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.

28 Jun

Patrick Sheehan

My name is Patrick Sheehan, my years are thirty-four,
I was born in Tipperary, not far from Galtimore;
I came of honest parents, but now they are lying low,
And it’s many the happy days I spent in the glens of Aherloe.

My father died, I closed his eyes outside our cabin door,
The landlord and the sheriff, too, were there the day before;
It was then my poor old mother and sisters, two, also,
With broken hearts were forced to leave the glens of Aherloe.

Then for three months in search of work I rambled far and near,
Then I went unto the poor house to see my mother dear;
The news I heard nigh broke my heart, but yet in all my woe,
I blest the friends that made their graves in the glens of Aherloe.

Bereft of home, of kith and kin, and plenty all around,
I starved within my cabin and slept upon the ground;
But cruel as my lot it was, I ne’er did hardships know,
Until I joined the English army far away from Aherloe.

“Get up, you lazy Irish dog,” the corporal he came around,
“Don’t you hear the bugle, the called to arms, sound?”
Alas, I had been dreaming of days long, long ago,
And I woke before Sebastapool, and not in Aherloe.

I groped for my musket, how dark I thought the night!
Oh, blessed God, it was not dark, it was the broad daylight;
And when I found that I was blind, the tears they down did flow,
And I longed for even a pauper’s grave in the glens of Aherloe.

Now a poor, forlorn mendicant, I wander through the streets,
My nine months’ pension being out, I beg from all I meet;
But since I joined my country’s tyrants my face I ne’er will show,
To the kind and loving neighbors in the glens of Aherloe.

Oh, Blessed Virgin Mary, mine is a mournful tale,
A poor blind prisoner here I lie in Dublin’s dreary jail;
Struck blind within the trenches where I never feared the foe,
But now I never more will see my own sweet Aherloe.

Now, youths and fellow countrymen, take heed to what I say.
Don’t ever join the English ranks or you’ll surely rue the day;
And if ever you are tempted a-soldiering to go,
Remember poor blind Sheehan and the glens of Aherloe.

We have another of Michael Dean’s songs with literary connections this month. The text of “Patrick Sheehan” aka “The Glens of Aherlow” is known to be the work of Irish revolutionary, novelist and poet Charles Kickham (1828-82). Kickham was inspired to write the song by a real life Patrick Sheehan – a blind veteran of the Crimean War (1853-56) arrested for begging on Grafton Street in Dublin in 1857. Kickham published his text that year under the pseudonym “Darby Ryan Junior” (a reference to an earlier Irish balladeer who composed “The Peeler and the Goat”). Song historians have since discerned that the real Patrick Sheehan was likely not from Tipperary but Tipp was Kickham’s home county and probably not the only poetic license taken in the composition.

Charles Kickham
photo from the Library of Trinity College Dublin Digital Collections

The song was printed as a broadside and sung widely in Ireland. Helen Hartness Flanders found at least four versions among her New England singers. “Yankee” John Galusha (1859-1950) of Minerva, New York was recorded singing the song in 1949 and it’s the Galusha melody that I have married to Dean’s text above. Dean himself was born in 1858 in Madrid, NY on the opposite side of the Adirondacks from Galusha.

Woodcut and title of a broadside from Rare Books & Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame