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!”

29 Jun

Lovely Minnesoty

I’ve taken some liberties with text and melody in the above performance! 

Come all ye noble emigrants that feel inclined to roam,
Into this western country, to seek a pleasant home,
Just take a pioneer’s advice, he’ll point you out the best,
Go to lovely Minnesoty, that Lily of the West.

In eighteen hundred and fifty four, I left my native shore,
My worthy friends and native home never to see them more,
Besides, my aged parents I left among the rest,
And sailed for Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

When I viewed this pleasant country, it filled me with surprise,
To see those spreading prairies, and fields of grain likewise,
You call into a cabin, you are always a welcome guest,
That’s the fashion of Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

I viewed those jolly farmers, a-toiling at their ploughs,
Likewise the pretty fair maid, a-milking of the cows,
I viewed those lovely house-wives with tempers of the best,
They’re the darlings of Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

Our lands they yield spontaneously potatoes, corn, and grain,
The climate’s also healthy, with cooling showers of rain,
There is plenty of fish in every stream, and game in the forest,
We have pleasures in Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

Our pleasant burgs and villages they decorate the soil,
The architect, mechanic most manfully doth toil,
We have churches here of every sect, and schooling of the best,
We’ve industry in Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

We have a flowing commerce upon our inland seas,
Where lofty ships and steamboats do sail continually,
We have mariners here both stout and bold, and masters of the best,
We have all things in Minnesota, the Lily of the West.

O, Michigan is not the place, nor Illinois the same,
The soil and climate can’t compare in raising of the grain,
A land of milk and honey, and temperature of the best,
And they call it Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.
____________

Again this month we have one of the very few songs I’ve found that mentions my beloved home state. In this case, it’s a song of praise, advertising the wonders of pioneer-era Minnesota to prospective “emigrants.” Bessie M. Stanchfield collected a version of the song, titled “The Beauty of the West,” from Mrs. Elma Snyder McDowell of St. Cloud in 1936. Stanchfield went on to gather three other Minnesota-sourced versions and all four texts were published in her article “‘The Beauty of the West’ A Minnesota Ballad” in the September 1946 issue of Minnesota History. The Snyder McDowell version was the only one collected by Stanchfield that came complete with a melody.

The above melody comes from the singing of Ezra “Fuzzy” Barhight who was recorded by song collector Ellen Stekert at his home in Cohocton, New York in the 50s. The text is primarily one of the texts published by Stanchfield that she found in the Saint Peter Courier of June 26, 1857. It is quite different than the other three published by Stanchfield but similar to Barhight’s fragment. I mixed in some lines from Barhight and the other Stanchfield texts to create the version above.

In her Minnesota History article, Stanchfield wrote that “this song, and others collected later, made me realize the fallacy of the belief that there is no Minnesota folk music.”

17 May

The Croppy Boy


It was early, early all in the spring,
The small birds whistling did sweetly sing,
Changing their notes from tree to tree,
And the song they sang was “Old Ireland’s free.”*

It was early, early last Tuesday night,
The Yeoman Cavalry gave me a fright;
The Yeoman Cavalry was my downfall,
When I was taken before Lord Cornwall.

It was in his guard house I did lay,
And in his parlor they swore my life away;
My sentence passed and with courage low,
Unto Dungannon I was forced to go.

And when I was marching through Wexford street,
My cousin Nancy I chanced to meet;
My own first cousin did me betray,
And for one guinea swore my life away.

When I was passing my father’s door,
My brother William stood on the floor;
My aged father stood at the door,
And my tender mother her gray hair she tore.

My sister Mary in great distress,
She rushed down stairs in her mourning dress;
Five thousand guineas she would lay down
For to see me liberated in Wexford town.

And when we were marching up Wexford hill,
Who would blame me were I to cry my fill;
With a guard behind and a guard before,
But my tender mother I’ll see no more.

And when I was standing on the gallows high,
My aged father was standing nigh;
My aged father did me deny,
And the name he gave me was the Croppy Boy.

I chose the dark and I chose the blue,
I chose the pink and the orange, too;
I forsook them all and did them deny,
I wore the green and for it I’ll die.

It was in Dungannon this young man died,
And in Dungannon his body lies;
And all good people that this way pass by,
Say, “May the Lord have mercy on the Croppy Boy!”

_______________
In late 18th century Europe, to wear one’s hair cropped short could be seen as a show of support for the anti-aristocrat (anti-powdered wig) French revolutionaries of that period. In Ireland, “Croppy” became the term for Irish rebels who allied themselves with revolutionary France and launched the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in hopes of winning independence from Britain. “The Croppy Boy” is a well-travelled ballad of that period that references key places and people important to the history of the 1798 Rising.
The above text was sung and printed by Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean in the 1920s. We don’t know what melody Dean used as he does not seem to have sung it for either of the song collectors who visited him.

To mark the opening of the new Eoin McKiernan Library at the Celtic Junction Arts Center on April 22nd, I sourced the above “Croppy Boy” melody from one of the rare and wonderful books that is part of the new library’s collection: Old Irish Folk Music and Songs by Patrick Weston Joyce (published 1909). P. W. Joyce (1827-1914), along with his contemporary Chief Francis O’Neill, was one of the first Irish music collectors to have actually grown up within a community where traditional music was part of daily life. Joyce hailed from southeast county Limerick and was immersed in Irish traditional music from a young age. His 1909 book is a treasure trove of 842 “Irish Airs and Songs” and a digital copy is available online thanks to the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin.

*Dean’s text reads “Old Ireland’s is Free”—probably a typo.