06 Mar

Roving Cunningham

When I first came to Tupper Lake, the girls all jumped with joy,
Saying one unto the other, “Here comes that roving boy!”
One treats me to the bottle, and another to a dram,
And the toasts went round the table to “that healthy young Cunningham.”

Now, I hadn’t been in Tupper Lake a day not more than three,
When Tobin’s lovely daughter, she fell in love with me,
She said she wanted to marry me, and takes me by the hand,
And she slyly told her mother, she loved young Cunningham.

It’s “Hold your tongue, you silly fool! You grieve my heart full sore?
How could you love that little bum you’d never saw before?”
“Now, hold your tongue dear mother and it’s do the best you can,
For back to Saranac I will go with that roving Cunningham.”

I wrote about a Minnesota variant of this song, “The Roving Irishman,” in the August 2012 Northwoods Songs. Known in Ireland as “The Roving Journeyman” or “The Little Beggerman,” this version comes from northern New York State where it was sung by Ted Ashlaw. You can hear Robert Bethke’s recording of Ashlaw singing it here. Ashlaw learned it from the man who composed the variant: Charlie Cunningham. Cunningham reworked “The Roving Journeyman” to reference places in the northern Adirondacks he frequented and also to make some insinuations about his relationship with a local woman (“Tobin’s lovely daughter”).

I recently had the honor of writing the foreword for a wonderful new book by folklorist Robert Bethke about singer Ted Ashlaw and his songs entitled One Rough Life, Ted Ashlaw: Adirondack Lumber Camp and Barroom Singer. The book comes with a 2 CDs of Bethke’s field recordings of Ashlaw—a great resource for northwoods songs!

20 Nov

The Lakes of Champlain

It was early in the morning Willie Lambert arose,
Straightway to the chamber of his comrade he goes,
He said “wake up my comrade, let nobody know,
It’s a fine summer’s morning and a-bathing we’ll go.”

The walked and they talked til they came to a lane,
There they met a keeper, a keeper of the game,
He said “Go back Willie Lambert, do not venture in,
These are deep and false waters in the Lakes of Champlain.”

Willie stripped himself off and the lake he swam round,
He swam to an island but not on dry ground,
He said “Go back my comrade, do not venture in,
There’s deep and false water in the Lakes of Champlain

It was early in the morning Willie’s sister arose,
Straightway to the chamber of her mother she goes,
She said “Mother, dear Mother, I had a true dream,
I dreamed I saw Willie in the clear watery stream.

It was early in the morning Willie’s mother was there,
Wringin’ of her hands and a-tearin’ of her hair,
“Oh murder, oh murder was nobody nigh,
For to venture their life for my own darlin’ boy?”

It was early in the morning Willie’s uncle was there,
He swum the lake round like a man in despair,
“Oh was he sure murdered or did he fall in,
These are deep and false waters in the Lakes of Champlain.”

For to see Willie’s funeral ’twill be a great sight,
There’ll be four and twenty young men all dressed up in white,
They’ll take him to the graveyard, lay him in the clay
Sayin’ “Fare you well Willie” and go weepin’ away.

To see Willie’s sister, ’twill grieve your heart sore,
To see Willie’s mother, ’twill grieve your heart more,
To see Willie’s true love, ’twill grieve your heart pain,
There’s deep and false water in the Lakes of Champlain.

I recently had the opportunity to accompany my friend (and sometimes performance partner) Sara Grey for some concerts out in New England and Sara introduced me to this beautiful American version of what in Ireland is usually called “Lakes of Coolfin” or “Willie Leonard.” Sara’s version is a composite of a few collected in Vermont and I transcribed it here from her singing with help from the text she prints in her book Song Migration from Ireland & Scotland to North America.

02 Jul

Heenan and Sayers

MCD_A035 Heenan and Sayers

It was in merry England, the home of Johnnie Bull,
Where Britons fill their glasses, they fill them brimming full,
And of the toast they drank it was to Briton’s brave,
And it is long may our champion bring victories o’er the wave.

Then up jumps Uncle Sammy, and he looks across the main,
Saying, “Is that your English bully I hear bellowing again?
Oh, has he not forgotten, the giant o’er the pond,
Who used to juggle cannon balls when his day’s work was done?

“Remember, Uncle Johnnie, the giant stronger grows,
He is always on his muscle and ready for his foes;
When but a boy at Yorktown I caused you for to sigh,
So when e’er you boast of fighting, Johnnie Bull, mind your eye.”

It was in merry England, all in the blooming spring,
When this burly English champion he stripped off in the ring,
He stripped to fight young Heenan, our gallant son of Troy,
And to try his English muscle on our bold Benicia boy.

There were two brilliant flags, my boys, a-floating o’er the ring,
The British were a lion all ready for a spring,
The Yankee was an eagle, and an awful bird she was,
For she carried a bunch of thunderbolts well fastened in her claws.

The coppers they were tossed, me boys, the fighting did begin,
It was two to one on Sayers the bets came rolling in;
They fought like loyal heroes, until one received a blow,
And the red crimson torrent from our Yankee’s nose did flow.

“First blood, first blood, my Tommy boy,” the English cried with joy,
The English cheer their hero while the bold Benicia boy,
The tiger rose within him, like lightning flared his eye,
Spying, “Mark away, old England, but Tommie, mind your eye.”

The last grand round of all, my boys, this world has ne’er seen beat,
When the son of Uncle Sammy raised the Champion from his feet,
His followers did smile while he held him in the air,
And from his grasp he flung him, which caused the English men to stare.

Come, all you sporting Americans, wherever you have strayed,
Look on this glorious eagle and never be afraid;
May our Union last forever and our Flag the world defy,
So whenever you boast of fighting, Johnnie Bull, mind your eye.


The 1860 bare knuckle bout between Irish-American boxer John Heenan (1834-1873) and the British champion Tom Sayers in the small town of Farnborough in southern England is regarded as the first world boxing championship. Heenan was born in West Troy, New York to parents who hailed from County Tipperary. He earned the nickname “Benicia Boy” and a reputation as a fighter while working among the rough and tumble Forty-Niners in Benicia, California in his twenties. The fight with Sayers ended in a chaotic draw after 42 rounds with police intervening and spectators rushing into the ring. As the song implies, Heenan’s challenge to the famed Englishman was viewed through the lens of American nationalistic pride.

Heenan’s Irish background no doubt made the fight an especially compelling point of pride among Irish-Americans like Michael Cassius Dean. Dean printed “Heenan and Sayers” in his 1922 songster The Flying Cloud and subsequently sang it for collector Robert Winslow Gordon in 1924. CLICK HERE to hear Gordon’s wax cylinder recording on the Minnesota Folksong Collection site.

The Lost Forty arranged Dean’s version of “Heenan and Sayers” and this month’s video shows us performing it in the Stone Saloon building in St. Paul—a building that housed a lager beer saloon in 1860 that may well have been the site of some post bout analysis.

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This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.