05 Sep

The Lass Among the Heather

As I was coming home from the fair at Baltimor-e-o,
I met a pretty lass, she was fairer than Diana-o,
I asked her where she lived as we jogged along together-o,
“On bonnie mountain side,” she replied, “Among the heather-o.”

“Oh lassie I’m in love with you, you have so many charms-o,
Oh lassie I’m in love with you, to you my bosom yearns-o,
A blink of your blue eye, your person is so charming-o,
Right gladly would I wed with you, dear lass among the heather-o.”

“Oh young man do you think that I am so easy taken-o?
Oh young man do you think I believe what you are saying-o?
I’m happy and I’m well with my father and my mother-o,
‘Twould take a cunning lad for to coax me from the heather-o.”

“Oh lassie condescend and do not be so cruel-o,
Oh lassie condescend grant a kiss to your own jewel-o,”
“If I should grant you one, you would surely want another-o,
So take it as you will, I’m the lass among the heather-o.”

This month’s song has been traced by Irish song scholar John Moulden back to its original County Antrim composer Hugh McWilliams (born 1783). McWilliams was a schoolmaster and prolific writer of songs that had an unusual knack for entering tradition including the well-travelled “When a Man’s in Love He Feels no Cold.” That song and “The Lass Among the Heather” both appear in McWilliams’ Poems and Songs on Various Subjects Vol. II, published in 1831. “The Lass Among the Heather” crossed over into Scotland where it enjoyed some popularity. It was also sung in Cork by Elizabeth Cronin and in the north woods of the United States.

My principle source for the above transcription was a version that appears in the book A Heritage of Songs compiled by Maine singer Carrie Grover (1879-1959) from her own family repertoire. The melody is entirely Grover’s (though it is similar to that given by Moulden in his pamphlet “Songs of Hugh McWilliams, Schoolmaster, 1831”). The text is a mix of Grover’s and the original printed by McWilliams. Both McWilliams and Grover sprinkle in some Scots language (hame, frae, amang, etc.) but I have cheated my version away from the Scots for the most part. I omitted Grover’s last verse (which doesn’t appear in McWilliams’ original) about the couple living happily ever after in favor of the ambiguous open-ended nature of Grover’s fourth verse.

20 Nov

Sweet Mary Jane

My true love’s name was Mary Jane,
Her epitaph reveals the same,
Her grace and charm I will proclaim,
Through all my days moreover,
Where could you find a fairer dame,
And search this wide world over.

“My love and I we did agree,
That when I would return from sea,
We’d go straightway and married be,
And live a life of leisure,
No more to face the stormy sea,
In quest of gold and treasure.

“But I had not gone across the main,
When cruel death had my companion slain,
The pride and beauty of the plain,
In her cold grave lay moldering,
And our fond plan was all in vain,
Amid the ruins smoldering.

“I am distressed what shall I do,
I’ll roam this wide world through and through,
I’ll sigh and sing for sake of you,
My days I’ll spend in mourning,
And in my dreams I’ll wander through,
The lane that knows no turning.

A sad and beautiful song this month that was collected from several singers in eastern Canada and that was also in the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael Dean. In most Canadian versions, the lost lover’s name is “Phoebe” (or “Bright Phoebe”). In Maine, singer Carrie Grover learned it as “Sweet Caroline” while in Minnesota, Dean sang “Mary Jane” and printed it as “Sweet Mary Jane” in his 1922 songster The Flying Cloud.

The above melody is my best effort to transcribe the richly ornamented version sung by New Brunswick singer Angelo Dornan. We do not know what melody Dean used but most collected melodies, including Dornan’s, show a resemblance to the famous “Greensleeves” melody. Dornan’s striking twists and turns make his air refreshingly unique. For text, I subbed in Dean’s first line and made a couple small changes of my own but otherwise stayed close to Dornan’s version including its unique six-line poetic structure (most other versions have four-line stanzas). Dornan sang two additional verses to what appears here and a transcription of his full version appears in Helen Creighton’s Maritime Folk Songs.

20 Nov

Morzie Ellsworth

My name is Morzie Ellsworth the truth I’ll tell to you,
I’m in the prime of manhood and my age is twenty-two,
On the fourteenth of October last, I boarded on a train,
And bound for Pennsylvania, I left the state of Maine.

I landed safe in Williamsport, a lumberman’s rendezvous,
And there I hired with Jacob Brown as one of the winter’s crew,
We agreed upon the wages, as you shall plainly see,
And the time of term it was six months to serve him faithfully.

He gave to me a sheathing belt, likewise a bowie knife,
A battle axe and carbine gun for to defend my life,
But woe be on the morning when I did undertake,
A voyage to the forest for gold and riches sake.

There’s the tomtit and the moose-bird and the roving caribou,
The lucifee and partridge that through the forests flew,
And the wild ferocious rabbit from the colder regions came,
And several other animals too numerous to name.

And when the snow began to melt the foreman he did say,
“Lay down your saws and axes boys, and haste to break away,
For the broken ice is floating now in business we will thrive,
And you able-bodied shanty-boys are needed on the drive.”

It would melt your heart with pity, it would make your blood run cold,
To see the work that Nature did in all her rudest mould,
And to see those overhanging rocks along the ice-bound shore,
Where rippling waters fierce do rage and cataracts do roar.

So to conclude and finish, I have one thing more to say,
When I am dead and in my grave, a-mould’ring in the clay,
No artificial German text you can for me sustain,
Just simply say, “Here’s a roving wreck that came from Bangor, Maine.”

Ninety-five years ago, in the summer of 1923, Franz Rickaby collected a version of the above song in Bayport, Minnesota (south of Stillwater) from former lumberjack Hank Underwood who called it “The Maine-ite in Pennsylvania.” Underwood’s four verse version (verses 2, 4, 6 and 7 above) likely descended from the New Brunswick song “Morris Ellsworth” which satirizes a greenhorn logger from Prince Edward Island who comes to the Miramichi woods to log. The St. Croix Valley where Underwood was born, had a high concentration of immigrant loggers from the Miramichi region – including Underwood’s parents. 

Jokes and stories making fun of inexperienced men in the logging camp – especially their fear of animals – were common in the woods. According to folklorist Edward Ives, PEI men were looked down upon in Miramichi. Interestingly, Rickaby reported that “State of Maine” men were often foremen or bosses in Minnesota. Underwood likely learned his version while logging in Pennsylvania where, perhaps, Maine-ites had a different reputation. For a biography of Hank Underwood see the liner notes to my CD Minnesota Lumberjack Songs which also includes an arrangement of this song.

For the version above, I use a melody very close to Underwood’s melody and extend his text with extra verses added in from one of the Miramichi versions and one verse pulled from “Jim Porter’s Shanty Song” also collected by Rickaby.