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!
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.” 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!
 Sommers, Laurie Kay, Beaver Island House Party, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1996) 45.
I am a rich merchant’s only son, my age is twenty-two,
I fell in love with a handsome girl, the truth I will tell you,
And because that I had riches great and she was of a low degree,
Which caused my parents for to frown and prove my destiny.
They sent me to Americay, my fortune for to seek,
I was shipwrecked on the Austria, that now lies in the deep,
But Providence to me proved kind, a plank brought me to shore,
I’m in hopes to see my handsome girl at Sweet Recale once more.
It was on the morning of the fourth just by the break of day,
This handsome girl stepped up to me and this to me did say,
“Where are you from, my nice young man, come quickly tell to me,
Or are you from the heavens above, where is your country?”
“Oh I am a stranger in this place, the truth to you I’ll tell,
For loving of a pretty fair maiden in the town of sweet Recale.
And because that I had riches great and she was of a low degree,
Which caused my parents for to frown which proved my destiny.”
“Oh come tell me are you married to that girl you left behind?”
“No, but I’m already promised and a promise that’s good and kind,
I am already promised to that girl in sweet Recale,
And except her no other fair maids will ever my favor gain.”
And this fair maid fell a-weeping tears rolled down her rosy cheeks,
“Oh here is twenty guineas in gold for to bear you o’er the sea,
For love is better, I do find, than gold or earthly store,
May heavens above return you love, to sweet Recale once more.”
In 1934, Minnesota music teacher Bessie Stanchfield put out a call for old St. Croix Valley lumbermen to send in songs for publication in the Stillwater Post-Messenger. A man living in North Dakota who said he had been a lumberjack on the St. Croix Valley fifty years before wrote saying “I spent two winters working in one of Isaac Staples’ camps on the Apple River [WI]. The foreman was Andy McGrath. Every Saturday night we had a dance. Every Sunday night we sang. Tom Harrington, the camp blacksmith, was a fiddler, and the singers included Hendy Lane, James Riley, and young Jim McGrath.” The letter writer referred to one old song once popular in the area and remarked “Jim McGrath sang it fine.”
This Jim McGrath may likely have been James E. McGrath, son of John McGrath from Wicklow, Ireland and a successful (for a time) lumber company operator for whom the town of McGrath, MN is named. In any case, singer Jim McGrath was still in the Stillwater area in 1934 and in Stanchfield’s unpublished papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, she writes that, though he was a reluctant singer, “after one old-timer, then another, dropped into the office to tell of [McGrath’s] clear tenor and his great memory for the old songs” McGrath finally relented and began recalling for her “those pleasant evenings in the bunk house” and the songs that went with them.
I have found three 19th century broadside versions of this ballad from Ireland where the place name is either Belfast, Derry or Limerick instead of Recale. Lomax spells it Raquale and Gardner spells it Recail. I assumed it was a Great Lakes place name until another version recently turned up on the Irish Traditional Music Archive from Inishowen Penninsula singer Denis McDaid who sings Rycale. I’m at a loss as to the location of this mysterious place name!
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.