01 Aug

The Bigler’s Crew (Laws D8)

The interactive map above includes all the landmarks mentioned in the folksong “The Bigler’s Crew” as collected from Minnesota singer Michael Cassius Dean (1858-1931) and sung, transcribed and discussed by me below.  Click on a marked location in the map to see its name and the line in the song that references it—or play the video below and follow along!  The map gives a great depiction of the ship’s course as it made its way from Milwaukee to Buffalo with a load of logs (the Bigler was what was known as a “timber drogher”).

The Bigler's Crew

Come all my boys and listen, a song I’ll sing to you,
It’s all about the Bigler and of her jolly crew;
In Milwaukee last October I chanced to get a sight
In the schooner called the Bigler belonging to Detroit.

                Watch her, catch her, jump up on her juber ju,
Give her the sheet and let her slide, the boys will push her through.
You ought to see us howling, the winds were blowing free,
On our passage down to Buffalo from Milwaukee,

It was on a Sunday morning about the hour of ten,
The Robert Emmet towed us out into Lake Michigan;
We set sail where she left us in the middle of the fleet,
And the wind being from the southard, oh, we had to give her sheet. Cho

Then the wind chopped ’round to the sou souwest and blew both fresh and strong,
But softly through Lake Michigan the Bigler she rolled on,
And far beyond her foaming bow the dashing waves did fling,
With every stitch of canvas set, her course was wing and wing. Cho

But the wind it came ahead before we reached the Manitous,
Three dollars and a half a day just suited the Bigler’s crew;
From there unto the Beavers we steered her full and by,
And we kept her to the wind, my boys, as close as she could lie. Cho

Through Skillagelee and Wabble Shanks the entrance to the Straits,
We might have passed the big fleet there if they’d hove to and wait,
But we drove them on before us the nicest ever you saw,
Out into Lake Huron from the Straits of Mackinaw. Cho

We made Presque Isle Light and then we boomed away,
The wind it being fair, for the Isle of Thunder Bay,
But when the wind it shifted, we hauled her on her starboard tack,
With a good lookout ahead for the Light of the Point AuBarques. Cho

We made the Light and kept in sight of Michigan North Shore,
A-booming for the river as we’d oft times done before,
When right abreast Port Huron Light our small anchor we let go,
And the Sweepstakes came alongside and took the Bigler in tow. Cho

The Sweepstakes took eight in tow and all of us fore and aft,
She towed us down to Lake St. Clare and stuck us on the flats,
She parted the Hunter’s tow line in trying to give relief,
And stem and stern went the Bigler into the boat called Maple Leaf. Cho

The Sweepstakes then she towed us outside the River Light,
Lake Erie for to roam and the blustering winds to fight;
The wind being from the southard we paddled our own canoe,
With her nose pointed for the Dummy, she’s hell bent for Buffalo. Cho

We made the OH and passed long Point, the wind was blowing free,
We howled along the Canada shore, Port Colborne on our lea;
What is it that looms up ahead, so well known as we draw near,
For like a blazing star shone the light on Buffalo Pier. Cho

And now we are safely landed in Buffalo Creek at last,
And under Riggs’ elevator the Bigler she’s made fast,
And in some Lager beer saloon we’ll let the bottle pass,
For we are jolly shipmates and we’ll drink a social glass. Cho

The Bigler’s Crew was one of (at least) 33 songs Robert W. Gordon recorded from Michael Dean’s singing. It was once one of the most widely known Great Lakes songs. The Bigler was a type of ship called a “timber drogher” that was quite slow and sported some rather useless sails (hence the reliance on tug boats). The song pokes fun at the ship while naming many on the landmarks one would pass between Milwaukee and Buffalo, NY. I transcribed Gordon’s recording of Dean and took the text from Dean’s songster The Flying Cloud.

Some of the landmarks required some research to decipher.  Dean’s mention of “the OH” had me stumped until I found another version of the song collected by Joanna Colcord from singer (and amateur song collector) Joseph McGinnis. McGinnis’ version used the spelling “the Eau” which led me to an 1896 article in this magazine (found on Google Books) that used the nickname “The Eau” for Rondeau Harbour, Ontario.

There is more background on this song on the Traditional Ballad Index site here: http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/LD08.html

06 Jun

You Pretty Girls of Michigan

[As I was learning this song over the last few weeks, a different melody for the 4th line came into my head that *I think* I’m stealing from another Great Lakes song with a similar melody.  I liked it, so that’s how I sing it here.]

You Pretty Girls of Michigan

You pretty girls of Michigan, give ear to what I write,
Of sailing on the stormy Lakes, in which we take delight;
In sailing on the stormy Lakes, which we poor seamen do,
While Irishmen and the landlubbers are staying at home with you.

They’re always with some pretty girls a’telling them fine tales
Of the hardships and the hard day’s work they’ve had in their cornfields;
And when it’s eight o’clock at night it’s into bed they crawl,
While we, like jovial hearts of oak, stand many a bitter squall.

You pretty girls of Michigan if you did only know
The hardships and dangers we seamen undergo,
You would have more regard for us than oft you’ve had before;
You’d shun to meet those landlubbers that lounge about the shore.

For oft at twelve o’clock at night when the wind begins to blow;
“Heave out, heave out, now lively lads, roll out from down below!”
It’s now on deck stands every man, his life and ship to guard;
“Aloft! Aloft!” the captain cries, “send down the tops’l yard!”

And when the seas are mountain high and toss our vessel ’round,
And all about does danger lurk, the vessel may go down!
Now every man is on the deck, all ready to lend a hand
To shorten sail to weather the gale until we reach the land.

We sail the Lakes from spring to fall from Duluth to Buffalo,
While landlubbers are home with you or about their fields they go;
We sail the Lakes and money make for the girls that we adore,
And when our cash is getting low, we ship again for more!


This month’s song comes from a blend of sources. The prolific collector of Great Lakes folksong Ivan Walton put down the above text based on versions gathered from Pat Banner of St. Clair, Michigan, and Captain A.E. Baker of Dunkirk, New York in 1933. Walton’s composite text is published in the wonderful book Windjammers (Walton, Ivan and Joe Grimm. 2002. Detroit: Wayne State University Press) which I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in songs of the Great Lakes. Walton did not collect a melody for this song.

A closely related song, “Ye Maidens of Ontario,” was collected in Bemidji, Minnesota in 1923 by collector Franz Rickaby from the singing of Albert Hannah. Above, I have married the words collected by Walton to the melody sung by Hannah. Normally, as a proud Minnesotan, I would stick to the words also collected in Minnesota but, in this case, it is the Michigan/New York text that contains a rare reference to a Minnesota place name: Duluth. Of course, Duluth was (and is) Minnesota’s gateway city to the Great Lakes and, as the phrase “Duluth to Buffalo” implies, it was the end of the line for these rough and tough freshwater sailors.

The pairing of “Irishmen and landlubbers” in the first verse is interesting. Irishmen certainly sailed the Lakes themselves and Irish names appear in other Great Lakes ballads (see N.S. Apr. 2014).

03 Jun

Bold Daniel [Laws K34]

Bold Daniel_Gordon

It was on the fourteenth day of January,
From England we set sail,
We were bound down to Laguire,
With a sweet and pleasant gale;
The Roving Lizzie we are called,
Bold Daniel is my name,
And we sailed away from Laguire,
Just out of the Spanish Main.

And when we reached Laguire,
Our orders did read so,
“When you discharge your cargo,
It’s sail for Callao,”
Our Captain called all hands right aft,
And unto us did say,
“Here is money for you today, my lads,
For tomorrow we’ll sail away.”

It was early the next morning,
As daylight did draw nigh,
The man from at the masthead
A strange sail did espy;
With a black flag under her mizzen peak,
Came bearing down that way;
“I’ll be bound she is some pirate,”
Bold Daniel he did say.

In the course of three or four hours,
This pirate ranged alongside,
And with a speaking trumpet,
“Where are you from?” he cries.
“The Roving Lizzie we are called,
Bold Daniel is my name,
And we sailed away from Laguire,
Just out of the Spanish Main.”

“Come, back your topsails to your mast,
And heave your ship under my lee.”
“Oh, no! oh, no!” cried Daniel,
I’d rather sink at sea.”
They hoisted up their bloody flag,
Our hearts to terrify.
With their big guns to our small arms,
At us they did let fly.

We mounted four six-pounders
To fight a hundred men,
And when the action did begin,
It was just about half-past ten;
We mounted four six-pounders,
Our crew being twenty-two;
In the course of an hour and a quarter,
Those pirates we did subdue.

And now our prize we’ve taken
Unto Columbia’s shore,
To that dear old place in America,
They call sweet Baltimore;
We’ll drink success to Daniel,
Likewise his gallant crew,
That fought and beat that Pirate
With his noble twenty-two.


We’re back to the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael Cassius Dean (1857-1931) this week with a song about piracy. The “Laguire” mentioned in this song must be La Guaira, the chief port city of Venezuela which was actually sacked by English pirates in 1743. The song is relatively rare in tradition. The other three versions I have found were collected in coastal areas of Maine, Newfoundland and England. Mike Dean sang two other songs about pirates “The Flying Cloud” and “Paul Jones the Privateer” and perhaps was fascinated with the theme after working as a sailor on the Great Lakes himself.

The above transcription is my own made from my digital copy of a recording made of Dean’s singing in September 1924 by folk song collector Robert Winslow Gordon. Gordon recorded Dean singing the first verse only. The full text comes from Dean’s 1922 self-published songster The Flying Cloud.

More about this song at The Traditional Ballad Index