06 Sep

Never Go Back on the Poor

In this world of sorrow, of toil and regret, there are scenes I would gladly pass o’er,
But stern duty compels that each fact must be told, so through life we may check them the more;
Is it right that a man who has well earned his pay, on the pipes by the sweat of his brow,
Should wait like a beggar on green day by day, or else home in hunger to go?
Don’t show any favor to friend or to foe, the beggar or prince at your door;
If you always do right you will get your reward, but never go back on the poor.

From the wild waste of waters there came a death cry, as dashed on an iron bound shore,
A noble ship struck in the darkness of night, and sank midst the tempest’s loud roar;
The captain asleep and the men of their post, with the coal and provision run short,
While the doomed ones they hoped for that bright Western land, which in sweet joyous dreams they had sought.
Can it be such neglect shall by us be forgot, or that money will triumph once more?
A good, willing hand, a stout branch and a rope, for those who go back on the poor!

When the divers went down ’neath the wreck for to search, for the bodies that lay far below,
“It’s nothing but a steerage,” was oft the remark, as a ghastly corpse came up to view;
As if only a steerage could shut out a soul, because poverty claimed him her own,
As if dollars and dimes was the source of all worth, and the road to all good that is known.
But the white star must change her color aloft, to blood red afloat and ashore,
Till the steamer Atlantic is forgotten by time, with her cargo of unburied poor.


This month we have another song from the repertoire of Irish-Minnesotan Michael Dean. The song itself is fairly obscure but its moral is one found with some frequency in Dean’s Flying Cloud songster. The 1922 book contains several songs encouraging sympathy for the plight of the poor, wayward and elderly. These include expressions of working class grief like “The Tramp’s Lament” and “The Long Shoreman’s Strike” and the tear jerking “She May Have Seen Better Days” about a girl huddled on the street in a big city who “was once someone’s joy, cast aside like a toy.” Dean also sang three songs specifically about elderly people cast out by their families to live out their days in the county almshouse: “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,” “I Told Them That I Saw You” (a response to the former) and “Over the Hills to the Poor House.” Another song, “Jim Fisk,” includes the same repeating admonition to “never go back on the poor” that appears in this month’s song. Of all these, “Jim Fisk” seems to have been the most popular across the north woods. (The song is fascinating for its use of Fisk, a famous robber baron of the era, as an exemplar of ethical behavior—seemingly because he provided aid after the Great Chicago Fire and “did all his deeds, both the good and the bad, in the broad, open light of the day!”)

Sentimental songs advocating charity and mercy for the poor were common and popular on late 19th century music hall stages and in oral tradition. They may have had a special resonance for Dean who no doubt met many the wayward son as a saloonkeeper in logging era Minnesota. Dean also owned a farm east of Hinckley that he sold to Pine County in 1905 to establish the county’s first poor farm. Dean stayed on as the institution’s manager for two years where he, again, would have met characters reminiscent of these songs.

The text of “Never Go Back on the Poor” appears in Wehman’s song collection No. 11 published in 1886 with the note that it’s tune is that of “Don’t Put Your Foot on a Man When He’s Down.” I found sheet music for “Don’t Put Your Foot…” in the Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection online and adapted it to Dean’s words above. The central story to this song, again used to evoke charity, is the 1873 wreck of the White Star Line passenger steam ship Atlantic. The Atlantic sunk off the coast of Nova Scotia and inspired other songs as well.

01 Jul

The Arkansaw Navvy

Come listen to my story and I’ll tell you in my chant
It’s the lamentation of an Irish emigrant,
Who lately crossed the ocean and misfortune never saw,
’Till he worked upon the railroad in the State of Arkansaw.

When I landed in St. Louis I’d ten dollars and no more,
I read the daily papers until both me eyes were sore;
I was looking for advertisements until at length I saw
Five hundred men were wanted in the State of Arkansaw.

Oh, how me heart it bounded when I read the joyful news,
Straightway then I started for the raging Billie Hughes;
Says he, “Hand me five dollars and a ticket you will draw
That will take you to the railroad in the State of Arkansaw.

I handed him the money, but it gave me soul a shock,                                                                   
And soon was safely landed in the city of Little Rock;
There was not a man in all that land that would extend to me his paw,
And say, “You’re heartily welcome to the State of Arkansaw.”

I wandered ’round the depot, I rambled up and down,
I fell in with a man catcher and he said his name was Brown;
He says “You are a stranger and. you’re looking rather raw,
On yonder hill is me big hotel, it’s the best in Arkansaw.”

Then I followed my conductor up to the very place,
Where poverty was depicted in his dirty, brockey face;
His bread was corn dodger and his mate I couldn’t chaw,
And fifty cents he charged for it in the State of Arkansaw.

Then I shouldered up my turkey, hungry as a shark,
Traveling along the road that leads to the Ozarks;
It would melt your heart with pity as I trudged along the track,
To see those dirty bummers with their turkeys on their backs.
Such sights of dirty bummers I’m sure you never saw
As worked upon the railroad in the State of Arkansaw.

I am sick and tired of railroading and I think I’ll give it o’er,
I’ll lay the pick and shovel down and I’ll railroad no more;
I’ll go out in the Indian nation and I’ll marry me there a squaw,
And I’ll bid adieu to railroading and the State of Arkansaw.


“Navvy,” from “navigational engineer,” was a common 19th century term for a railroad worker. Singer Michael Dean, the source of the text above, had many connections to the railroad and railroad work. Dean tended bar for years at saloons that catered to railroad workers in Hinckley, Minnesota. His older brother James was a lifelong conductor for the Milwaukee Road based in Milwaukee and older brother Charles worked for the Milwaukee Road in Minnesota and South Dakota based out of Minneapolis. According to The History of South Dakota, Vol. 2 by Doane Robinson, Charles Dean helped build the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad from Glencoe, MN to Aberdeen, SD from 1879-1881.

Dean’s songster, The Flying Cloud, includes four lyrics about railroad workers: “Jerry Go Oil the Car,” “The Grave of the Section Hand,” “O’Shaughanesey” and “The Arkansaw Navvy.” A fifth, “To Work Upon the Railroad” appears among the 1924 wax cylinder recordings of Dean singing.

Since Dean’s melody for “The Arkansaw Navvy” is unknown, I used a melody sung by Newfoundland singer Paddy Duggan as recorded by MacEdward Leach and available online. The song was likely North American in origin and it appears in many collections from the US. Interestingly, an Irish version does appear in Sam Henry’s Songs of the People. Henry’s informant was Jack McBride of Kilmore, Co. Antrim who learned it from a sailor.

Railroad section gang in Crow Wing County, Minnesota circa 1910. Courtesy Crow Wing County Historical Society
30 Jun

The Heights of Alma

It was in September, the eighteenth day
In spite of the salt sea’s dashing spray,
We landed safe on the Crimea,
Upon our route to Alma.

That night we lay on the cold, cold ground,
No peace or comfort could be found,
And by the rain were nearly drowned,
To cheer our hearts for Alma.

Next morning when we did arise,
Beneath those gloomy Russian skies,
Lord Ragalan, our Chieftain cries,
“Prepare to march for Alma.”

And when the heights they hove in view,
The strongest hearts they would subdue,
To see that motley Russian crew
Upon the heights of Alma.

They were so strongly fortified,
With batteries on each mountain side,
Lord Ragalan viewed their works and cried,
“We’ll have tough work in Alma.”

The Scotch Greys were the first that came,
And turned their fire in like rain,
But many a Highland lass will mauirn,
For that day’s work at Alma.

The Twenty-second Fusileers,
They gained the heights and gave three cheers,
With joy each Briton’s heart did cheer,
Hibernia’s sons at Alma.

Back to Sebastapool the Russians fled,
They left their dying and their dead,
The rivers that day did run red
With the blood that flowed at Alma.

This is one of four songs referencing the Crimean War (1853-1856) that were printed by Minnesota singer
Michael C. Dean in his songster The Flying Cloud. See earlier Northwoods Songs columns for the other
three: “Patrick Sheehan,” “The Tidy Irish Lad” and “As I Rode Down Through Irishtown.”

The song describes some accurate details of the Battle of Alma, which took place on September 20, 1854.
Lord Raglan was the English commander and his men had no tents their first night after landing. The
“Scottish Greys” were the Royal Scots Greys – a famed Scottish regiment in the British Army. I have not
found any historical reference to a 22nd regiment at Alma (exact numbers don’t always survive the folk
process!) but what little glory there is in Dean’s version clearly goes to “Hibernia’s sons” on the
battlefield. Irish soldiers made up a third of the British Army in the Crimea, resulting in much heartbreak
and many songs back in Ireland.

Other versions of this song use the well-known and cheery-sounding “Rakes of Mallow” melody. The duo of Irish fiddle player Michael Coleman and flute player Tom Morrison recorded that tune as “The Heights of Alma” on a 78rpm record. Dean’s more mournful melody resembles versions found in New England collections. An especially nice variant was sung by Newfoundland singer Cyril O’Brien and recorded by MacEdward Leach. My duo, The Lost Forty, used the O’Brien melody for our arrangement of this song.