22 Nov

The Gallant Brigantine

As I rode ashore last Sunday from my gallant brigantine,
In the island of Jamaica where I have lately been,
And carelessly I wandered, not caring where I went,
And toward a rich plantation my steps I slowly bent.

And the orange trees decorate the field with green and yellow buds,
And occasionally my mind is filled with melancholy thoughts,
That when I get tired of rambling I would sit me down and rest,
And I was thinking of the little ones at home, the land that I love best

Now my parents live in harmony, they are laboring at their ease,
But I am doing my foolishness to plough the raging seas,
And I am doing my foolishness to ramble night and day,
Now I’ll sing a song of old Ireland for to drive dull care away.

And when my song was at an end, I was a-feeling at my ease
I arose to pick some oranges that grew upon the trees,
And there a female form I spied that filled me with delight,
She wore the robes of innocence, her dress was snowy white.

Her dress was snowy white, my boys, bound round and trimmed with green,
And a silken scarf around her neck her shoulders for to screen,
Her hair hung o’er her shoulders as black as any sloes,
And her rolling eye attracted me, her cheeks were like the rose.

I modestly saluted her saying, “Good morning, my pretty fair maid,”
And with a kind reception, “Good morning sir,” she said,
I told her I was a sailor that lately came from sea,
And that I belonged to that brigantine that laid anchored in the Bay.

And we both got down together and we chatted for a while,
And I told her many a hard old yarn which caused her for to smile,
But when I arose to leave her, she gave me this address,
“You call in and see my husband, he will treat you to the best.”

Then I was kindly introduced to a noble-looking man,
Who kindly saluted me and took me by the hand,
And the wine was on the table and the dinner was served up soon,
And we all sat down together, spent a jovial afternoon.

The “Old Songs That Men Have Sung” column that ran in the October 20, 1922 issue of the pulp magazine Adventure (pictured) included the following request sent in by one of the column’s many avid readers:

Michael Dean (the same Irish-Minnesotan featured often in this column) was one of hundreds of American and Canadian readers of “Old Songs” who sang and pursued traditional folksongs with the help of the far-flung community of singers and amateur collectors brought together by the column and its enthusiastic editors. Dean corresponded by letter with “Old Songs” editors Robert Frothingham and Robert Winslow Gordon as well as other “Old Songs” readers and contributors (the column ran song texts sent in by readers responding to published requests). In addition to published requests and contributions, Dean swapped songs with these people directly by mail. It was this correspondence that ultimately led to Gordon travelling by train with his wax cylinder recording machine to record Dean’s singing in 1924.

We do not know if Dean ever tracked down a complete version of “The Gallant Brigantine” (he did manage to get a version of “Paul Jones, the Privateer” and sing it for collector Franz Rickaby the following summer). The version above is transcribed primarily from Alan Lomax’s 1938 recording of Beaver Island, Michigan singer Johnny W. Green with a few tweaks inspired by other versions found in the Canadian Maritimes. It is a peculiar song with an almost punchline-like ending. Not the typical conclusion to a story like this!

21 Nov

The Pokegama Bear

One cold frosty morning, the winds, how they blew,
We went to the woods our day’s work for to do,
Yes into the woods we did quickly repair,
It was there that we met the Pokegama Bear.

Now, Morris O’Hern was a bold Irish lad,
He was building a fire all in a pine stub,
The ring of his ax filled the cold winter air,
When out popped the monstrous Pokegama Bear.

With a roar like a lion O’Hern he did swear,
Saying “Run boys, for God’s sake, for I’ve found a bear.”
When out of the brush Jimmy Quinn he did climb,
“To hell with your bear, kill your own porcupine.”

Now, into the swamp old bruin did go,
Bold O’Hern, and Hasty did quickly pursue,
As on through the brush those bold heroes did tear,
To capture or kill the Pokegama Bear.

Old bruin went mad and for Hasty did steer,
He braced for the blow without dread or fear,
With his teeth firmly set and his ax in the air,
He slipped and fell on the Pokegama Bear.

Now out on the tote road old bruin did go,
He thought that was better than wading in snow,
But little he knew what awaited him there,
For fate was against that Pokegama Bear.

There was old Mike McAlpine of fame and renown,
A noted foot racer on Canadian gound,
He ran up the road, raised his ax in the air,
And he dealt the death blow to Pokegama Bear.

When out to the camp poor old bruin was sent,
To skin him and dress him it was our intent,
And we all agreed that each should have a share,
Of the oil that was in the Pokegama Bear.

And next it was sent to the cook and it fried,
It was all very good it cannot be denied,
“It tastes like roast turkey,” Bill Moneghan did swear,
As he feasted upon the Pokegama Bear.

Now my song is ended, I’m dropping my pen,
And Morris O’Hern, he got the bear skin,
Here’s long life to you, boys, and long growth to your hair,
Since it’s greased with the fat from Pokegama Bear!

I am not the first Minnesotan to be fascinated by old songs that drifted into our state during the old time logging era of the 1800s. Iron Ranger John Berquist (once Minnesota’s state folklorist) was very active for much of his life in the revival and performance of regional folk music and performed several logging camp songs including “The Pokegama Bear” (pronounced “po-KEG-uh-muh”). I only had the pleasure of meeting John once before he passed away in 2016 but he was a friend to many in the Twin Cities music community and collaborated many times with Twin Cities mandolin player Bob Douglas.

I am not sure where John found the text of “The Pokegama Bear” but it is printed in Agnes Larson’s wonderful 1949 book The White Pine Industry in Minnesota as contributed by Michael McAlpine of Grand Rapids, Minnesota (who appears in the song). The song was composed by Frank Hasty (who also appears in the song) in a logging camp in 1874. The bear’s namesake, Pokegama Lake, is just south of Grand Rapids. John Berquist set the text to the “Sweet Betsy from Pike” tune so common in the lumbercamp tradition. John performed the song and gave it to Chicago folk singer Art Thieme who recorded it. I use a variant of the same tune with a couple tweaks inspired by “The Journeyman Tailor” – another song with the “Betsy from Pike” tune that was collected in the north of Ireland and printed in Sam Henry’s Songs of the People.

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.