22 Nov

Riley and I Were Chums

One day as I went out for a walk, myself and my chum Johnny Riley,
The air it being kind of damp and the weather rather dryly,
Just then the cop caught me by the ear he says, “Young man there’s a warrant here,”
And I took the warrant with the greatest of fear and I handed it over to Riley. -Chorus

One day I picked up a watch and chain going out with my chum Johnny Riley,
Riley always looked for his share, he was so awfully wily,
But as by a lamp we chanced to pass, it’s then I saw by the glimmer of the glass,
That the watch was gold but the chain was brass so the chain went over to Riley. -Chorus

Last Saturday night I married a wife and my best man there was Riley,
I thought she’d be the joy of my life, she looked so very shyly,
But soon I found it was no fun, one day she chased me with a gun,
I said, “Now madam, with you I’ve done” and I handed her over to Riley. -Chorus

After an inspiring week of music at the All Ireland Fleadh this past month, I had the chance to spend a day at the amazing Irish Traditional Music Archive on Merrion Square in Dublin. There, I dove into the ITMA’s incredible collection of field recordings from Newfoundland made in the 1970s by Aidan O’Hara. The ITMA recently launched a digital exhibition of O’Hara’s Newfoundland material on its website that I highly recommend checking out. This month’s song is one that you can listen to directly from their website—easier (though less fun) than a trip to Dublin!

I was delighted to come upon O’Hara’s recording of Newfoundlander Frankie Nash giving a spirited rendition of this comic song! I encountered it first several years ago as performed by Crandon, Wisconsin traditional singer Robert Walker who was recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1937. Walker’s version (available here) is nice but to me it is Nash really brings “Riley” to life. Digging around online, I was also happy to discover that the New York Public Library has unearthed and digitized an 1892 song sheet version titled “I Handed it Over to Riley” which you can also access online. In Newfoundland, the song is attributed to local songsmith Johnny Burke. NYPL’s song sheet, and the style of the song itself, would seem to suggest that it most likely originated on the stage (the composers are listed as Albert Hall and Felix McGlennon) and was then, like many stage songs, adapted into tradition by others.

Interestingly, the Newfoundland, Wisconsin and song sheet versions of this song all have rather distinct melodies from one another. The above transcription is based on the Newfoundland melody though I drew on all three versions to fill out the text.

11 May

The Boy of Love

The boy in love without no fear like me some time ago
Like a hero bold through frost and cold to see my love I’d go
But the moon shone bright to give me light along my dreary way,
Until I arrived at my true love’s gate where all my fancy lay.

When I arrive at my true love’s gate, my step being soft and low,
She will arise and let me in, so softly I will go,
Saying, “Will you come to my father’s house?” “No dear, but come to your own,
Come with me, love, to the Parson’s and there we’ll be made one.”

“Oh no, oh no kind sir,” said she, “for prudence would not agree,”
“Well, then, sit down along by my side, for I must talk with thee,
For seven long years I have courted you against your parents’ will,
I was always resolved you would be my bride, but now, pretty girl, farewell.

“My ship lies in the harbor all ready to set sail,
And if the wind is from the East we’ll have a favoring gale,
And when I reach Columbia’s shore it is often I will say,
May the Lord above protect my love where all my fancy lay.

We return again this month to another fine Irish song from the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean. Irish song scholar John Moulden has traced this song, well known today in Ireland as “When a Man’s in Love He Feels No Cold,” back to its original composer: County Antrim schoolmaster Hugh McWilliams. McWilliams included “A Man in Love” in his book Poems and Songs on Various Subjects which was published in 1831 in Antrim.
The song entered folk tradition where, over the next hundred years, it gained some words, lost others and was set to several different melodies. Dean’s “Minnesota version” provides evidence of the furthest distance the song traveled from its source.

Since Dean left us only his text, I based the above melody on the melodies used for two other transatlantic versions collected in Marystown, Newfoundland by Maud Karpeles in 1930 and printed in Folk Songs from Newfoundland.

23 Dec

The Fellow That Looks Like Me


In sad despair I wander my heart is filled with woe,
Though in my grief I ponder what to do I do not know,
For cruel fate does on me frown and the trouble seems to be,
That there’s a fellow in this town and he just looks like me.

Chorus:
Oh wouldn’t I like to catch him, whoever he may be,
Wouldn’t I give him particular fits, that fellow that looks like me.

One evening I sat speaking to a girl as dear as life,
When a lady who had just dropped in says “Brown how is your wife?”
In vain I said “I’m a single man, ’tis married I wish to be,”
She called me a swindler and kicked me out for the fellow that looks like me.

With a lady fair I started to the Central Park to go,
But was stopped in the street by a man who said “Pay the bill you owe.”
In vain I said “I know you not,” He would not let me free,
’Til a crowd came ’round and the bill I paid for the fellow that looks like me.

Then to a ball one night I went, and was just enjoying the sport,
When a policeman caught me by the arm saying “you’re wanted down in court,
You escaped us twice but this here time we’ll take care you don’t get free,”
They dragged me off and locked me up for the fellow that looks like me.

I was tried next day, found guilty too, was about to be taken down,
When a second policeman then brought in the right criminal Mr. Brown,
They locked him up and set me free wasn’t he a sight to see,
For the ugliest wretch that ever you saw was the fella that looked like me!

This month I chose a light-hearted song that I have been meaning to learn for a while. I came across it via the rich digital archive of MacEdward Leach’s field recordings from Newfoundland made available by that province’s Memorial University. Leach recorded a wonderful, lilty version from Trepassey singer Cyril O’Brien in 1951. “The Fellow That Looked Like Me” was also sung in logging communities in Pennsylvania and Michigan as well as in Appalachia where it eventually made its way into the old time country repertoire by way of recordings by Al Hopkins and his Buckle Busters and others.

The song had its start in the 1860s during the early days of vaudeville in New York where it was written by Dublin-born John F. Poole and performed by the “Father of Vaudeville” Tony Pastor around 1867. Irish composers, melodies and themes were a central part of vaudeville in those years. Poole and Pastor also teamed up on the famous song lamenting anti-Irish job discrimination, “No Irish Need Apply,” as well as the original “Tim Finigan’s Wake” (yes that “Finnegan’s Wake!”).

Of all the versions I’ve found from folk sources, Newfoundlander Cyril O’Brien’s is my favorite and it’s also the closest to Poole’s original composition. The above melodic transcription is from O’Brien and the text is my own blend of O’Brien’s text and the original text published by Poole. Poole’s original is available online here.