28 Feb

The Raftsman

I’ll tell you of a raftsman right from the pinery,
And how he loved a lady, she was of a high degree,
Her fortune was so great it scarcely could be told,
And still she loved the raftsman because he was so bold.

One day when they had been to church and were just returning home,
They met her old father and several armed men,
“Oh daughter, oh daughter, oh daughter I pray,
Is this your good behavior, or is’t your wedding day?”

“I fear,” cried the lady, “we both shall be slain,”
“Fear nothing at all,” said the raftsman again,
“Now, since you’ve been so foolish as to be a raftsman’s wife,
Down in this lonely valley I will quickly end your life.”

“Hold,” cried the raftsma, “I do not like such prattle,
Although I am the bridegroom, I’m all prepared for battle,”
He drew his sword and pistol and caused them for to roar,
The lady held the horses while the raftsman battled sore.

The first man came to him, he ran him through the main,
The next one stepped up to him, he served him the same,
“Let’s run,” cried the rest of them, “we all shall be slain,
To fight this gallant raftsman is altogether vain.”

“Stay,” cried the old man, “you make my blood run cold,
You shall have my daughter and five thousand pounds in gold,”
“Oh no,” cried the lady, “the fortune is too small,
Fight on, my bold raftsman, and you shall have it all.”

“Oh raftsman, oh raftsman, if you will spare my life,
You shall have my daughter for your beloved wife,”
He took them home unto his house, he made him his heir,
It wasn’t out of love but it was from dread and fear.

Come all you rich maidens with money in great store,
Never shun a raftsman, although he may be poor,
For they’re jolly good fellows—happy, fresh, and free,
And how gallantly they fight for their rights and liberty.


A few months ago I came across a remarkable series of blog posts by folklorist Stephen Winick about the ballad “Arthur McBride” – the one that was so beautifully rendered by Paul Brady on the iconic Andy Irvine and Paul Brady album in 1976 and at this videotaped 1977 performance. Writing on the American Folklife Center’s Folklife Today blog, Winick tells us that Brady learned the song while living in New England, from a collection compiled by Carrie Grover of Gorham, Maine. Grover (1879-1959) was a singer herself who got most of her repertoire (which appears in her collection A Heritage of Songs) from her parents while growing up in Nova Scotia and Maine. She was part of the north woods singing tradition and that makes Brady’s “Arthur McBride” a northwoods song! What’s more, if you open Grover’s book to the Arthur McBride page, the facing page is her father’s version of “The Jolly Soldier”—also arranged and performed by Paul Brady on the album with Andy Irvine!

Arthur McBride 001

“The Jolly Raftsman” and the first part of “Arthur McBride” as they appear in Carrie Grover’s book A Heritage of Songs.

When I discovered the Grover-Brady connection, my mind went to an interesting song text collected in Wisconsin and published in Wisconsin Lore by Robert E.Gard and L.G. Sorden. Gard and Sorden’s “The Raftsman” is basically a version of “Jolly Soldier” with Raftsman swapped in for Soldier. It seems a little out of place for someone going down the river with a raft of logs to be packing both a sword and pistol but the character of the recklessly romantic hero does fit with the way raftsmen often portrayed themselves in other songs. Above I have paired the Gard/Sorden text (with a few small changes) with the melody (more or less) as published by Grover. For my own sung version, I swapped out the sword and pistol for the raftman’s trusty pike and peavey.

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!”

01 Sep

Lost on the Lady Elgin (revisited)

MCD_A026 Lost on the Lady Elgin

Up from the poor man’s cottage, forth from the mansion door,
Sweeping across the water and echoing along the shore,
Caught by the morning breezes, borne on the evening gale,
Came at the dawn of morning a sad and solemn wail.

Lost on the Lady Elgin, sleeping to wake no more,
Numbering in death five hundred that failed to reach the shore.

Sad was the wail of children, weeping for parents gone,
Children that slept at evening, orphans woke at morn;
Sisters for brothers weeping, husbands for missing wives,
These were the ties that were severed by those five hundred lives.

Staunch was the noble steamer, precious the freight she bore,
Gaily they loosed their cables a few short hours before,
Proudly she swept our harbor, joyfully rang the bell,
Little they thought ere morning it would peal so sad a knell.


We return this month to the song “Lost on the Lady Elgin” from the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael Dean. The song depicts the outpouring of grief that followed the tragic sinking of the side-wheel passenger steamer Lady Elgin in Lake Michigan 156 years ago in September 1860. The ship’s loss struck a particularly painful blow to the Irish community of Milwaukee’s Third Ward as many of the doomed passengers hailed from that area. The Lost Forty was in Milwaukee ourselves last month for their annual Irish Fest and we videotaped our version of the song in the historic Third Ward on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Michael Dean’s older brother James came to Milwaukee around 1865 and lived in the Seventh Ward—just north of the Third. James Dean served a long career as conductor for the Milwaukee Railroad. It is possible that Michael learned the song during a trip to visit his brother though the song also travelled all around the US and Canada and was popular throughout the Great Lakes region especially.

Since I began singing “The Lady Elgin” I have met people who have stories about family members singing the song and, in the case of one audience member I met at the Minnesota Irish Fair last year, an ancestor who was lost in the wreck itself.