy Boy


It was early, early all in the spring,
The small birds whistling did sweetly sing,
Changing their notes from tree to tree,
And the song they sang was “Old Ireland’s free.”*

It was early, early last Tuesday night,
The Yeoman Cavalry gave me a fright;
The Yeoman Cavalry was my downfall,
When I was taken before Lord Cornwall.

It was in his guard house I did lay,
And in his parlor they swore my life away;
My sentence passed and with courage low,
Unto Dungannon I was forced to go.

And when I was marching through Wexford street,
My cousin Nancy I chanced to meet;
My own first cousin did me betray,
And for one guinea swore my life away.

When I was passing my father’s door,
My brother William stood on the floor;
My aged father stood at the door,
And my tender mother her gray hair she tore.

My sister Mary in great distress,
She rushed down stairs in her mourning dress;
Five thousand guineas she would lay down
For to see me liberated in Wexford town.

And when we were marching up Wexford hill,
Who would blame me were I to cry my fill;
With a guard behind and a guard before,
But my tender mother I’ll see no more.

And when I was standing on the gallows high,
My aged father was standing nigh;
My aged father did me deny,
And the name he gave me was the Croppy Boy.

I chose the dark and I chose the blue,
I chose the pink and the orange, too;
I forsook them all and did them deny,
I wore the green and for it I’ll die.

It was in Dungannon this young man died,
And in Dungannon his body lies;
And all good people that this way pass by,
Say, “May the Lord have mercy on the Croppy Boy!”

_______________
In late 18th century Europe, to wear one’s hair cropped short could be seen as a show of support for the anti-aristocrat (anti-powdered wig) French revolutionaries of that period. In Ireland, “Croppy” became the term for Irish rebels who allied themselves with revolutionary France and launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in hopes of winning independence from Britain. “The Croppy Boy” is a well-travelled ballad of that period that references key places and people important to the history of the 1798 Rising.
The above text was sung and printed by Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean in the 1920s. We don’t know what melody Dean used as he does not seem to have sung it for either of the song collectors who visited him.

To mark the opening of the new Eoin McKiernan Library at the Celtic Junction Arts Center on April 22nd, I sourced the above “Croppy Boy” melody from one of the rare and wonderful books that is part of the new library’s collection: Old Irish Folk Music and Songs by Patrick Weston Joyce (published 1909). P. W. Joyce (1827-1914), along with his contemporary Chief Francis O’Neill, was one of the first Irish music collectors to have actually grown up within a community where traditional music was part of daily life. Joyce hailed from southeast county Limerick and was immersed in Irish traditional music from a young age. His 1909 book is a treasure trove of 842 “Irish Airs and Songs” and a digital copy is available online thanks to the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin.

*Dean’s text reads “Old Ireland’s is Free”—probably a typo.

01 Mar

Down in Yonder Valley


Down in yonder valley there lives my heart’s delight,
It’s down in yonder valley I’ll meet my love tonight,
For meeting is a pleasure between my love and I,
It’s down in yonder valley I’ll meet her bye and bye.

I met my love as she was going to church and straightway she passed me by,
I knew her mind was changing by the rolling of her eye;
I knew her mind was changing to a lad of high degree,
And may he be hanged forever that parted my love and me.

I took a bottle from my pocket and I placed it in her hand,
Saying, “Mollie, drink of this, love, for our courtship is at an end,”
Saying, “Drink from off the top, love, let the bottom remain for me,
Five hundred pounds are wagered that married we’ll never be.”

“So farewell, Tipperary, and farewell to you, Trimore,
And farewell, lovely Mollie, your face I’ll see no more;
America lies far away, it’s a land I’m going to see,
And may he be hanged forever that parted Mollie and me.”

_______

This well-travelled ballad about a maid whose “mind was changing” is sometimes called “Courting is a Pleasure” or “Going to Mass Last Sunday” and it is still loved and sung by singers on both sides of the Atlantic. The text above comes again from the Flying Cloud songster printed in Virginia, Minnesota in 1922 by singer Michael Dean. Unfortunately, Dean’s melody does not seem to have been collected by either of the two song collectors who visited him soon after the publication of his lyrics-only songbook. The melody above is a version of the most prevalent air used in Ireland for this text.

The video this month features St. Paul duo The Winterm’n. The duo consists of singer Buddy Ferrari (who also performed last month’s song) and Al Waisley. I am delighted that Buddy and Al have taken an interest in these “locally-sourced” songs and also that they have made them their own!

I’m still hoping that other Northwoods Songs readers will take the “Minnesota Folksong Challenge” and learn a song from the Minnesota Folksong Collection website. If you do learn a song, please consider posting a video online and sending me the link. The videos really bring the old songs to life and I love hearing the variety of approaches people take to the songs!