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
20 Jun

Moorlough Mary

When first I saw my dear Moorlough Mary,
 ’Twas in a valley in sweet Strabane,
Her smiling countenance was so enticing,
All other females she would tramp on,
Her smiling glances bruised my senses,
No rest will I find neither night nor day,
In my silent slumber, I’ll wake in wonder,
Crying “Moorlough Mary, won’t you come away?”

Was I a man of good education,
Or Erin’s Isle all at my command,
I’d lay my head on your seething bosom,
In bands of wedlock, you’d join my hand,
I’d entertain you both morning and evening,
In robes I’d dress both neat and gay,
With kisses sweet, love, I would embrace you,
Kind Moorlough Mary, won’t you come away?

I’ll away, I’ll away to some lonely valley,
Where recreation is in full bloom,
Where the rivers mourning and salmon sporting,
Each sound and echo brings something new,
Where the thrush and blackbird is joined in chorus,
The notes melodious on each stream bound,
I would sit and sing ’til my heart’s contented,
Dear Moorlough Mary, if you was with me now.

I’ll press my cheese while my mules* are teased,
I’ll milk my ewes by the eve of day,
I’ll sit and sleep ‘til my heart’s contented,
Crying “Moorlough Mary, won’t you come away?”

*most Irish versions refer to the teasing of “wools” here

This month we have a north woods version of the well-loved Irish song “Moorlough Mary” that some may know from the singing of Paddy Tunney, Cathal McConnell, Kevin Mitchell or other singers from the north of Ireland.  A version from Co. Tyrone appears in Sam Henry’s Songs of the People with the note that it was composed by Tyrone man James Devine around 1876. If Devine wrote it, it must have gained popularity quickly as it appears in the Bodleian Library’s broadside archive on a London-printed song sheet from before 1885.

New England song collector Helen Hartness Flanders collected two versions in northeastern Maine. Both field recordings are available online via the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection on archive.org. The above melody is my transcription of what Charles Finnemore of Bridgewater, ME sang for Flanders in 1941.  Finnemore’s text was only a fragment so I transcribed the text based on Flanders’ 1942 recording of Jack McNally or Staceyville, ME. Both singers have wonderful traditional styles. McNally’s singing is more full-throated and intense where Finnemore is light and lilty. They are both great examples of Irish style singing transplanted to the North American woods.

19 Nov

The Fair at Bonlaghy

I went to the fair at Bonlaghy,
I bought a little wee pig,
I rolled it up in my pocket,
And it danced a swaggering jig.
Then it’s hi for the top o’ the heather,
And hi for the root of the sprig,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

I went to the fair at Bonlaghy,
I bought a wee slip of a pig,
And as I was passing the poorhouse,
I whistled the Swaggering Jig.
Then it’s hi for the cups and the saucers,
And hi for the butter and bread,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

As I being down by the poorhouse,
I whistled so loud and so shrill,
I made all the fairies to tremble,
That lived near McLoughrim Hill.
Then it’s Hi! for the cups and the saucers,
And hi for the butter and bread,
And hi for the bonny wee lassie,
That danced the Swaggering Jig.

As a lover of Irish dance tunes and the Irish song tradition, I have long been on the lookout for jigs, polkas, barn dances and other tunes that have a history of being used both as dance tunes and as the melodies for songs. They are rare birds within the instrumental tradition but these “singable” tunes are some of my favorites.

In the 1930s, the great County Derry song collector Sam Henry collected “Bellaghy Fair” sung to a variant of the slip jig called “The Swaggering Jig” (aka “Give Us a Drink of Water”). Around the same time, Ohio collector Mary Eddy collected a fragment of the same song in Steubenville, Ohio from Mary M. Cox (nee Marion) whose parents were born in Ireland and who learned several songs from an Irish uncle. The Ohio version has Bonlaghy instead of Bellaghy. Bellaghy is a village in Derry. Bonlaghy did not come up in my Google Maps searches of Ireland but Google Books led me to The Gentleman and Citizen’s Almanack for the Year of our Lord, 1732 which lists Bonlaghy, County Longford as the site of one of the “principle fairs of Ireland” happening on July 15th of that year.

The Ohio melody is unique from “The Swaggering Jig” as played by tune players and as sung by Sam Henry’s (unknown) source.  It is also only a fragment—missing the second part. The above melody is my attempt to stretch the Ohio melody out over the two parts.  I also blended the Ohio text with the Sam Henry text.