15 Sep

The Farmer’s Boy

Oh the sun it sank behind a hill across the dreary moor,
Poor and lame there came a boy up to a farmer’s door,
Saying, “Please, will you tell me a man about here that would me employ,
To plough, to sow, to reap and to mow, to be a farmer’s boy?”

“My father’s dead, my mother lives with her five children small,
And what is the worst for mother dear, I’m the eldest of them all,
Although I am small, I fear no work if you’ll only me employ,
To plough, to sow, to reap, and to mow, to be a farmer’s boy.”

“Oh well,” says the farmer, “we’ll try the lad, no longer have him seek,”
“Yes, dear Papa,” his daughter cried, as the tears rolled down her cheek,
“For a man that can work, it’s hard for him to want, and to wander for employ,
Don’t send him away, but let him stay, and be your laboring boy.”

Well the years went by, the boy grew up and the good old farmer died,
He willed to the lad the farm that he had, and his daughter for a bride,
Now the lad that was once; he’s a farmer now. He often thinks with joy,
On the happy, happy day he came that way, to be a farmer’s boy.

This month’s song comes from Edith Fowke’s 1957 recording of Ottawa Valley singer Oliver John (O.J.) Abbott (1872-1962). Abbott was born in Enfield, England and came to Ontario as a 12-year-old with his brother but without their parents. As a young man in the Ottawa area, he boarded with and worked for two Irish families, the Whalens and the O’Malleys. He learned many songs from Mrs. Whalen and Mrs. O’Malley and more from his winter work in lumber camps. After being “discovered” by Fowke in his mid 80s, Abbott went on to appear alongside Pete Seeger at multiple folk festivals as a representative of the rich tradition of “woods” singing found in the Ottawa Valley region (here he is being interviewed by Ewan MacColl). “The Farmer’s Boy” must have resonated strongly with Abbott as someone who, himself, was taken as a “farmer’s boy” as a vulnerable young man.

Versions of this song were collected all over the US including in Wisconsin where it was sung by Crandon singer Warde Ford (I substituted Ford’s opening line for Abbott’s above). It has also been found throughout England where it likely originated as a mid-19th century broadside. The song must also be known in Ireland for, after singing it once in Chicago, Sligo-born flute legend Kevin Henry remarked “Where did you get ‘The Farmer’s Boy?’ I haven’t heard that since I was a boy!”

09 Dec

Kettle River

PrintMusic! 2004 - [Kettle River]

On the banks of Kettle River, among swamps and bogs,
We’ve been busy all winter getting out logs,
To stay through to springtime it is our design,
And the firm that we work for is called the O’Brien.

Refrain: Fol the diddle eye doh right fol the dol day

There’s Billy and George, they are well known to all,
And that ragged old veteran named Old Man MacColl,
There’s two gangs of swampers whose names I don’t mind,
But I’ll never forget the name Johnny O’Brien.

Noble Wilson is our foreman, we all know him well,
He runs through the woods, he curses like hell,
Turns us out in the morning in rain or sunshine,
And works us like blazes for Johnny O’Brien.

He’ll pull out his watch and look up to the sun,
Saying, “Hurry up boys, let’s get this work done,
Pitch in there you sawyers and down with the pine,
We’ll all go to Hinckley when we’re done with O’Brien.”

Charley Olson is our cook, boys, I’m telling no lies,
He’s a dandy at putting up puddings and pies,
He’ll fill you with grub till your bellies will shine,
You never go hungry when working for O’Brien.

Hurry up boys and let’s get it all done,
The job’s nearly completed, we’ll soon all be gone,
But in years to come we will all bear in mind,
The years that we worked for old Johnny O’Brien.


In addition to the “come-all-ye” type ballads so popular in northwoods lumber camps, shanty-boys (lumberjacks) also enjoyed lighthearted, extremely localized songs celebrating, and often lampooning, the personalities found in their particular camp. Collector Edith Fowke documented numerous examples of these “camp songs” in Ontario.

The above is my own adaptation of a rare Minnesota-based camp song that originated in an 1881 camp on the Kettle River near Hinckley, Minnesota. “Kettle River” was sung “lustily” by an 88 year-old John Stewart of Port Wing, Wisconsin, for historian Agnes Larson in 1932. In her 1949 book The White Pine Industry in Minnesota, Larson wrote that “somehow the old camp came back to life in [Stewart’s] soul as he sang.” Unfortunately, some of the words did not come back to Mr. Stewart so I added a few here and there to flesh out his version. Since Larson’s book included no melody, I chose a version of a melody used for several Ontario camp songs documented by Fowke.

The boss Johnny O’Brien mentioned in the song was most likely the father of Irish-American lumber baron William O’Brien. An 1896 obituary in The Hinckley Enterprise says “John O’Brien, an old time logger, and resident of Taylors Falls, and father of Wm. And Jos. O’Brien, loggers . . . has been a prominent logger on the St. Croix for the past 40 years, the major portion of the time being in Pine County.” Like many other early loggers in this area, John was born to Irish parents in Canada and came to Minnesota following logging jobs. His son William made his first million in Pine County, lived in a mansion next door to the governor’s mansion her in St. Paul and is the man for whom William O’Brien State Park is named. I also found evidence that William was a fishing buddy of Pine County resident and singer Mike Dean who turns up frequently in this column.

I recorded this song with guitar accompaniment on my album Minnesota Lumberjack Songs.

05 Jul

Georgian Bay Ho Ho

Georgian Bay Ho Ho

Bartender! Fill our glasses up,
There’s time for one round more,
For soon our mudhook we’ll break out,
Off Garden Island shore,
We’ll toss our dunnage right aboard,
And up the Lakes we’ll go,
In an able timber hooker, bound,
For Georgian Bay, Ho! Ho!

For Georgian Bay, Ho! Ho! My boys!
It’s lively we do go!
Bound up again and “flying light,”
For Georgian Bay, Ho! Ho!

The fores’l, main and mizzen’s made,
Gafftops’ls two also,
Our anchor it is now hove short,
It’s time for us to go.
So man your topsail halliards, boys,
Sheet home! And then belay!
Hoist and back! Forestays’l! jibs!
Up anchor! And fill away!

The wind it is dead aft, my boys,
From the Nor’east it does blow,
So give her the squarefores’l,
And raffees two, also.
Wing out fore, main and mizzen booms!
Square yards! Haul taut! Belay!
O! Watch her tearin’ through the foam,
She’s bound for Georgian Bay.

Now we have made Port Dalhousie,
The Canal we have passed through,
Lake Erie and both “Rivers,”
And up Lake Huron, Blue.
We’re anchored in our loading berth,
While small isles ‘round us lay,
And pine timber floats in booms, there,
‘Way up in Georgian Bay.

Now ship your timber davit, boys,
Reeve off the hoisting gear,
Price up the lower stern ports,
See you heaving cable clear,
Horse-boy, ship your capstan bar,
Hitch on the horses, two,
Soon we’ll load square timber in,
On board of the “Buckaroo.”

The stick it being hooked end on,
To the port sill it does move,
The hooks are then clapped on it,
And inboard it is hove.
The mate he breasts it in to place,
With timber dogs, you know,
And is watchful or he’ll lose some toes,
At Georgian Bay, Ho! Ho!

The water now has reached both sills,
Close lower ports! Make fast!
And caulk them up with oakum!
The hold is filled at last.
It’s next the deck ports open,
Then hoist on deck and stow,
‘Till all the deckload is on board,

O, it’s a-rolling, boys, a-rolling,
As homeward bound we go,
All the way down to Garden Isle,
From Georgian Bay, Ho! Ho!

This month’s song comes from an incredible, unpublished manuscript compiled by Joseph F. McGinnis. McGinnis was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1867 and was a sailor on the Great Lakes where singing played a similar role to what it did on seafaring vessels. After contributing Great Lakes songs and sea songs to collector Joanna Colcord in the early 1920s, McGinnis enthusiastically set out to add to his own repertoire/collection with songs gathered from other singers. He collected many songs via mail and even corresponded with Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean who sent him song lyrics and (with the help of a friend) transcriptions of song melodies. Sadly, McGinnis fell ill in the late 1920s and never succeeded in publishing his book.

Another of McGinnis’s correspondents was folk song collector Robert Winslow Gordon. It was Gordon that ended up with McGinnis’s unpublished collection, “Songs of the Dogwatch,” which I accessed via the University of Oregon’s archival collection of Robert Winslow Gordon materials. McGinnis’s transcriptions of song melodies are somewhat erratic so I made some educated guesses in writing out the melody above.

McGinnis wrote songs himself and “Georgian Bay, Ho! Ho!” was most likely one of his own compositions, though it fits well into the traditional style. Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay was a key access point to the vast pine forests of Ontario. The sailors in the song set off from (and return to) Garden Island—just outside McGinnis’s native Kingston. Garden Island was the base of a major shipping and lumber operation for most of the 19th century. Logs were squared off in the woods, loaded on ships in Georgian Bay, shipped to Garden Island, gathered into rafts and floated to Quebec City and, finally, loaded on to ships and shipped to Britain. The same timber ships that took Canadian wood to Liverpool transported Irish immigrants to Canada on the return trip.