02 May

Jerry Go Oil the Car (revisited)

Jerry Go Oil the Car 2016.musx

**Hear the source recordings for our version of this song at the Minnesota Folksong Collection site: Jerry Go Oil the Car (1) and Jerry Go Oil the Car (2)

Come, all you railroad section hands, I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention to these few lines you’ll hear,
Concerning one Larry Sullivan, alas, he is no more,
He sailed some forty years ago from the green old Irish shore.

For four and thirty weary years he worked upon the track,
And the truth to say from the very first day he never had a wreck,
For he made it a point to keep up the lower joints with the force of the tamping bar,
Joint ahead and center back and Jerry go oil the car.

To see old Larry in the winter time when the hills were clad with snow,
It was his pride on his handcar to ride as over the section he’d go,
With his big soldier coat buttoned up to his throat, sure he looked like an Emperor [rarr],
And while the boys were shimming up the ties, sure Jerry would be oiling the car.

When Sunday morning came around to the section hands he’d say,
“I suppose you all know that my wife is going to Sunday Mass today,
And I want every man for to pump all he can, for the distance it is very far,
And I’d like to get in ahead of number ten, so Jerry go oil the car.”

“And now when my friends are gathered around, there is one request I crave,
When I am dead and gone to my rest, place the handcar on my grave;
Let the spike mawl rest upon my breast with the gauge and the old clawbar,
And while the boys are lowering me down, leave Jerry to be oiling the car.”

“Give my regards to the roadmaster,” poor Larry he did cry,
“And rise me up so I may see the handcar before I die.”
He was so weak he could hardly speak, in a moment he was dead;
“Joint ahead and center back,” were the very last words he said.

For this month’s Lost Forty Project song arrangement and video, Randy Gosa and I worked up this song from the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael Cassius Dean. I wrote about “Jerry Go Oil the Car” in Northwoods Songs in November 2012. Together with last month’s song, “To Work Upon the Railroad,” it is one of five railroading songs/recitations in Dean’s known repertoire. The others are “O’Shaughanesey,” “The Arkansaw Navvy” and “The Grave of the Old Section Hand.” The transcription above is my version for which I pared down Dean’s text a bit and used a melody based the 1924 cylinder recording of his singing.

Since writing about this song back in 2012, my research has revealed more on Dean’s personal connection to railroading. Dean wrote that he “gathered up” his repertoire in his “wandering around on the Lakes and in Lumber Camps and Rail Road Construction works.”[1] Though I have yet to find evidence that he worked on the railroad himself, Dean ran a succession of saloons across the street from the St. Paul and Duluth depot in Hinckley where he catered to (and perhaps swapped songs with) railroad men employed by the St. Paul and Duluth line in the 1890s.

Also, Michael Dean’s brothers Charles Dean (St. Paul) and James Dean (Milwaukee) were both conductors for the Milwaukee railroad. In fact, his brother James’ 1910 obituary echoes the song’s praise of a man who, through a life of dangerous railroad work, “never had a wreck.”

He was the oldest conductor in the point of service, on the Milwaukee road, having been employed on the railroad for forty-nine years,… Mr. Dean has never h[a]d an accident in which a person was killed through his long term of service, although he himself has had many narrow escapes when the railroad equipment was inferior to that of today. …Railroad men in this city were greatly depressed when they heard of his death as he was one of the most popular railroad men on the system and was regarded by other trainmen as a man of good luck because he never had an accident in so many years of service.[2]

For the above video, The Lost Forty performed our arrangement of this song at the Minnesota Transportation Museum aboard an actual “drover’s coach” built in the 1890s.

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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.


[1] Dean, Michael C. Michael C. Dean to Robert Frothingham, September 16, 1922. Letter. From American Folklife Center, Gordon Manuscript Collections.
[2] “Oldest Conductor Dies Last Night,” Janesville Daily Gazette (Janesville, WI), June 2, 1910.

01 Apr

To Work Upon the Railroad

To Work Upon the Railroad.musx

In eighteen hundred and sixty one
The Yankee war had just begun,
I put my corduroy breeches on
To work upon the railroad.

In eighteen hundred and sixty two
My corduroy breeches they were new,
I took my pick with a navvy’s crew
To work upon the railroad.

In eighteen hundred and sixty three
I sailed away beyond the sea,
I sailed away to Americay
To work upon the railroad.

In eighteen hundred and sixty four
We landed on Columbia’s Shore,
Bad luck to the ship that brought me o’er
To work upon the railroad.

It’s “Pat do this” and “Pat do that”
Without a stocking or cravat,
Nothing more than an old straw hat
When Pat works on the railroad.

We left Ireland to come here
And spend our latter days in cheer,
Our bosses they did drink strong beer
And Pat worked on the railroad.


Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean sang one verse (“In eighteen hundred and sixty four…”) of the above song for Robert W. Gordon’s wax cylinder recording machine in 1924. Of the more than 30 song fragments Gordon recorded from Dean, “To Work Upon the Railroad” is the only one that does not correspond to a more complete text in Dean’s self-published 1922 songster The Flying Cloud. For that reason, we do not know what other verses Dean knew, if any. My guess is that they resembled the first three verses I chose to include here which come from a version printed in Joanna Colcord’s Songs of American Sailormen. The verses collected by Colcord line up well with Dean’s in the years they use and the fact that they are not split up by a chorus. Versions of this song are plentiful and I decided to throw in two additional verses at the end which I adapted from Alan Lomax’s Folksong U.S.A. Dean’s melody does seem to be unique and it gives the song a more mournful tone than other versions (to me at least).

If Dean knew this song in 1924, why didn’t he print it in his 1922 songster? We can’t know for sure, but my suspicion is that he actually learned the song in the interim. My research, using the Robert W. Gordon collection at the American Folklife Center, turned up ample evidence that Dean, then in his late 60s, was actively seeking out old folk songs to add to his repertoire in those years. The printing of The Flying Cloud helped connect Dean to a network of academic song collectors and other old traditional singers who swapped songs with Dean—sometimes by mail. He was likely seeking out old songs from his co-workers at the Virginia Rainy Lake Lumber Company mill in Virginia, MN where he worked as well. In my research, I have found multiple instances of singers who built up a large repertoire before the age of 25, did not learn many songs during the middle of their lives and then resumed adding to their repertoire when, late in life, they realized the value of their old songs. Based on other cases I know of, my guess is that Dean’s later years were enriched by the realization, supported by feedback from Gordon and others, that his songs were worth preserving. Along with that realization came energy to learn new songs and to build friendships with other singers.

For this month’s video of The Lost Forty’s arrangement of “To Work Upon the Railroad,” we performed the song aboard Northern Pacific Caboose 1631 at the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St. Paul. Thanks to Danielle Enblom at the the museum!

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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.


01 Mar

The Crafty Miss

The Crafty Miss.musx

O she on a little grey mare and he on a gelding also,
He whispered one word in her ear and straight to an inn they did go,
They soon had their horses put out, they called for a supper with speed,
They drank the full bumpers around, O the glass it went merry indeed.

This miss she arose the next morning two hours before it was day,
She called up the landlord with speed saying “Landlord what is there to pay?”
“Ten guineas” the landlord replied, she paid him his money indeed,
And then to obey her next order, “Go saddle the golden with speed.”

She hoodwinked this young man indeed, she showed him a trick for his gold,
Then mounting the gelding with speed, she left him the mare she had stole,
It was all done in Essex’s county, the truth of it there you will find,
The people they showed him no pity, they said he was served in his kind.
This month we have the second song of twelve that The Lost Forty (Randy Gosa and I) have arranged and videotaped as part of The Lost Forty Project. I learned last month’s song from a recording of Minnesota singer Michael Cassius Dean and this month’s comes from the other Minnesota singer strongly represented in the project: Reuben Waitstell Phillips.
Phillips was recorded at his home south of Akeley, Minnesota by Robert Winslow Gordon in September 1924—about a week prior to Gordon’s visit to Dean. Like Dean, Phillips had corresponded with Gordon prior to the collecting trip. The above song was one of 22 handwritten song texts Phillips sent to Gordon in March 1924 and one of at least 15 Gordon recorded during his visit to Akeley.

Phillips titled this light and dancey song (in slip jig time) simply “A Lilt.” It is a version of an English broadside ballad entitled “The Crafty Miss, Or, An Excise-Man Well Fitted” that scholars date to the late 1600s. What is quite unusual for a song of that vintage recorded this far from its origin is that it seems to have been extremely rare in tradition. In fact, I have not been able to find a single collected version from anywhere. The longer broadside versions supply the information that the “hoodwinked” young man was a tax collector and that not only did she make off with his horse but the fact that he was left holding “the mare she had stole” resulted in his arraignment and a narrow escape from “the penalty of the law!”

As I have dug deep into the 47 songs featured in The Lost Forty Project, I have come to marvel at the differences and similarities between the two principle singers: Dean and Phillips. Though it is unlikely they knew each other, both men were born in the 1850s not more than 30 miles from each other in northern New York state and both migrated west to northern Minnesota where they lived just 120 miles apart at the time they were recorded. Still, where Dean’s repertoire is typical of lumberjack-singers of the region in that it is decidedly Irish-American, most of Phillips’ songs are more English/Scottish, quite a bit older and quite a bit more rare. Some of that has to do with their differing ethnic backgrounds but, I suspect, their occupations and routes west played a role as well. More on that in coming months!

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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.